The year 2020 brings the Games of the XXXII Olympiad to Japan, an extra 24 hours of February to all countries and, to the United States of America, the nation’s 59th presidential election and the real risk of its second “Cival” War.
Misspelled by a knuckleball major league umpire in a rabid tweet in October, yet symptomatic of the diseased American political climate three years into Donald Trump’s first or last term as president, the chilling possibility of armed conflict—at least on a small, local, insurgent scale—weighed on the Union just as the Peace on Earth season began. While the Democratic party was at bat in the first inning of the congressional process that could thumb Trump to the showers, The Donald’s most passionate (and least literate) bleacherites were loaded, locked and bump-stocked with lethal leap-year force.
“I will be buying an AR-15 tomorrow,” typed veteran home-plate arbiter Rob Drake, jeopardizing his own career while encapsulating the mood on the fringe of the radical right, “because if you impeach MY PRESIDENT this way, YOU WILL HAVE ANOTHER CIVAL WAR!!!”
In late October, on a wide bend in the Cumberland River northwest of Nashville, Tenn., the cannon and earthworks of the first American Civil War stood in silence, a reminder of what had happened and what could happen again. In 1862, Confederate troops built a series of forts above the river to guard the approaches to the Southern heartland. There had been little actual combat for the previous few months. But the calm—like today’s partisan seething, if the worst case unfolds—could not hold.
When the guns began to roar, the rebel bastions were no match for ironclad Northern warships, or for 15,000 Union soldiers under the whip of a young officer named Ulysses S. Grant. It took Grant, later the 18th U.S. president, only a few days to pulverize the Cumberland forts, scatter, kill or capture most of their garrison, and secure the humiliating, unconditional surrender of their commander, a Kentuckian named Simon Bolivar Buckner who had been Grant’s classmate and close friend at West Point. Buckner had been handed the keys when the forts’ two most senior generals, seeing Grant coming, ran away.
Now it was autumn 2019, and a dad, a mom and their baby daughter were exploring the historic site and wondering if armed conflict really might inflame their country a second time.
“Could the Civil War happen again?” the father was asked. He answered, “I could imagine a situation where the government had to send in federal troops to put down some small-scale armed groups.”
The dad was hardly an amateur at the grim musings of war—he was First Lieutenant Jared Sturgell of the 5th Special Forces, a West Point grad like Grant and Buckner, and an active-duty U.S. Army officer, just back from deployment to Donald Trump’s Syrian sandbox. If it comes to it, Lt. Sturgell and his comrades at Fort Campbell, Ky., may find themselves ordered to umpire an armed standoff that neither side seemed to want to avoid in the fall of 2019.
Lt. Sturgell said he did not expect an exact reprise of the War Between the States—a clash of million-man armies on the battlefields of Gettysburg and Antietam. (Who would feed such legions, equip them, bivouac them, pay them?) But with the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution ensuring that “a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed,” there was no shortage of armaments and adamancy stockpiled in the homes of the brave.
If Donald Trump is evicted from the White House by both houses of Congress, or if he is voted out narrowly, or even bigly, in November, there is little in his personal history to suggest that he will accept the result as honourably as Al Gore did in 2000, disarm his battalions and ride meekly up his golden escalator.
“What could end this deep divide?” the West Pointer was asked at the ruins of the Confederates’ Fort Donelson—in late 2019, as in 1862, this was a question critical to the survival of the American republic itself.
“Maybe something bigger than 9/11 that would bring everyone together,” Lt. Sturgell said. “Maybe a huge natural disaster, something bigger than Katrina.”
“Maybe an alien invasion!”
Down in Music City U.S.A., that same weekend, an annual exposition called Politicon assembled dozens of the partisan divide’s most prominent and well-paid profiteers, plus a rabble eager to be roused. Imported to fling spitballs at the president, and at each other, for the amusement of thousands of paying attendees, such lights of journalism and politics as Sean Hannity, James Carville, Ann Coulter, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, fired FBI director James Comey, and even Al Franken, the disgraced, bottom-grabbing former senator from Minnesota, happily expectorated away.
Politicon brought out the worst in almost everyone. In a corridor that the organizers hopefully labelled “Democracy Village,” vendors offered buttons with a baby’s soother on them and the calming message “SUCK IT! LIBERALS.” And another with an elephant stomping on a donkey that said “IMPEACH THIS BITCH.”
Nearby, a Kentucky lawyer named Eric Shane Grinnell proudly laid claim to a T-shirt emporium that he had domained as WeHateLiberals.com, installing himself as Chief Hate Officer.
“People use the word ‘hate’ all the time,” Grinnell told a troubled questioner. “Like, ‘I hate heroin’ or ‘I hate cancer.’ We’re not saying we hate any liberals in particular.
“Donald Trump,” he went on, “is the man that the times produced. It could have been Mark Cuban. It could have been Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. The Democrats made him inevitable.”
“What will happen if Trump is impeached or quits or dies?” the despiser-in-chief was then asked.
“He’s got three kids,” he responded. (Actually, Trump has ﬁve known offspring.) “Any one of them would destroy Mike Pence in a primary. Those kids should be like the Kennedys. They should all run for the Senate.”
This predicted permanency of the president’s clan, regardless of The Donald’s own fate, contrasted at Politicon with the adjacent stall, where an effigy of a diapered Baby Trump loomed over the colloquy in the form of a US$3,000, made-in-China helium balloon.
“I eagerly await Trump being out of office,” Jim Girvan of New Jersey, the inflatable’s self-styled “baby daddy,” told a Maclean’s reporter. “But I have as much concern about him being out of office as I have about him in office. If he is forced out, or voted out, he’s going to carry his base with him and he will be in control of a large portion of the electorate for the rest of his life.
“I don’t think that getting him out of office will change anything. He has awakened a sleeping giant of hate.”
In Nashville, just as he does nightly on Fox News, Hannity, the pre-eminent pro-Trump tub-thumper and subject-changer, railed on about “Hillary Clinton’s bought-and-paid-for dirty Russian dossier,” still fighting the last election on behalf of his most avid viewer and marionette.
“All the Democrats have done for the last three years is hate on Donald Trump,” Sean Hannity said.
“The entire media position is ‘Get this monster out of my sight,’ ” the rightest Ann Coulter sneered. “It’s like a collective psychosis, how liberals lose their minds. We are turning into Kazakhstan at an alarming rate.”
“They’re gonna impeach him. That’s what’s gonna happen,” was James Carville’s prediction for the New Year from the opposite shore of the gulf.
“Let me tell you—terrible is coming,” the Democratic strategist warned the other team.
“The House will impeach. The Senate will acquit. Donald Trump will be re-elected,” Hannity yawned.
“The night before the House votes, you’re gonna have a quarter-million people on the Mall,” retorted Carville. “Maybe you can get a quarter-million to oppose them and have a big democracy festival.”
And so forth, for two days.
“The moon pays as much attention to a dog barking at it as a Democrat pays to Trump,” James Carville announced, looking pleased with himself. Asked about the rancour that enriches these professional ditchdiggers of the grand partisan canyon, the rainmaker replied, “I don’t know that there’s very much that you can do about it.”
According to the latest academic research, James Carville was right. Nothing can bring America’s implacable red and blue teams into the same bullpen—not neutral fact-checking, not appeals to patriotism and decency, and certainly not the nation’s unaffordable universities.
“Education makes it worse,” said David C. Barker, a professor of political science at American University in Washington, D.C. “The most educated among us are the most likely to project their values onto the facts.” Ideological affiliation, Barker reported, has become as intrinsic to Americans’ self-identification as race, religion and gender.
In a new book entitled One Nation, Two Realities, Barker and Morgan Marietta of the University of Massachusetts Lowell concluded that “political knowledge, education, and fact-checking are not creating consensus facts. The bitter pill for democracy is that knowledge and education are working against consensus. We suspect that the situation will only get worse in the coming years, with no known solution available.”
“We think the most likely outcome for 2020 and beyond is that the country divides even further,” Barker told Maclean’s. “It sounds hyperbolic that we could be heading toward a civil war, but I don’t know that that’s completely out of the question.
“This polarizing environment in which we live is not going to get better, and there is every reason to believe that it is going to get worse. All the factors that got us here are growing. We are not becoming a more homogeneous society. The partisan media environment is becoming stronger—the algorithms that Google uses to determine what pops up after a search—all of that is getting worse. We should not turn to education as a potential source of remedy because, as you attain more education, you just get better at counter-arguing about the things you don’t like.”
If 2016 repeats itself and Donald Trump is re-elected with a tiny majority in the Electoral College despite a multi-million-ballot deficit in the popular vote, Barker said, “I fully expect Democrats to lose their minds. All faith in the Constitution and our electoral system and the things we used to think we all believed in will be gone. I could easily see violence.
“In surveys, 15 to 20 per cent of people—a non-trivial number—say that violence against political adversaries is called for. We’re about to have an impeachment. That’s going to bring us together?”
At Politicon, the headline debate between Sean Hannity and James Carville—a rousing dialogue des sourds—was moderated by 29-year-old Steven Olikara, founder and Chief We-Need-to-Stop-Hating-and-Start-Listening-to-Each-Other Officer of an entity known as the Millennial Action Project that is trying to prevent “Cival” War II.
“How do you break tribalism in a diverse democracy? How do we make that movement entertaining in the way that Politicon is entertaining?” Olikara mused in an interview with Maclean’s. “That is the challenge of our time. Those of us who are trying to build bridges across tribes are facing what Dr. King faced, what Nelson Mandela faced and what Gandhi faced.
“When you reach out across lines of difference, you get labelled as betraying your own side. We have to make our generation understand that living in a diverse democracy requires that kind of outreach. We need to make listening go viral.”
Olikara sees a tipping point in the middle distance—five or 10 years from now—when younger citizens and elected officials with an “à la carte mentality” pick and choose from policies advocated by both sides rather than just fill the slots vacated by the Trumps, Bidens, Pelosis, Warrens, Sanderses, et al., who by then will all be dead or at least kept safely indoors.
“We can’t be harkening back to an old time when things were more civil,” the under-30 Olikara said. “Millennials are rebelling against this binary system. Within 10 years, if the political parties haven’t found a better way to respond to our future, there will be a different option presented to the American people.
“But the future won’t look any different if we don’t act now.”
In Nashville, some of the most (and only) encouraging words were spoken by a man whose own intransigence helped to deepen the partisan chasm to the point where it may never be filled. All James Comey had to do back in 2017 was pledge his loyalty to Donald Trump—and make that pesky felony investigation of Gen. Michael Flynn go bye-bye—and this whole obstruction of justice/impeachment thing might never have gotten started.
But it did, and now Comey was promising that “this country of ours will be okay. Our history is an upward-sloping line. It’s not straight—it’s jagged—but the trend is always upward. We have been more messed-up than this in the past. Our history should console us but not make us complacent.”
On the cusp of an inflammatory impeachment, or an election-year catastrophe, there were at least a few signs that a shaky truce might endure. Umpire Drake deleted his bellicose tweet and apologized to victims of firearm violence. Sean Hannity reminded his deplorables that “at the end of the day, we’re all Americans.” High above the Cumberland, Lt. Jared Sturgell pointed out that, “in the Army, we’ve got Democrats and Republicans and people of all races and there is no problem at all. Everybody gets along.” After all, back in 1865, the first Civil War did, finally, end. Twenty years later, Simon Bolivar Buckner, vanquished by his old classmate, helped to carry Ulysses Grant’s coffin.
“We don’t have a common ancestry; we don’t have a common faith,” James Comey said in Nashville. “All we have in common are our values. We have to have leaders who reflect those values. But people who tell you we are irreparably damaged are lying to you.”
“Donald Trump clearly doesn’t give a s–t about those values,” challenged Nicolle Wallace of MSNBC.“What if Trump wins again? Will you still believe that?”
“I will,” Big Jim Comey replied. “From my new home in New Zealand, I will still believe in America.”
This article appears in print in the January 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “State of disunion.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.