We are in a new civil war … What exactly?

Throughout most of my reporting career, to highlight a controversy – perhaps over the candidacy of a judge or hype about the proposed mall next to the battlefield – what might be called a metaphor for a “new Civil War.”

On the anniversary of the January 6 uprising at the Capitol, we celebrate the evolution of the journalistic cliché: serious people now call the “Civil War” not a metaphor, but literal precedent.

The Trump years, which now apparently have not ended with his presidency, have sparked a conflict so deep that, as in the 1860s, democracy, constitutional order and the union itself are in jeopardy.

Indeed, a big deal. But it’s also a mystery: if this is a 21st century version of 19th century disunity, shouldn’t it be more obvious what war really is?

The January 6 anniversary is a reminder that the chaos during the Trump years is in one important respect – and perhaps only in one – a historical anomaly. The country has witnessed many times of dissent and unrest, far more violent than at any time in recent years. But earlier episodes contained deep ideological and moral issues – easily visible to the naked eye, now and subsequently to historians – that underpinned the case.

The real Civil War was over slavery – first to limit its territorial expansion, and towards the end of the war – to completely eliminate it. The capitalists who opposed the New Deal knew why they hated Roosevelt — he radically altered the balance of power between the public and private sectors — and Roosevelt also knew, “They are unanimous in their hatred of me, and I welcome their hatred.” The riots of the 1960s were associated with the end of segregation and the end of the Vietnam War.

Only in recent years have we witnessed a shaking foundation of political conflict – both sides believed that the other would turn the United States into something unrecognizable – without an obvious and easily identifiable root cause. What is the fundamental question that hangs on the balance between people who hate Trump and what he stands for and people who love Trump and hate those who hate him? This is not so much an ideological conflict as a psychological one.

At first glance, of course, everyone knows what a pogrom in the Capitol is and its caustic consequences. One side unreasonably believes that President Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election was stolen, while the other rightly fears that the followers of former President Donald Trump are so slavishly under his spell that they are ready to take over the legal apparatus that guarantees free and fair elections. to facilitate his return to power in 2024.

But the violent conflict sparked by the 2020 elections has arisen from years of conflict over every aspect of Trump’s ascent and results as president. In the nearly seven years that have passed since his presidential ambitions evaporated in 2015, there has been a daily stream of insults and provocations, and a corresponding stream of explanations of what is really happening here – why his supporters are so upset, why they are so drawn to a bright personality who ever served as president.

Efforts to explain Trump often draw on complex sociological or economic theories. He was a response to globalization and selfish elites. He took advantage of trade discontent and declining real wages. He was representative of people who disliked the cultural ascent of women and African Americans and the belittling of white men from the working class. Etc.

Everything is half-plausible. Everything is inadequate in the face of Trump’s zigzags one day and zigzags the next, and the obvious truth that most of his supporters are attracted to him not so much by the programmatic reason as by the sheer bombast of his speech – and especially the fact that he offends his opposition. …

The more vitriol rises, the less consensus is on the origin of anger. On the contrary, there is something closer to the establishment’s consensus that the search for root cause is insane – the Trump phenomenon defies explanation, and the threat from his demagoguery makes speculation about his origins an irrelevant distraction.

The violence in the Capitol is hardly unprecedented. Least Puerto Rican terrorists who shot five representatives of the Gallery House in 1954 had a clear agenda: “Long live free Puerto Rico!(Long live free Puerto Rico) shouted one of them. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts outnumbered Donald Trump in 1856 when it comes to flashy insults. He said that South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler “doesn’t touch anything that he doesn’t misrepresent by mistake, sometimes principled, sometimes factual. He cannot open his mouth, and from there a gross error flies out. ” Butler’s nephew, Rep. Preston Brooks, clearly understood why he beat Sumner with a stick in the Senate hall, and Sumner too. This is because he accused Butler of being in love with his mistress: “I mean the harlot, slavery.” They argued about the transcendental issue of their time.

The transcendental problem of this time – regardless of the particular raw material of any given news cycle – is the belief that one half of the country suspects the other half of contempt for them and, in turn, responds with contempt. Seinfeld was not really, as is often said, a “show about nothing.” Instead, he demonstrated that with the right characters and mood, you can do a show about anything what can happen in everyday life. Donald Trump showed that you can use the same approach to create a national crisis. The angry mob that trampled the Capitol a year ago showed that jokes are fertile ground for madmen.

Are you starting 2022 in an upbeat mood? You might find solace in the argument that it’s hard to have a real civil war without a real reason – a great question that will be settled by the outcome. Trump’s moment in national life will fade away, because he always has something to say, but nothing more to say on the merits.

Or perhaps recent years have led you to escalate pessimism. Perhaps the squalor of modern politics stems from the ancient truths of human nature. It is easy for people to be manipulated by appeals of prejudice and paranoia, especially when technology has led to the massive growth of the industry of commercialized contempt. A country in which there can be a civil war, and no one really knows what the conflict is about, is a country in which the muscles of control are miserably atrophied.

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