It’s a commonplace that America is more divided than at any time since the 1850s, which ended with the country hurtling toward civil war. The oddity of our Civil War, which resembled conventional warfare in that the two sides fielded uniformed rather than guerilla armies and fought within a distinct territorial divide, is that it distracts us from the fact that civil war is the most typical political phenomenon in human history. Count it as another example of American exceptionalism, perhaps. Except that today the air is thick with talk that we might actually have another one.
Max Weber was merely the most explicit in a long line of political thinkers with his succinct reminder that “The decisive means for politics is violence.” It is the unique achievement of constitutional democracy to substitute ballots for bullets, but the experience of a peaceful transition of power from a losing party to a winning party is barely 200 years old—dating back to 1800, to be precise. That’s not even the day before yesterday, in the long human story. And as we saw, it lasted only 60 years until one party, southern Democrats, refused to accept the results of a free election and decided to revert to bullets. I have long tried to explain to students and fellow citizens alike that we take America’s political stability since the Civil War too much for granted. In my experience, it has been foreign students who comprehend this complacency, while native students tend to yawn and look at their smartphones.
There is much less of that complacency now, with the real prospect of a contested election whose final messy outcome large swaths of each party may refuse to accept. Maybe the next civil war has already started, as they more often do, with a slow boil rather than a firing on Fort Sumter. Right now, we’re experiencing rioting and violence mostly coming from Antifa, though some fringy alt-right groups like the Proud Boys are trying to stir the pot in Portland and elsewhere. We saw a preview in the small riots and demonstrations that accompanied President Trump’s surprise victory in 2016, and the current wave of rioting in the country may be another preview of coming attractions.
The prospect of electoral chaos was elevated by the war-gaming exercise of the Transition Integrity Project, in which a disputed election might feature riots, states threatening secession, a stubborn Trump abusing his powers to remain in office, and the military wondering who they should report to at noon next January 20. Needless to say it made for sensational copy in the media, much of which was both overblown and underblown: overblown because of the frothy Seven Days in May specter it suggested, and underblown in that it barely scratched the surface of more realistic permutations of what could go wrong with this election.
As it happens, I know one of the two organizers of TIP, Nils Gilman, the vice president of programs at the Berggruen Institute. Gilman is one of the first persons I got to know when I came to UC Berkeley four years ago. He worked in the chancellor’s office, coping with the aftermath of the Milo Yiannopoulos riot of February 2017, which I witnessed. A historian by academic background, he believes in all the wrong things, such as abolishing the electoral college and the Senate, expanding the Supreme Court, and admitting Puerto Rico and D.C. as states, for starters. He likes some truly wild-eyed schemes for global-level taxation. In other words, he holds what increasingly have become the mainstream views of the Democratic Party today. In other areas, he’s quirky. Gilman says things about our monied elites that sound like Tucker Carlson. He thinks the only thing worse than conservative indifference or hostility to climate-change action would be conservative embrace of solving climate change, because it would involve “avocado politics”—“green on the outside, brown on the inside.” We’ve had a lot of vigorous but cordial arguments about these and many other things.
So it came as a shock to me that, on the brink of a possible constitutional crisis and with cities already on fire, Gilman decided to pour on more gasoline. In a now notorious tweet about Michael Anton, author of the famous “Flight 93 Election” essay of 2016 and sometime writer for City Journal, Gilman wrote: “Michael Anton is the Robert Brasillach of our times and deserves the same fate.” Who? Robert Brasillach was a collaborationist writer in the Vichy regime in France. He was executed by firing squad after the liberation for his “intellectual crimes.”
Gilman now insists that despite the clearly written words “deserves the same fate,” he did not mean literally that Anton should be executed. But if Sarah Palin can be accused, as she was by the New York Times editorial page (libel suit still pending), of inciting the shooting of Representative Gabby Giffords in 2011, though it was clear within hours that the shooter was a mentally ill individual, you’d think that saying something like “deserves the same fate” as an executed Nazi collaborator would rise to the same standard. We also have in the background the literal example of James Hodgkinson, who was politically motivated in his attempt to kill Republican House members in 2017.
Gilman was triggered by Anton’s article on “The Coming Coup,” based partly on the TIP report but also other frothy scenarios involving the military intervening to remove Trump from office. This view is hardly unique to Anton. Byron York, about as sober a journalist as you’ll find, has referred to this whole speculative genre as “coup porn.” In the back and forth that has commenced, many of Gilman’s defenders argue that the author of the “Flight 93” analogy, in which Hillary is supposedly made out as a terrorist, is hardly in a position to complain about violent images, not to mention his subsequent article on “Vichycons.” It must be pointed out, though, that both “Flight 93” and “Vichycons” are about and directed at conservatives—not Democrats or ideological opponents. The Vichycon article mentions no one by name, and still less is there any language suggesting the execution or even purge of “Vichycons.” It is an image intended to shake up conservatives from a complacent attitude toward the relentless trends of modern liberalism. My own milder version of the same argument, which I’ve been making for more than 20 years, is that too many Washington conservatives have become victims of Stockholm Syndrome. Anton’s “Flight 93” article was controversial on the right at the time it appeared and remains so today.
Gilman is not alone, however, in language that goes over the line of late. Charlie Sykes, an anti-Trump conservative, this week tweeted, “For no particular reason, this morning I’ve been thinking about Nicolae Ceaușescu’s last public appearance.” The Romanian dictator’s last public appearance, of course, was the execution of him and his wife following a ten-minute trial. This is not just unsubtle; it isn’t even artful.
There is a broader point here that isn’t about pining for a bygone era of “civility” in politics. There was no such era. Just check the campaign rhetoric of the election of 1800. Liberals today like to label and deplore “othering.” This is often overdone, but it sends me back to something my (and Anton’s) teacher Harry Jaffa wrote more than 40 years ago: “Those who see each other as utterly alien cannot be fellow citizens.” But that’s where we are right now, with large numbers of Americans utterly alienated from many of their fellow citizens. The causes and responsibility for this can be debated another day. Jaffa added: “In a republic, the sobriety of the citizens replaces the force of authority as the principal source of order.” If we do have a train-wreck election, it will be the sobriety of Americans that saves us. Singling out individuals by name and suggesting, even by strained analogy, that they deserve the equivalent fate of a Nazi propagandist (or a Romanian dictator) does not promote that virtue.