The Cold Civil War

We have been fighting a Cold Civil War for years now. It's heating up again.

I was on the phone with my editors last week, breaking down my latest findings on members of Congress who pocketed tens of millions in COVID bailout money while working to screw over ordinary Americans, when the news broke: Chris Collins had been pardoned. 

It was just the latest in a string of cruel, desperate and seditious actions coming out of the White House in the final days of this past horrendous year — and this historically corrupt and inept president. When the history books are written they will no doubt detail Donald Trump’s near-criminal mishandling of the coronavirus among his many failures and obvious crimes. There is no way that a rational person — whether writing up this period of American history or simply considering it — could come to any other conclusion. But we are not living in rational times. 

The divisions in this country make clear that there will be two versions of history: the real one and the one based in the un-reality that both Trump’s most ardent supporters and many everyday conservative — or radical right — Americans believe. In this version of history, the virus’s carnage on Americans is impossibly both all China’s fault and overblown by the media and Democrats. And the historic defeat of an incumbent president for the first time in decades thanks to Joe Biden winning the most votes of any presidential candidate in American history was actually a historic win for Trump, with some combination of corrupt Democrats, rigged voting machines, and ballots filed in the names of the dead stealing the election from him. Incredibly, this alternate reality includes lifelong Republican bureaucrats like Georgia’s secretary of state — who voted for Trump — carrying out the theft. 

There is also the not-so-small matter of about a third of this country believing Trump’s presidency was a roaring success and that he worked hard every day to help all Americans. But as astoundingly wrong as that point of view is, it’s nowhere near as dangerous as that same swath of America disregarding the deadliest pandemic in 100 years and believing the election was stolen from Trump. The implications of those two pillars of this false history will play out for years to come, possibly signaling the beginning of the end of the American Empire.

Men like Donald Trump and, to a lesser extent, Chris Collins, will be thought of the vanguards of our fall.

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A Cold Civil War in this country has brewed since the actual fighting stopped 155 years ago, but the last decade-and-change has seen it heat up. There was the election of Barack Obama, which polarized the country and stirred up racial tensions — and racism — that had bubbled largely under the surface since the raucous 1960s and 70s. The popular right’s response to Obama was to try to recreate the Tea Party in the face of his supposed totalitarian or socialist regime. In government, the right simply did everything it could to stop every part of the Obama agenda, whether it was politically anodyne or not. Less than two years into the Obama presidency, the right saw what we can now consider an early predecessor to the culture war bomb-throwing of Donald Trump. In a September 2009 address to both houses of Congress, Obama laid out his healthcare plan that would eventually become the Affordable Care Act. He attempted to allay fears that his plan would somehow end up insuring undocumented immigrants when Rep. Joe Wilson, a Republican back-bencher from South Carolina, shouted “You lie!” The outburst was shocking, and Wilson even apologized — an unheard-of gesture in the Trump era — but still went on to insist to Sean Hannity that Obamacare’s insuring of illegal immigrants was a possibility. Of course, undocumented immigrants never did receive health insurance under Obamacare, and Joe Wilson has been re-elected to office every election since.

Wilson’s outburst — ironically a lie itself — was one of the first volleys in this recent chapter of the Cold Civil War. Not as hot as successive volleys, it was nonetheless hot enough to motivate a certain type of American to support aggressive and previously unheard-of radical tactics like yelling at the President of the United States in a congressional address. This is when all those norms that Trump has shattered every day for the last for years began to break down apace. The Tea Party rose and with it sanctimonious politicians like Ted Cruz, who fought every Obama initiative even if it helped the working class Americans wearing tricorner hats and waving the Gadsden flag on the steps of the Capitol. Better access to health care, flawed as Obamacare was? That’s socialist; don’t tread on me. Higher taxes for the rich who enjoy among the lowest tax rates in the world and continually become more and more wealthy while the income gap widens? Also socialist; I might be rich, too, one day because rags-to-riches is the American Dream. Plus those are the job creators, so if you tax them more, they’ll just send the jobs away.

Wilson is a footnote in the story of our Cold Civil War, but an important one. Not only wasn’t he punished for his norm-busting performance on that September evening, he was embraced for it. He did what many tea-partiers and conservative whites had wanted to since they heard Obama speak for the first time: tell that smart-ass to fuck off. This is what Trump heard the first time he heard Obama speak, and he’s been telling him to fuck off in one way or another ever since.

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If Joe Wilson made many Americans’ own-the-libs fantasy of shouting down a liberal president come true one night, Trump has given them four years’ worth of that catharsis. Trump’s daily indignities handed out to liberals and culture war fear-mongering are chum in the water for conservative Americans. The problem is, as one of the authors of a recent scientific study on polarization said, that chum is making the sharks even more aggressive.

Noting that liberals and conservatives increasingly see each other as “morally bankrupt” thanks to political sectarianism that divides Americans on moral, and not policy-driven, lines, Eli J. Finkel told Scientific American that that moral viewpoint can cause a by-any-means-necessary mentality that poses a threat to the stability of democracy.

“And when you face a situation like that, is it acceptable to suppress the vote a little bit or to engage in some sort of political chicanery that isn’t really best for democracy? Well, when those are the stakes, of course,” Finkel said.

While Republicans are largely arguing that’s what Democrats have done with the election, that isn’t the case, as Georgia and its Republican leaders refuting Trump’s voter fraud claims, shows. 

So, we are left to witness stunning displays of desperation and cruelty as Trump’s time in office ends. Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr have ramped up executions of federal inmates — a practice not seen in decades and one that Joe Biden has said he’ll halt. The work of Trump, his lawyers, and sycophants in Congress and state legislatures to try to subvert the will of the people in their un-democratic attempt to overturn the results of an election that hurt the president’s feelings continued on Saturday, with Trump begging Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger to “find” 11,780 votes for the president — one more vote than the count by which he lost to Biden. 

Then there are the pardons. Mike Flynn is free and clear now, despite lying about his secret chats with a foreign government, the exact opposite of Trump’s supposed “America First” agenda. Roger Stone, an admitted dirty trickster who has been trying to subvert democracy for decades going back to his work with Richard Nixon, who he is obsessed with, is also free of his punishment for lying about communications with Wikileaks concerning stolen Democratic emails. Finally, for now, there is Chris Collins, the first member of Congress to endorse Trump for president and a millionaire who not only used his position as a lawmaker to try to help at least one of his companies, but violated federal law by engaging in insider trading from the White House lawn.

It’s obvious why Trump did this — because of Collins’ support at a time when a President Trump seemed like an impossibility — but that obviousness doesn’t make it any less troubling. Collins admitted to investigators that he had broken the law. He did so in the same nonchalant way that he told congressional ethics investigators about how he tried to get government scientists to help his company’s research on a groundbreaking multiple sclerosis drug that might have made his company billions of dollars. He admitted these things because he honestly didn’t believe he did anything wrong. He, like Trump, believes that laws, rules and norms are simply things that can be manipulated for personal benefit. Trump and Collins do so even as the people who vote for them are barred from that level of access and privilege. Those people vote for the Trumps and Collinses anyway, perhaps believing they’ll reach that status one day with enough hard work. Mostly, they are wrong.

Men like Trump and Collins expose the brilliance of the Republican strategy for securing working class support in the last 40 years. It isn’t that they’ve convinced blue collar Americans they can be rich — that’s a falsehood they’ve applied to themselves, famously encapsulated by John Steinbeck’s quote about the working class viewing themselves as “temporarily-embarrassed capitalists” — it’s that the GOP has distracted the working class from pocketbook issues with cultural ones. While Republicans have riled up the working class by driving fear of immigrants, degradation of the second amendment, abortion rights, and politically-correct culture, they’ve gamed society and the economy for their personal benefit, becoming richer and richer as most people become poorer or at best live off the same relative wages they did 40 years ago

To stay in power, Republicans — and some Democrats in very recent times — have had to radicalize their messaging and governing. But most of the radicalization is on the GOP side, which is how Democrats and the media become “the enemy of the people,” and how you get Republican members of Congress planning not to certify the results of the election on Wednesday as Trump himself works to cheat his way into a second term. There is no sweeping Democratic plan to take white America’s guns or open the floodgates to illegal immigrants; but the lack of that plan doesn’t matter when the other side has convinced their base it does exist — and it’s being put in motion.

All of this culture war fighting also takes place in the absence of any real policy debate, as Michael Grunwald pointed out in 2018. Grunwald explored how Americans on both sides of the right-left divide wage their own daily battles — rolling coal or driving a Prius, for instance. (Not satisfied with simply thumbing their noses at environmentally-conscious Americans, the top video on YouTube for rolling coal is a compilation of trucks spewing black exhaust fumes on Black Lives Matter protesters, “TrumpHaters and TreeHuggers.”)

Grunwald aptly described Trump as “a culture-war general firing up his internet troops. It wasn’t a real war, like the one that Trump skipped while John McCain paid an unimaginable price, but it made the spectators feel like they were not just spectating, like they had joined an exhilarating fight. They got the adrenaline rush, the sense of being part of something larger, the foxhole camaraderie of war against a common enemy, without the physical danger.”

When conservative America supports the decision to pardon white collar criminals with a level of wealth most Republican voters will never achieve simply because those felons were warriors for Trump, it’s worth considering what else they’re willing to do. Get behind an attempted coup to keep the White House in Trump’s hands? Yes. Launch domestic terror attacks because they believe they’ll prompt a hot second civil war? According to the FBI, possibly

But the biggest question may be whether this cold war actually turns into a hot one, or simply keeps flaring up after a bad police shooting, a right-wing terror attack, or a falsely questioned election. Much of that depends on what the “culture-war general” does in the coming weeks. With history as our guide, that will surely be fanning the flames instead of extinguishing them.

The photos in this post are mine, with the first one coming from Minneapolis in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. Everything else is from Sapelo Island, GA, where a group of slave descendants is fighting to hold onto their rightful land. (My wife is handling social media and PR for them.) I’ll be spending quite a bit of time there this summer to tell that complex and fascinating, but troubling, story. Thanks to all who continue to read this newsletter, and if you like what you see, pass it on to a friend.