Americans Are Too Pampered and Neurotic to Fight a Civil War

·5 min read
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

“Tomorrow is war,” right-wing media personality Steven Crowder tweeted Monday night after news broke of the FBI’s search of former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property.

Bright and early the next morning, Crowder was back—with details. “Today is war. That is all you will get on today’s show,” he wrote, finishing with the time and hashtag for his political commentary show and a gif of the late conservative firebrand Andrew Breitbart saying “war.”

Crowder’s initial tweet was the first example cited in a Tuesday New York Times write-up of the surge of violent language from the right following the Mar-a-Lago search. Other examples in the piece (”This. Means. War.” and “We’re at war” and “Country on the verge of CIVIL WAR???”) run along strikingly similar lines, and comments like these were widely featured in a fresh round of speculation that a new Civil War is nigh.

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But the Crowder posts, particularly, are a perfect illustration of why I think we should be skeptical of that forecast.

“War,” for Crowder, means sharp words on a podcast. “War,” for Breitbart, meant starting a website—the gif Crowder used came from a 2012 documentary, Hating Breitbart, about the launch of his eponymous Most of the shitposting about the need to “lock and load” is just that, and for all our negative partisanship and inflammatory social media use, Americans have yet to show ourselves at anything like a critical mass inclined to kill one another over politics.

I’m not suggesting a rise in political violence is inconceivable—far from it. Experts increasingly warn it’s coming, and they may well be correct. Our norms against political violence have been seriously assailed in the last three years. Much of our politics is undeniably malicious. Some people really do view each other as enemies rather than mere rivals, as evil instead of simply wrong. And the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6, the destruction of a Minneapolis police station, and the repeatedly attempted destruction of a Portland federal courthouse show there is a small subset of Americans—some political ideologues, some accelerationists, some equal-opportunity chaos enjoyers—who are willing to physically attack the government and each other.

But I don’t think that’s most people. I don’t even think it’s most people who like to LARP extremist politics on the internet. There is a madness of crowds, yes, and mobs will do things their individual members will not. But there’s a yawning gap between ragebooking while you watch Fox News or getting hyped about “MAGAts” on Twitter and bludgeoning a real, live human being because they voted the wrong way. It’s a gap I don’t believe most Americans are prepared to cross.

There’s also the physical hardship of war to consider.

Are we, as a people, really going to fight each other on the beaches, in the fields, and in the streets? Shall we really fight in the hills, where there is no air conditioning? In the forests, without refrigerators? Do we hate each other enough to eat hardtack? To undergo battlefield surgeries? Who knows about foraging anymore? Can you start a fire with nothing but sticks? (And there’s no YouTube tutorial—they’d knock down the cell towers.) In the last two years, large swaths of the country declared their lungs too weak to breathe through a cotton cloth, while others insisted it was deadly dangerous to take an open-air walk on a beach without that same cloth.

Gun control advocates like to note that fantasies about fending off tyranny with our private arsenals are unrealistic because the U.S. military is so well armed, to which gun rights activists respond by pointing at places like Afghanistan, where insurgents can frustrate that same military for decades with small arms and guerrilla tactics. And that’s true, but how many of us can do what those insurgents do? We don’t have traditional farming and survival skills. We can’t live in caves. We had a multi-month national discourse about toilet paper shortages.

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If political violence becomes a regular feature of American life, then, my suspicion is it will be less pitched battles and more The Troubles (where Protestants and Catholics battled in typically low-intensity urban warfare in Northern Ireland for decades), crossed with Waco (where a religious seperatist group fought federal law enforcement, with tragic results), with Twitter hell layered on top. More likely than a second civil war resembling the first would be intermittent spasms of violence around which, as the journalist Aris Roussinos put it, our “‘normal life’ continu[es] much the same as usual, except everyone [is] more fearful and depressed,” and the feds use escalatory violence to retain control, while the inflammatory pundit class does a steady business.

The afternoon of his “war” show, Crowder went back to Twitter with another on-theme post. “It’s time to fight for every square inch,” he said, sharing a picture of himself in a cheery raglan shirt displaying his show name and a slogan: “Fight like hell!” How could you, dear reader, join the fight? Well, the tweet continued with a link to, “Use code ‘FIGHT’ for 15% off!”

Rallying the troops at Gettysburg this is not.

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