Danger from afar
America doesn’t need to be reminded we’re on the brink of civil war. We need to be reminded of our “oughts” and who are neighbors really are.
A Christian was hiking in the woods one day and stumbled upon a large, hungry, and ferocious bear. Clearly recognizing that he could not outrun or escape the charging bear, in panic the Christian ran anyway, and the bear gave chase. The hiker finally reached a cliff, and in desperation, dropped to his knees and prayed “Lord, make this bear a good Christian bear.”
Amazingly, the bear stopped in his tracks, sat down on his haunches, and folded his massive paws together in prayer. The awestruck hiker exclaimed “thank you, Lord!” “Thank you, Lord,” the bear replied, “for this meal I am about to receive.”
Animals don’t think in terms of what they “should” do or in the larger sense of what “ought” to be done. A chicken might “fall in love” with a farm hand, and follow that person around the yard with undying devotion. Family dogs (even cats!) might display an incredible amount of nobility and care for their owners. But these behaviors lack the thought behind a larger sense of societal moral boundaries. With a stranger on a hungry day, your pet leopard would happily call a visitor to your home “lunch.”
God’s greatest carnal gift to mankind is the ability to think in a moral framework. That moral framework has, over the last millennium given us many experiments and methods of government. These have always begun with the strongest tribe taking power through force. Then, over time, the passing of that power (normally down filial paths) evolved into a nobility and even the concept of “noblesse oblige.”
For many centuries, the primary form of government among humanity was some form of royalty. With the exception of the Roman republic, which was not by any stretch democratic, the reins of power were firmly in the hands of kings, emperors, and those whose position, innate intelligence, and wealth allowed them to raise armies and go out conquering (and many times, ending up conquered).
Ancient Greeks flirted with democracy, but more as a philosophical experiment than actually trying to create an enduring democratic system. In fact, one of the main prerequisites for exercising the rights of citizenship (and having a voice) was being informed in participatory civics in the community. Since there were no iPhones, factories, or Mercedes Benz S-class cars in the ancient world, that meant having sufficient labor available to free you from the daily grind of, well, subsistence. This in turn meant owning slaves, and probably lots of them.
Chattel slavery, meaning one person owning another as property, was common to the point of ubiquitous in ancient Athens. While the Athenians banned debt slavery, they prided themselves on raiding other city-states and returning with lots of biological booty. Slaves were also acquired through old fashioned kidnapping, that is, piracy, when the ransom demanded was not paid. Though some slaves could earn their way out of their condition, most of the time this arrangement resulted in a permanent sharecropping situation.
I was quite interested in Jonah Goldberg’s latest G-File about what he called the “idiocracy,” based on the ancient Greeks’ word for people who didn’t study politics and civic life: idiots, he wrote.
Now, they didn’t mean morons. They meant people just a notch above barbarians who didn’t care about civility. The idiot, explained John Courtney Murray, “does not possess the public philosophy, the man who is not master of the knowledge and the skills that underlie the life of the civilized city. The idiot, to the Greek, was just one stage removed from the barbarian. He is the man who is ignorant of the meaning of the word ‘civility.’”
Goldberg had some fun substituting “idiot” for “proletariat” in The Communist Manifesto, noting that Marx came upon the latter word from Roman law, where proletarii meant a class of free citizens who worked for a living but did not have the property (i.e. slaves) or status to devote to politics. The Greeks called these idiots, but they really meant “non-slave owners who had to spend their days working not to starve,” because only the wealthy could spend leisure hours studying philosophy and learning law.
Though it’s fun to read “Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The idiots have nothing to lose but their chains,” the more historically accurate word in a Marxist search-and-replace target might be “slaves.” Sadly for Jonah, that would tend to spoil his joke.
A month ago my family and I took a road trip vacation to the Granite State. On the way home, we planned our drive through Cape May, New Jersey, which you who consult Google or have taken high school geography know, dead-ends into Chesapeake Bay. But just like when Waze secretly tried to route my Subaru to the Lewes, Delaware side of the Cape May-Lewes Ferry when I stopped for gas at the James Fenimore Cooper Service Area on the New Jersey Turnpike, the beginning of this article has been a very roundabout way for me to get to where I was going.
The United States was the first nation founded on the three-legged principles of pluralism, democracy, and republicanism (small “r”). Other democracies, like Switzerland, relied on strict control of ethnic demographics, and had a large reserve army (the whole country) to back it up. The British Empire, while somewhat pluralistic and definitely democratic at home, sat on a rather large and oppressed colonial empire to provide goods and services to the privileged who lived on the island and therefore had direct representation in parliament.
The birth of the U.S. as both a home to immigrants, and a nation that eschewed the structure and trappings of a conquering empire, while implementing structural democratic institutions, was a watershed moment in world government history. Of course, over time, Americans yielded to the expansion impulse, many times at the cost of moral obligations to the indigenous people who got the shaft. And then, oh yes, there was slavery.
I’d love to sit down and chat about the last two hundred forty years, unscrew a box of Cab Sav, and debate the moral adequacy of each era of American history. But I lack both the time and the bad wine for such a discussion. So for now, let’s focus on the moral framework that has given the American form and structure of government its long tenure.
Judeo-Christian morality and law, as opposed to rahui practices by the Polynesian islanders, where you would certainly be beaten to death for entering the chief’s hut through the wrong door, rely on the strong meaning of “ought” as in “I ought to treat others as I wish to be treated.” For example, we “ought” not overthrow the government of the United States for a variety of reasons, a list so vast that it’s far easier to simply list the one reason where it might be considered. (That being the government has been suborned by a tyrant.)
Many people are beginning to believe that we’re on a train heading for that very situation, and the train is accelerating. David French wrote about “a whiff of civil war in the air,” citing Robert Kagan’s editorial headlined “Our constitutional crisis is already here” in The Washington Post as “one of the most important essays of the year.”
I’ve read essays like Kagan’s before, usually from such people as Bill Kristol, Max Boot or the like who have permanently made themselves fixtures in the anti-Trump universe. Trump was the closest thing to a tyrant we’ve ever had, they write, through a paper bag, as if a keyboard could hyperventilate (it would). Here’s an example:
What makes the Trump movement historically unique is not its passions and paranoias. It is the fact that for millions of Americans, Trump himself is the response to their fears and resentments. This is a stronger bond between leader and followers than anything seen before in U.S. political movements.
Besides the fact that it’s historically wrong—Kagan needs to read up on Franklin Pierce—the statement is counterfactual nonsense and can’t be proven. The age of celebrity, the rise of the Internet and social media, and a few other factors are much bigger drivers of the Trump phenomenon than the man’s own febrile personality. Kagan’s essay is the equivalent of more anti-Trump fan fiction, except for the one paragraph that French seized upon.
The banal normalcy of the great majority of Trump’s supporters, including those who went to the Capitol on Jan. 6, has befuddled many observers. Although private militia groups and white supremacists played a part in the attack, 90 percent of those arrested or charged had no ties to such groups. The majority were middle-class and middle-aged; 40 percent were business owners or white-collar workers. They came mostly from purple, not red, counties.
First, let me get this out of the way. I object to the words “banal normalcy” in this context. Those words have been used too many times in the context of Nazis and Hitler to ignore; they are almost a dog whistle violation of Godwin’s Law. But getting past that minor transgression, I believe Kagan is correct.
“Most Trump supporters are good parents, good neighbors and solid members of their communities,” is objectively true. “But these are normal people in the sense that they think and act as people have for centuries.”
They put their trust in family, tribe, religion and race. Although zealous in defense of their own rights and freedoms, they are less concerned about the rights and freedoms of those who are not like them.”
There’s the key right there, and that’s what I want to discuss after what amounted to a very long preamble. In a pluralistic society like the U.S., the phrase “not like them” is a red flag when used by someone claiming to speak for everyone “not them.” French joins in the “them” dogpile, adding that “they are absolutely, positively, pass-a-polygraph convinced that they’re saving democracy, not destroying it.”
French seems to include the Republican legislatures, including Georgia’s, that pursued election reform in the wake of the 2020 pandemic election. The sentiment seems to be “how can they do this in the wake of January 6th?”
Even if they’re not convinced of the Kraken-style massive fraud theory, they’re convinced that the 2020 election was “rigged” by Big Tech and Democrats colluding to change the rules and then suppress Trumpist speech (never mind that virtually every act of Twitter censorship only worked to amplify the censored speech, making it a topic of endless conversation on right-wing media).
I don’t think the election itself was “rigged” in any way. But the Democrats did everything they could to rig the media coverage in their favor. They did in fact cover up the Hunter Biden story, calling it a Russian disinformation campaign, when it was anything but. The media ran interference for Joe Biden, who called a media lid at 9 a.m. almost every day, for months. They allowed Trump to bloviate and non-sequitur his way to a loss, while Trump’s own predictions about the many judicial-fiat changes to various state elections did in fact come to pass.
To be sure, I warned again and again in the run-up to November 3rd, that federal and state judges were mandating practices and procedures in elections, especially in Georgia and Wisconsin, for which the election law, the election supervisors, and the trained personnel had no procedures. There was literally no way for Georgia or Wisconsin mail-in ballots to be vetted by postmark when the security envelopes on those ballots were required to be removed and separated from the ballots themselves. No audit tail or process existed at the time to vouchsafe or secure the ballots prior to checking postmark date, because the law was that ballots received after poll closing time on November 3rd would be invalid.
If the election wasn’t close, such trivial things would not matter, but when Georgia was close for three days, until the last absentee ballots were counted, every jot and tittle began to matter. The judges injected uncertainty into the process, and although the evidence at hand does not bear out changing the result, or even approach that bar, the uncertainty that Trump predicted was sowed and we now have the fully grown crop. To say it was all Trump-engineered conspiracy to overthrow the election is to say that Trump knew he’d lose, in fact guaranteed his own loss, in order to try to overthrow his own government and become dictator.
To me, that’s such a silly premise, because it presumes Trump to be some kind of political genius, a Machiavelli clone mixed with Rasputin and Stalin’s DNA. The same people who presume this kind of conspiracy also believe that Trump is a below-average IQ dunce incapable of understanding the nuances of the government he ran, or how to deal with other world leaders. I’d be okay arguing for or against one or the other, but it’s bad faith to try to get me to accept both as true, but only the bad parts.
Still, the fact that Georgia pursued a fairly balanced and well-rounded election reform bill is not reason to vilify them as trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist, to “stop the steal” in the future, so to speak. There’s no dark conspiracy that many states took the step to remove some power from secretaries of state to return those privileges directly to the legislatures. Yes, if that had been the law before 2020’s election, perhaps some legislatures might have convened to look at fraud allegations made by Trump lawyers. It’s a huge step beyond this to presume that the legislatures would have overturned the election based on Trump’s command from the White House.
The same “they” talk pervades the presumption of GOP complicity in some kind of party-wide trance with Trump as the hypnotist. Kagan wrote “about these things there is no doubt:”
First, Donald Trump will be the Republican candidate for president in 2024. The hope and expectation that he would fade in visibility and influence have been delusional. He enjoys mammoth leads in the polls; he is building a massive campaign war chest; and at this moment the Democratic ticket looks vulnerable. Barring health problems, he is running.
Second, Trump and his Republican allies are actively preparing to ensure his victory by whatever means necessary. Trump’s charges of fraud in the 2020 election are now primarily aimed at establishing the predicate to challenge future election results that do not go his way. Some Republican candidates have already begun preparing to declare fraud in 2022, just as Larry Elder tried meekly to do in the California recall contest.
In fairness, based on his other statements and work, I don’t think David French accepts the inevitability of those events. I certainly don’t, even if Trump and some of the clowns following his every bowel movement using their olfactory organ, in Congress like Reps. Madison Cawthorne, Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene would burn down the Capitol like the Reichstag fire to put their man in the driver’s seat. Trump’s core support is no larger than it was in 2016, and is likely smaller.
Yes, it’s true: The kind of people who breathlessly tuned in to MyPillow chief Mike Lindell’s “Kraken” three day conspiracy teaser (with nothing produced), would lay down in traffic for Trump. But the average 2020 Trump voter is more of the “banal normalcy” variety, and that voter has plenty to hold against the elites who stare down their noses and utter newfound facts about “them.”
Here’s the problem, and on this I largely agree with French, but not in scale or urgency. In fact, I think the chief problem is that the anti-Trump folks and the crisis mongers on the left, in the media, and in the Biden administration want to make this an enormous dividing point when it’s really a failure of messaging. French noted that on policy, most Democrats and Republicans agree in big swaths of the center in fiscal, social and diplomatic areas. But each side is hearing that the other is operating in bad faith, when in fact both extremes are operating in bad faith.
A little bit of acknowledgement of this fact, from the left and from the right, that their own folks are pouring gasoline on the fire, not just “them” doing it, would go a lot further than many whose perspective is based on their own personal experience.
In other words, we “ought” to be nicer to everyone while pulling the big splinter out of our own side’s eye before focusing on the speck in the other side’s. The other problem is that the Very Online people on both sides are artificially magnifying the size of the problem.
Let me cite an example here of the Sentinelese people, who live in near-total isolation on North Sentinel island off the coast of India. Most times when uninvited outsiders arrive, they are greeted with flying arrows and certain death. Some historians say Marco Polo referred to them in his diary around 1296, as cannibals, “a most brutish and savage race, having heads, eyes, and teeth like those of dog.” The historians add that there’s no evidence the Sentinelese are cannibals.
Anyone who approaches North Sentinel island, however, is a “them” as in “not one of us.” The rule Kagan used to describe Trump voters applies just as well here: “they are less concerned about the rights and freedoms of those who are not like them.” And another thing, the 80-20 rule, or let’s call it the 90-10 rule. I’m sure the entire tribe does not show up, men, women and children alike, on the shore when interlopers arrive. I’m sure that the entire tribe is not shooting arrows and slitting throats of visitors.
In fact, given my own beliefs about the innate nature of mankind, and God’s gift to us as a species, guarantees that at least one Sentinelese is thinking “we ought not to shoot arrows at visitors who haven’t shot arrows at us.” Whether this lone dissenter has managed to convince anyone, or if the dissenter has been the victim of other islanders’ arrows is something we don’t know. I do believe that maybe 10 to 20 percent of the islanders are the ones out there shooting arrows at boats that come too close, however. The other 80 to 90 percent are the “banal normalcy” variety Sentinelese, who are in turn grateful that someone is protecting their little enclave, and at times wary of the motives of the militant protectors.
Why do I bring this up? Because not all Trump voters are the ones out there going to “Stop the Steal” rallies. Not all Trump voters are worthy of investigation into their ownership of firearms, or their affiliation with government entities, or their social media posts. It only takes a few dozen bad actors on Twitter to mess with someone and issue threats. Having not received any myself, I can only imagine how disorienting and difficult it would be for someone like David French, who has been on the receiving end of many, including some very believable death threats and threats of violence against his family. Those experiences would shake anyone and alter their perception of threats.
But let’s say that it’s 2024, and Republicans, led by not a few Trump-friendly politicians like Josh Hawley or J.D. Vance, or even Herschel Walker, have taken back both the House and the Senate, and let’s further assume that Trump decided to run. We know Trump still has de facto financial control of the RNC’s fundraising. We know that Trump still has an outsized media voice. What we don't know is exactly how he’d do in primaries.
Given the polling data today, it seems like Trump would run away with the nomination, but as many Democrats are screeching about 2022 midterms, “it’s still a long way away.” I think there will be plenty of useful options besides Trump in 2024, and that Trump, with his low base support, is far from a shoe-in. Is Trump going to claim that every primary election is a conspiracy and “rigged?” Really? Maybe he will, but he won’t be believed, not by the “banal normalcy” folks at least.
Today, Trump is still a draw at rallies, mostly because he surrounds himself with 2022 slates, and in Georgia, he’s a draw because, well, he’s Trump, and because many Georgia Republicans are angry at Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. They may not have a lot of reason to be angry, but they are. I don’t think it will significantly harm Kemp’s campaign, but it might harm Raffensperger’s. Those two figures do more to make the Trump Georgia phenomenon look more dangerous than it is. In this I mean it’s not “civil war” dangerous, but it’s more “death of the GOP” dangerous.
Folks like David French and Robert Kagan, and a larger number of journalists, pundits and government officials think the GOP as it’s currently constructed, along with the number of people who listen to Trump, is “civil war dangerous.” That belief in itself makes the danger real.
Politibunny is right—and wrong. The fact that people didn’t bring their weapons with them is proof that many of those people didn’t think the weapons would be necessary, not that they wouldn’t have brought them had they thought they were necessary. If there is a “next time” to January 6th, one thing is certain: there will be more weapons, on both sides. If that’s not troubling to you, you’re reading the tea leaves all wrong.
Let’s now look at a disturbing question I saw on Quora. While I can’t find the exact post, it was along the lines of “Would U.S. military troops fire on U.S. citizens on American soil?” Many answers were “it depends,” with a bunch of “but Posse Comitatus!” entries and not a few “of course, look at Kent State.” The answer that got my attention the most was from someone whose credentials included a career in the U.S. Army.
His point was that most soldiers are not the ones you see portrayed on television and in movies: mature, older men carrying lots of razzle dazzle and weaponry. They are instead 18 and 19-year-old kids wearing one stripe, with Specialists and E-5 Sergeants running things. These Privates and PFCs are trained up to follow orders, and they are also inculcated in the military’s cadence, fellowship and briefing methods.
This soldier wrote how the briefing would go. The “them” in the briefing would be whatever rioters or insurrectionists who gathered in whatever city the military was called out to restore peace. The “them” would be described as armed, and willing to engage, having either subverted or defeated the local law enforcement authorities. The “us” would be the squad, platoon, company and battalion operating in an unfriendly environment. The rules of engagement would be set, and if any incoming fire was taken, return fire would be authorized.
The whole point is that the soldiers are the “us,” and whatever city they were deployed to is likely a place these kids had never been and don’t know anyone from. The “them” might as well be in Mogadishu as in a suburb of Cleveland. And if the U.S. Army shows up, whatever group is “them” is in a world of hurt. I’ve always told some preppers I met that all their countermeasures, careful preparation, and insane amounts of ordinance are wonderful in every scenario except the one where the Bradley Fighting Vehicle rumbles down their road, with its Bushmaster M242 chain gun pointed at their redoubt. When that happens, they lose, period.
Sure, you can say that maybe some of the soldiers themselves are sympathetic to Trump or are supporters themselves. But don’t you think before any president invokes the Insurrection Act to deploy regular Army or federalized National Guard troops onto U.S. soil against American citizens, that they haven’t figured out who they need to leave behind? Do you think a soldier who was a known KKK sympathizer got sent to Mississippi or Alabama in 1962?
Further, the Insurrection Act is the one exception to Posse Comitatus. Section 333 of the Act gives presidents the authority to deploy troops to states without the consent or permission of the state government. That section was amended following Hurricane Katrina, and President G.W. Bush’s use of troops in Louisiana, but always interpreted as:
Section 333, the primary portion of the Act amended in October 2006, permits the President, without a request from a State, to authorize the armed forces to suppress insurrection, domestic violence, unlawful combination, or conspiracy in a State under certain conditions. Under the pre-amendment version of the Act, these conditions are twofold. First, where the insurrection, domestic violence, unlawful combination, or conspiracy hinders the execution of the laws of a State and the laws of the United States to the point where the people are deprived of a right, privilege or immunity, or other named constitutional right, and where the authorities of the State fail, or are unable to protect that right, privilege or immunity, the President may use the military to suppress the insurrection, domestic violence, unlawful combination, or conspiracy. Second, where the insurrection, domestic violence, unlawful combination, or conspiracy opposes or obstructs the execution of the laws of the United States, the President may employ the military to suppress it.
In 2024, should Trumpist conspiracy flingers begin to organize mass protests over primary results, that would certainly fall within the federal government’s power, and the president’s authority, to use the Insurrection Act to enforce the law and suppress the activities of the conspirators. But what if the conspirators are the Republican Party itself? Would President Biden need to order the “loyal opposition” to disperse, because “opposition” itself is deemed disloyal?
Would the Republican Party itself be outlawed and declared an insurrectionist institution? It seems, in order to use the Insurrection Act, Biden would need to take that step.
Finally, section 334 requires the President to issue a proclamation ordering the “insurgents or those obstructing the enforcement of the laws to disperse and retire peaceably to their abodes within a limited time.
At the least, Biden would have to proclaim that a particular rally, a “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, D.C., for instance, is an act of insurrection and therefore anyone who shows up would be subject to, in essence, martial law.
To say that these scenarios are dark and inflammatory is an enormous understatement. But the “whiff of civil war” is where that wind is heading. See, it’s not a civil war in the sense of neighbor taking up arms against neighbor. The “oughts” for sure win in that case. Even if my neighbor had a “Biden/Harris” yard sign, bumper sticker, and a “Bye, Donald” flag on their house, I would never consider my neighbor a “them.” I think most folks are in the 80-90 percent like the Sentinelese, and feel the same way. The troublemakers on both sides are the ones we need to worry about, and most of those people aren’t “from around here.”
Unfortunately, the Democrats have always been much better about busing in thousands of supporters, many of them paid, to create a “demonstration” or “riot” out of nothing. I saw what happened at Trump’s inauguration in 2017. I saw the camera crews being set up just minutes before the window-breaking, limo-burning episode. I saw the anti-Trump crowds milling about waiting for the camera to be ready and some of the leaders giving tips to the crews about the best places to set up to see the action. I saw that with my own eyes walking back to the Metro from the National Mall. Then when I got to the hotel, I saw the broken windows and burning limos on television at the same spot I had walked through, just like it was planned.
Contrast this with the “Stop the Steal” rally. Trump and other remoras who set up the rally didn’t pay the crowd to come. They didn’t tell the camera crews where to set up. They didn’t engineer the riot in that sense. They spun up the crowd, got them moving, walking to the Capitol. The 10 percent troublemakers knew what they wanted to do, and the 90 percenters got sucked in, or believed they were part of some movement. Only when the FBI showed up later or they saw the television coverage did they realize their folly. Most never realized how close they came to being massacred. Those people—the 90 percent—on January 6th, were “them,” and the federal officers protecting the Senators were “us.”
When the danger is at a great distance, it’s easy to set aside the “ought” and proceed with the shootings. We can say “federal officers ought not to shoot unarmed citizens on the U.S. Capitol grounds” all day long and be right, but in the certain circumstances, it’s no longer about right or “ought.” It’s about “us” and “them.”
With the right messaging, say, asking for an oath of allegiance from the 1/6 rioters who didn’t damage property or commit acts of violence, which is 90 percent of them, in exchange for a dismissal without prejudice (meaning charges can be reinstated under certain conditions), I think we can move toward reconciliation and away from the “us” and “them” narrative that is so pervasive today.
America needs to get back to the “oughts” and neighborly conduct. We need to stop, from the only place that’s directly accountable to voters, the government, the “them” rhetoric. As for biased, conservative or liberal media in the extremes, this language is not going to go away—I get that. But I don’t think the Very Online or only OANN crowd is enough to create a civil war. These are people who get paid to go on television, or get paid to make Youtube videos, or get paid to sell advertising through eyeballs on a website, or ears on a podcast. They’ll say or print anything that brings in the cash.
We can’t keep turning the government into “us” and “them” or we will lose our nation’s ability to govern. The whole scenario about insurrections, the Insurrection Act, and the Bradley rumbling down your street will go from a fan fiction fantasy on the left (with Trump taking over the military as a fascist dictator) or the right (with Biden ordering it and declaring the GOP to be an outlaw party), to a more and more certain outcome, at some place, with some people, who are going to die at the hands of other Americans. That would be a very great tragedy.
It would be a bigger tragedy than 1/6 and all the fallout from it. America doesn’t need to be reminded we’re on the brink of civil war. We need to be reminded of our “oughts” and who are neighbors really are. Because there is no “them.” We’re truly all in this together, or none of us are in it at all.
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