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On Wednesday afternoon, the phrase "civil war” was trending on Twitter.
I'm not surprised.
I work hard to understand the right and to engage seriously with conservative ideas, some of which I agree with. But I'm a liberal by upbringing and sensibility, and I live in the deep-blue Philadelphia suburbs. Let me tell you that following the news since the election has felt more than a little like going about my life handcuffed to a madman.
Yes, Red America, I'm talking about you.
This doesn't mean Democrats are blameless for where we've ended up. Go ahead and quote the late John Lewis calling President Trump illegitimate. Mock MSNBC for pushing Russiagate conspiracy theories. Have fun ridiculing a poll from nearly three years ago showing a lot of Democrats convinced that the 2016 election was tampered with.
All of it points to a tit-for-tat escalatory spiral to which Democrats have contributed and that's very bad for the country.
But nothing comes close to what we're seeing now from Republicans.
Limiting ourselves merely to the last day or so, we have the following: The president of the United States continuing to assert, over and over again and without evidence, that the election was stolen from him and that his ultimate aim is overturn the results; South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham suggesting, also without evidence, that Democrat Stacey Abrams "'conned the Republican leadership in Georgia' into helping Joe Biden win by abetting voter fraud"; and worst of all, attorneys general from 17 Republican-controlled states filing an amicus brief in support of a frivolous lawsuit brought by Texas against four states that voted for Biden (Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin). (Trump has invited these Republican state officials to the White House for a celebratory lunch on Thursday afternoon.)
Will the lawsuit, filed directly to the Supreme Court, succeed? No, it won't, any more than dozens of others have, with the most recent defeat coming at the Supreme Court earlier this week, when the court denied a requested injunction without dissenting comment from any of the court's conservatives. The efforts of the president and his party to reverse the results of the election with a blizzard of litigation over the past month has been an utter failure.
This has led some to insinuate that it's been foolish to worry about Trump's ongoing coup attempt. He was never going to succeed in his effort to remain president. Biden was always going to take office on Jan. 20. America is stronger than the anxious among us suppose. We'll be fine. Our institutions held.
This is incredibly short-sighted.
What is an institution? It's a bunch of people in positions of power following a formal or informal series of rules. It's true that this time, the institutions have (so far) held, because enough of the people who inhabit them have followed the rules. But how long is that likely to last, with an overwhelming majority of Republican voters thinking Trump is the rightful winner of the election and an overwhelming majority of congressional Republicans tacitly backing the Trump-led insurgency against our democratic institutions?
Abiding by rules even when they go against one's own interest is far from automatic in human affairs. A country needs to cultivate people who are willing to do what's right even when it's costly. It does this by encouraging and rewarding acts of honorable sacrifice for the good of the political community. At the moment, Republicans aren't doing anything like this. In fact, they're doing the diametric opposite — deliberately saying and doing idiotic, incredibly irresponsible things for the sake of the adulation of an ignorant mob, which is itself made ever-more ignorant and hate-filled by the words and deeds inspiring the applause.
It's a closed circuit of demagoguery and demotic adulation that inculcates and reinforces habits fundamentally incompatible with self-government in politicians and people alike. Both sides are locked in, doing everything they can to drive each other to and over the edge of civic madness.
Right-wing talk-show host Rush Limbaugh was the apparent reason for the trending of "civil war” on Wednesday. On his radio show, he said the following:
I actually think that we're trending toward secession. I see more and more people asking what in the world do we have in common with the people who live in, say, New York? I see a lot of bloggers — I can't think of names right now — a lot of bloggers have written extensively about how distant and separated and how much more separated our culture is becoming politically and that it can't go on this way. There cannot be a peaceful coexistence of two completely different theories of life, theories of government, theories of how we manage our affairs. We can't be in this dire a conflict without something giving somewhere along the way.
Rush is right. The country is coming apart in increasingly alarming and unsustainable ways.
But here's the thing: This wasn't inevitable. It is being done intentionally by the right, by Limbaugh himself, and by people for whom Limbaugh is an incredibly influential, trusted authority.
Biden won the election and Trump lost. That is a fact. It is reality. The president could have accepted it and conceded the race. Or if he didn't, his party could have stood against him, in defense of truth instead of lies.
Some will reply that in this case Trump's supporters would have stuck by him and turned on the traitors. This is probably true about some, or even many, of them. But many others might have paused in their headlong plunge into derangement if people like Limbaugh and Graham and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham and Greg Kelly and many others hadn't actively, aggressively, intentionally chosen to spread a miasma of lies.
They made a choice. They make it every day.
A country in which millions of people are being actively cultivated to reject democracy, to cheer on tyranny, to exult in conspiracies and outright lies is a country deliberately careening toward a precipice. The next time it won't just be a show of nonsense lawsuits thrown out of court. It will be several states tossing out thousands or millions of votes in order to bestow a victory on the loser of a free and fair election.
I don't know if we're heading toward authoritarian kleptocracy or a civil war, or if we'll somehow manage to turn the wheel just before we reach the cliff's edge. But I do know this: If any of the worst-case scenarios unfold, it will be because some among us made a conscious decision to cultivate madness.
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