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When civil war becomes all the rage

There was a time when Americans had values. It seems those values have disappeared, and many things that used to be unacceptable, even unthinkable, became common.

When did it become acceptable to lie? Or to spread fake conspiracies? Or to govern with fear rather than ideas? When did it become okay to deny and reject what the majority of Americans decide? Is it now socially acceptable to send death threats to people with whom we disagree? Is it responsible for a sitting United States congresswoman to make outrageously false statements like “Democrats want Republicans dead, and they have already started the killings,” as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) recently did. However, all the automatic weapons and body armor that are now de rigueur under the GOP tent indicate the shoe is likely on the other foot.

When did we decide a president, current or former, is above the law — actually, above many laws in the case of Donald Trump — and law enforcement agents should be targeted for investigating? Where does free speech stop, and domestic terrorism begin? Don’t vile threats against individual Americans and their families cross the line?

When did it become acceptable for militants to lock, load and try to incite civil war in America? The New York Times, quoting data from media-tracking services, reports that mentions of civil war are no longer confined to radical groups. The threats have become common on social media. They jumped 3,000 percent in the hours after the FBI confiscated documents from Trump’s Mar-a-Largo home.

With no apparent regret about the 2021 insurrection, Trump predicts that if he’s indicted, “you’d have problems in this country the likes of which perhaps we’ve never seen.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was more explicit, predicting “riots in the street.” These high-level provocateurs hide behind the First Amendment, but social media traffic shows that militant groups and individuals have received the actual message. Others get the message, too. As the New York Times notes, a survey in August found that 54 percent of “strong Republicans” believe a civil war of some kind is at least somewhat likely in the next decade.

As one of the millions of Americans who have experienced combat, I have few observations:

First, fantasies of violence against the government come too easily for the armchair soldiers who have never experienced war. The scenes from Ukraine are a hint. War not only destroys buildings; it also destroys emotional health, livelihoods, families and souls. Unless men in combat are exceptionally good at compartmentalizing the experience and dehumanizing the enemy, wars remake the soldiers who fight them. Many become addicted to the camaraderie, clarity of mission, adrenaline rush, as well as the gift and guilt of survival. Many learn the limits of their compassion, caring and resilience. Some discover an inner monster that is licensed in war but has no place in civilized society unless it finds or starts another war. I suspect that describes some of my brothers in today’s militant groups.

Second, Trump is a cult leader, not a national leader. He is not a patriot. He is not and never will be a savior. It makes no difference how immense his fortune is, how many lawyers he stiffs, or that he was president for a time. If we believe rich and powerful Americans should be held to the same standards of justice and social responsibility as we in the 99 percent, then we should not object to holding him accountable for his conduct as a businessman and politician.

Third, if militants want to take over the government, they should tell us what they plan to do with it. What is their agenda? Do they have a vision? Do they share one beyond killing democracy? Do most Americans agree with them, or do these groups plan to impose and enforce their version of America with a police state?

Trump, too, never really defined what he meant by “great” in the slogan he stole from Ronald Reagan to “make American great again.” If it meant draining the swamp, he didn’t. If it meant fanning the flames of racism, hate and domestic terrorism,he obviously succeeded. His ongoing legacy — a nation at war with itself — is the opposite of great. A county whose people don’t trust their democracy is not great, either. And a nation so vulnerable to blatant falsehoods and crazy conspiracy theories is ripe for totalitarianism.

After the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection, the violent groups that participated reportedly went home and decided on a different type of uprising. They began running for public office, presumably to carry out their objectives by working within the system. That’s more difficult than pulling a trigger or scribbling a death threat but testing their ideas in the public square is the right way to do it. The Washington Post reports that 299 Republican candidates for Congress and important state offices deny that the 2020 election was valid.

The upcoming November elections are a test of whether voters will choose the candidates dedicated to the values that built and sustained our country, or to the minions Trump has chosen. As we approach the midterms, we must ask ourselves: Who should rule America? Will it be the majority of Americans and the president they chose two years ago? Or will it be the trolls who spread hate and the homegrown terrorists who vote with bullets and bombs?

William S. Becker served as a U.S. Army combat correspondent in the Vietnam War. He currently is executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, a nonpartisan think tank that develops recommendations on federal energy and climate policies. The project is not affiliated with the White House.

Tags 2020 election Donald Trump Donald Trump GOP Lindsey Graham Marjorie Taylor Greene Politics Politics of the United States

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