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Can Civil War happen again?

The argument over America’s future has turned white-hot, from President Biden’s call to defend democracy against “semi-fascist” segments of the Republican Party to ex-President Trump’s pledge to consider pardoning those who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, if reelected. Far-Right bravado about starting another civil war ignores both the horrors and the outcome of the first one. Politicians and pundits who fan these flames best take heed or take cover.

Our recent article in The National Interest examines this unrest in the light of what caused the Civil War of 1861-1865. Strife escalated through three distinct stages before 11 slave states decided they had to leave the Union. The first stage lasted from the nation’s birth to 1850, during which two political economies emerged and diverged: one of them industrializing and the other depending on slave labor. The Constitution’s authors deferred the issue of slavery, believing it would become uneconomical and fade away. But the cotton gin and mechanized textile manufacturing led to swelling demand for Southern cotton, yielding fat profits for slave-owners. While abolitionism simmered in the North, a string of compromises, many at the hand of Henry Clay, held the nation together.

The second stage took place from 1850 to 1860. Four weak presidents and a pro-Southern Supreme Court accommodated slavery. The Fugitive Slave Act, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision all favored the South, lifting its hopes that slavery could exist and expand within the Union. However, soaring cotton prices led to increasingly brutal treatment of enslaved field-hands, bringing abolitionist sentiment to a boil. Scattered sectoral violence occurred, culminating in John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry.

The third stage was brought about by the 1860 election of Republican Abraham Lincoln (with under 40 percent of the popular vote), who was committed to halting the spread of slavery to new states. Southerners knew that slavery could not survive without expanding and saw secession as their only option. They underestimated Lincoln’s resolve, and unimaginable violence ensued.

The first stage of today’s national divide began when automation and global trade caused underemployment and lagging income among predominantly white Rust Belt and rural Americans. So-called “elites,” mostly college-educated, were suspected of wanting to “replace” neglected whites with minorities. The 2016 election of celebrity Donald Trump began the second stage, during which polarization worsened but remained peaceful. Trump’s followers believed their interests were protected by the president and the conservative Supreme Court and saw no reason to rebel.

The election of Biden and Trump’s refusal to admit defeat brought the United States to the brink of stage three in 2021. Thanks to some responsible Republicans, transition of power took place. Still, the greatest and least remediable danger remains the conviction of Trump’s cult-like base that he won the election, making the current government illegitimate in their eyes. 

The potential for large-scale violence exists today as it did in 1861. Americans possess nearly 400 million firearms, concentrated in the South, Midwest and West. A large fraction of Trump voters agree that “true patriots may have to resort to violence to save the USA.” Nearly 100 anti-establishment militias have been identified, the most virulent of which, Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, are standing by for a fight.  

But 2022 is not 1861, when half the nation chose to leave, and the other half resisted with force. 

Today’s federal institutions — including courts, police, and the military — remain firmly subordinated to the Constitution. Serious talk of state secession remains rare. Red and Blue states are internally divided and less contiguous than were the North and South 1861, making full-blown continental-scale war unlikely. Those who would take up arms against the Constitutional order are markedly weaker than the forces available to protect it. 

Yet, the situation is unquestionably alarming. Stage three and violence may need only a triggering event, akin to the 1860 election of Lincoln that precipitated secession. Perhaps, as Sen Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) warns, widespread rioting would follow an indictment of Trump. Or claims of another stolen election, in 2024 or even 2022, could ignite hostilities, possibly involving coordinated militia attacks on government property and personnel, or on minorities. While these would surely be put down, a forceful reaction by police, National Guard or, in the extreme, federal troops would scar the nation and leave it no less divided.   

What is to be done?

Simply stated, Republican leaders must squarely condemn all threats of political violence and distance themselves from colleagues who encourage or condone it — even at the cost of votes and elections.

Where are these leaders? Where is today’s Henry Clay?

This is the moment to step forward.

The first Civil War may have been unavoidable: A second one is not.

Hans Binnendijk is a Distinguished Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was previously the NSC Senior Director for Defense Policy, Principal Deputy Director of the State Department Policy Planning Staff, and Director of the Institute for National Strategic Studies.

David C. Gompert is on the faculty of the U.S. Naval Academy and a senior advisor to Ultratech Capital Partners. He was Principal Deputy Director and Acting Director of National Intelligence in 2009 and 2010.

Both authors are on the Board of Directors of the American Civil War Museum.

Tags Biden Civil War domestic extremism Donald Trump Jan. 6 Capitol attack Joe Biden Lindsey Graham peaceful transition of power political extremism political polarization political violence Republican leaders Republican Party Trump legal issues Violence

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