As Donald Trump faces investigation for his role in the January 6th insurrection, Jack Clayton assesses whether the USA is close to a second Civil War.
Nobody likes alarmism, and if there is one thing that historians, political scientists, and journalists can be guilty of, it is sensationalism. Risking falling into doing the same thing, America could be worryingly close to having a Second Civil War because of the societal problems that have remained unresolved since the aftermath of the Civil War between 1861 and 1865.
Two key questions here are what is American democracy and how do civil rights, especially regarding race, fit into it? The challenges in answering these questions have existed since American independence when it declared itself as the first constitutional liberal democracy. The Naturalization Act of 1790 signed by President George Washington stated, “that any alien other than being an alien enemy, being a free white person, who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years, may be admitted to become a citizen”, thus excluding non-white people.
The Civil War was perhaps the first time that the diametrically opposed practices of democracy and slavery were confronted, but it did not resolve America’s divisions. Because the maintenance of the Union was prioritised, reparations were given to former slave owners, and the South introduced the Jim Crow laws to enforce segregation. Consequently, America has co-existed, albeit troublesomely with irreconcilable compromises that represent two different visions of America. There are those who want to build on the work of abolitionists and the civil rights activists who have attempted to enhance democracy and racial equality. Then there are the proponents of the ‘Lost Cause’ in the South. This group argue that Confederate State’s cause was about heroically defending state rights, and that slavery was a “positive good”. This defence inspired memorials and statues of Confederate soldiers for standing up for their beliefs to be built.
In 2008 when America elected its first African-American President, Barack Obama, it marked an historic moment, but it also naively encouraged too many to believe that it represented a post-racial America. Instead it provoked the backlash of the long held visceral anger of the sections of Americans who despised the very idea of Obama’s Presidency, let alone its reality. Obama’s Presidency brought the irreconcilable compromises of America to the surface. It wasn’t long until this section of Americans found its figurehead in Donald Trump to not just bring to light what was beneath the surface of American society but to rip it out and unleash the hate across the country and the world. Trump may not have copied the phrase “the South shall rise again”, attributed to the President of the Confederate States, Jefferson Davis, but his nativist politics and nostalgic slogan to “Make America Great Again” was clear about who it was appealing to.
During his Presidency, Trump truly brought out, and more significantly, empowered the worst instincts and ills of America. He called Mexicans rapists and demonised migrants as a threat to the nativist America he desires. He said that there were “very fine people on both sides” at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia which included chants of “Jews will not replace us” and a participant ramming a car into counter-protestors. Confederate statues became a focal point when Trump protected them after the killing of the African-American George Floyd by a police officer, during which he had teargas used against protestors to hold a bible outside a church. Even after leaving office, his attacks civil rights through the abolishing of the right to abortion that his Supreme Court picks are responsible for. Then of course there is his falsehood that the 2020 election was stolen which led to the January 6 insurrection for which his role is being investigated by Congress.
Is America near to having a Second Civil War then? The academic Barbara Walter appears to believe so, stating that, “there are definitely lots of groups on the far-right who want war. They are preparing for war. And not talking about it does not make us safer”. Their threat should be taken more seriously than it is at the moment. Greater transparency could improve trust towards information and political institutions that is severely lacking at a time when discourse about the state of America is needed. It has meant that questions about the state of democracy and civil rights regarding race and other groups, often become condensed into being part of the so called ‘culture wars’ that produce frivolous questions such as ‘is America racist?’ with a yes or no framing.
Meanwhile, many Republicans believe that the 2020 election was stolen, and ideas like the Great Replacement conspiracy theory that claims minorities are trying to displace white Americans is regularly mentioned on the right. Whether America enters a Second Civil War therefore depends on how it tackles its demons which goes back to my two questions. What is American democracy and how do civil rights, especially regarding race, fit into it? Will it strengthen its democracy or regress towards racial authoritarianism? These longstanding questions must be addressed, and I believe that they can be. That is not due to mythological exceptionalism, but because America’s problems are so raw that it recognises that it can and must change, albeit at times frustratingly gradually. Whether today’s challenges will inject enough urgency to bring that change is yet to be seen.
Jack Clayton is a PhD student at SOAS, University of London, studying US foreign policy, researching the Vietnam Syndrome and the 2003 Iraq War and how American public opinion influences US foreign policy making towards military intervention. He tweets at @claytonj944.