Americans’ Contempt for One Another Has Become a Bonfire

“We’re building the bonfire, and we haven’t yet had the flame.”

Two people shouting at each other: A Black woman with a mask pulled down to her chin and a white woman with a Women for Trump sign, in American flag cowboy hat and tyedye sweater
A Trump supporter (R) and an anti-Trump demonstrator (L) in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 14. Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images

David French is a senior editor of the Dispatch, where he also hosts a number of the conservative publication’s podcasts. He started out as a Never Trumper; then once there was a Trump, became an anti-Trumper; and now can probably best be described as a thank-God-there’s-no-longer-a-Trump–er. He’s out with a new book called Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.

Earlier this week, French joined me for a two-part conversation on my podcast The Gist to discuss his book and America’s divided past, present, and future. A portion our interview is transcribed below. It has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Mike Pesca: I came into your book fairly doubtful that secession was a realistic threat to America. And I came out of your book either as doubtful or more doubtful, and I have to say, part of the reason that I’m not convinced is because you provided very convincing arguments that we’re not really going to have a secessionist movement.

One issue is just geographic: The parts of our country that are at each other’s throats are not geographically contiguous. When the South seceded from the North, it was not the case that the big research cities or university cities within the South all sided with the North. But the other thing was, as you note in your book, there is obviously no occupying force in American cities like the Redcoats in Boston. And thankfully there is not yet a critical mass of the American body politic that believes the threat from their political opponents to be so profound that it requires drastic actions.

That spoke to me. It’s not nothing, but the [current] conflict is more focused on owning the libs and frog memes than it is on secession. Now, I know you point out that even though that’s where it is now, it can get worse. But if you want to, I’ll give you the chance to talk me off my blasé attitude of saying, come on, it’s not really going to happen.

David French: Yeah. I’m going to try to talk you out of the blasé attitude, and the reason why is the first third of the book, [which is] essentially making the argument that what we have is no important cultural, political, religious, [or] social trend that is pulling us together more than it’s pushing us apart. And so the combination of the big sort where we’re grouping with like-minded individuals—the combination of the law of group polarization where when we group with like-minded individuals, we tend to become more extreme in our thinking. How we then live in separate Overton windows where we not only have our own political vernacular, but we often can’t even really, truly communicate with people on the other side. [That] means that we do have these large geographically contiguous areas that have a relatively common culture that they feel is under very real threat.

I mean, this is why, for example, the Flight 93 language from the 2016 election resonated so strongly in conservative Americans. They thought these people—people on the left—want to destroy our faith. They want to destroy our families. I mean, this is the level of rhetoric. You and I know that it’s overblown, but it was deeply believed because there’s a difference between overblown … You can have overblown rhetoric, and have it still be deeply believed. And so you have this sort of sense of existential threat, and what I said was that if you look at previous American secession movements—whether it’s the 1776 succession from the British Empire or [the] 1860, 1861 secession from the Union—there was an additional ingredient. There was this additional ingredient that was the sense of mortal threat that lives were at stake.

And we’re not there yet, thankfully, but I think what we saw through much of the summer of 2020—which occurred after I put the book to bed—was we began to sort of head in that direction. I mean, you had the Boogaloo boys killing federal law enforcement officers. You had rioting and looting in cities, and believe me that rioting and looting in cities really impacted the attitudes of a lot of Americans and Red America, and it turned up the temperature. And my argument isn’t that something could break us now. No, I don’t think so, but there is nothing that is turning the temperature down, and a lot that’s turning the temperature up, and you cannot just keep doing that. At some point, it has to stop. Look at it this way: You’re putting down the kindling for a fire, and you’re laying the wood down and you’re sort of putting the starter fuel underneath the wood, but there’s not a flame yet. But you just keep sort of building the bonfire, but there’s not a flame. And that’s what we’re doing: We’re building the bonfire and we haven’t yet had the flame, and that’s why in the middle of the book, I do these two chapters where I imagine what it would look like in sort of a medium-term future. If you combine flame with bumbling leadership, you could have a real crisis.

Yeah. It’s Calexit and Texit. I was waiting for Nebraska 2nd exit, but that wasn’t in the offing.

Nebraska 2-xit.

Yes, Omaha-and-environs-exit. Now I’m like, doing the backward-spinning-masking-devil-talk thing from rock albums of the ’80s.

OK. Do you think that the ideological sorting of the parties has been a bad thing?

For the sake of the country, I do think that has been a bad thing for a lot of reasons. Let me just give you a good example here close to home. I live in a very red district my representative is Mark Green. One district away is a representative named Scott DesJarlais, and I don’t know if you know anything about Scott DesJarlais, but he doesn’t make headlines—but wow. He comes from a pro-life very religiously conservative district. He has been disciplined for giving patients drugs. He is allegedly responsible for maybe two or three abortions, was caught on tape pressuring a mistress into an abortion. I mean, we’re talking [about] a guy with a really controversial checkered past that he has been evasive of. And he’s not somebody that the GOP, an honorable political party, would want representing its ideas, is this guy. Now I know—look, look, I know the House of Representatives has crazies here and there, but the reason I’m bring him up is that he beat a Democrat named Lincoln Davis, and Lincoln Davis was a pro-life conservative Democrat.

And he beat Lincoln Davis, not so much because there was anything wrong with Lincoln Davis’ record on the issues that mattered to the constituents. But because Scott Desjarlais had the R by his name. And so what ends up happening is the R—in an atmosphere of negative polarization—the R trumps everything. That identity of he’s on my side, on my team, trumps everything. It trumps integrity; it trumps often legality; it trumps ethics—it trumps everything. When political parties are sort of cross-coalitional, you can actually have a place for somebody who they might be a little bit to the left of DesJarlais on some things, but they’re not fundamentally different from them. And therefore voters who have in a district that’s overwhelmingly sort of religious and conservative have something more along the lines of a real choice other than in the primary.

And so I think from the standpoint of American pluralism, American unity, I think it was better for America when the parties contained broader ideological coalitions. A lot of people forget this, but when Ronald Reagan won the presidency, even though he didn’t have the House, for a while, he had kind of had a working majority by putting together and compromising with these different party coalitions. In the absence of that, and the pushing of everyone who’s pro-life into Team Red and everyone is pro-choice into Team Blue, or everyone who’s going to be prioritizing religious liberty into Team Red and those who critique it into Team Blue. What it does is it really results in what we’ve seen in the Trump era, where a person with that many flaws that are brazenly obvious is going to be selected and voted for by tens of millions of people, because that’s the only way that those folks that wear the red jersey feel that they can accomplish anything that’s meaningful in public policy.

By the way, Lincoln Davis sounds like a man at war with himself.

Isn’t that the truth?

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