Minority Rule, Part I: The New Civil War
America's next failure of imagination
First, welcome to Doomsday Scenario, my email newsletter and hub for the various magazine, book, podcast, and documentary work that I do.
Today, in the first half of my inaugural two-part essay, I wanted to write about the challenges on the ballot in next week’s midterm and reflect on the worrisome trajectory of American politics. Next week could be a catastrophe for our democracy, and I don’t think the US media has adequately raised that alarm.
Today I want to talk about how we’re living through a national failure of imagination, and then in the second part of the essay later this week, I’ll break down the 12 coordinated strategies the GOP is using to enshrine minority rule in the United States.
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Failure of Imagination
I’ve spent much of my reporting career focused on failures of imagination—foreseeable, even predictable, events that the government, intelligence, and society writ large downplayed, ignored, or overlooked. Whether it’s 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the Russian attack on the 2016 election, or the Covid-19 pandemic, warnings signs were there and they weren’t taken seriously; more recently, despite years of warnings of corruption and mishandled policies, the US watched in abject horror as the government and military in Afghanistan collapsed in a matter of hours.
I’ve wrestled in entire books to understand how US officials in the years leading up to 2001 failed to prioritize al-Qaeda and fighting Osama bin Laden, ignoring the warnings of people like FBI Special Agent John O’Neill, and how in the summer and fall of 2016 they wrestled to get their arms around the signs of an impending Russian information attack on the presidential election. I’ve traced the myriad—and sometimes highly specific—warnings over a quarter-century about the rising public health threat of a pandemic.
Most recently, I’ve spent the last two years writing a history of Watergate, thinking hard about presidential abuses of power and examining how from 1972 to 1974, political institutions worked to remove a corrupt and criminal president from office.
Now it seems clear to me what our next collective failure of imagination is: The GOP’s concerted and coordinated assault on American democracy. There is no more important political issue than the Republican Party’s turn away from shared democratic principles and its increasingly blatant and open embrace of authoritarianism and white minority rule. And while many writers and journalists are beginning to take this threat seriously, I remain concerned just a week before the midterms about how little the mainstream press is highlighting the reality of what our country faces.
Last Friday, the husband of Speaker of the House Paul Pelosi survived a brutal overnight assault in their San Francisco house — an event that was clearly meant to be an assassination attempt on Nancy Pelosi herself, and yet Saturday’s New York Times didn’t even put that story above the fold on its front page. The assailant was immediately recognizable—someone who had broadly embraced the conspiracy fever-swamp that has become the GOP media echo chamber. (I wrote about an earlier iteration of this assailant, who I’ve called “MAGA Patient Zero,” who targeted Democratic officials and pundits with pipe bombs in the days leading up to the 2018 midterm.)
Over the course of this same past weekend, we see armed “observers” watching polling dropboxes in Arizona, and sixteen masked Proud Boys protested a drag brunch show in North Carolina.
The rise of political violence—and particularly threats of political violence as part of the GOP’s core message—is new and should be more shocking to American politics. Threats against lawmakers have risen exponentially since Donald Trump was first elected as president.
And yet, as many noted over the weekend, the rank-and-file GOP is quiet about such acts—or worse. In fact, as Punchbowl News noted in an item headlined “GOP's toxic reaction to Pelosi attack,” many Republican election officials actually reacted to the assault by making fun of it or winking and nodding. And of course Donald Trump was silent about it.
This isn’t normal and we shouldn’t let it become our new norm.
The New Civil War
I’ve argued for the last year that we misunderstand what a “new” civil war might look like—imagining it has to look like the “old” Civil War, beginning with earnest men meeting in major cities and state capitals to draft formal articles of succession and new state constitutions, members of Congress walking out of the Capitol as their states vote to leave the union, uniformed armies forming.
That’s not what the next civil war would necessarily look like. We may not see whole states “secede” so much as we see something akin to a national Shay’s Rebellion or Whiskey Rebellion, with certain potentially localized segments of the population and political factions taking up armed resistance to federal authorities. It’s likely less about organized armies and more about a low-level but consistent insurgency—not unlike what we’ve seen in Iraq, Afghanistan, or even Northern Ireland.
In fact, it seems likely that the US media would have a better understanding of how to cover this past year of American politics if it happened in another country. It’s not hard to imagine a dashing, hard-nosed, foreign correspondent—someone wearing cargo pants, a helmet, and a blue bulletproof vest labeled PRESS—dashing off a summary of the last two years in US politics like this from a far-flung corner of the world:
The incumbent president, defeated overwhelmingly at the polls and after failing to coerce regional apparatchiks to overturn their unfavorable election results, encouraged his supporters to storm and seize the Parliament to allow him to stay in office; the president’s supporters were repulsed by security services who remained loyal to the new incoming leader, leading the defeated candidate to hand over power and retreat to a palatial compound in a distant corner of the country that’s overseen by a friendly regional governor. From his internal exile, he continues to issue regular statements through dedicated opposition media channels encouraging his supporters to stay strong, questions the legitimacy of the current regime and the criminal investigations into his behavior while in office, and touts his own future return to power.
Members of the defeated candidate’s opposition party, meanwhile, make regular pilgrimages to his compound for consultations and compete for his backing in regional elections, while supporters across the country flock to arm themselves and form local paramilitary militias, attempt to seize control of local government apparatuses, and generally refuse to obey mandates and orders from the central federal government. Loyal opposition media spreads conspiracy theories about the federal government and demands public allegiance to the deposed president’s lies from would-be party leaders; elected officials who fail the allegiance tests are purged—stripped of their party rank and official privileges in Parliament.
Would-be separatist foot soldiers—largely concentrated in the economically deprived rural and southern regions and whose ranks are made up overwhelmingly of the country’s shrinking racial and religious white Christian majority adopt a distinctive red uniform in homage to their deposed opposition leader and fly flags and hold regular armed marches with banners touting their chosen leader. Regional governors who side with the ousted president attempt to create new loyal police forces and state militias, while loyal oligarchs anonymously bankroll opposition candidates in key elections. Opposition media publish enemy lists and openly encourage violence against regime leaders; federal security and intelligence services regularly interdict assassination and kidnapping plots by organized white nationalist paramilitary groups and lone operators targeting regime officials, while military leaders, worried about the loyalty of their own forces, attempt crackdowns on white nationalist elements inside the federal force.
Regional legislatures loyal to the deposed president persecute racial, religious, and ethnic minorities, and pass new edicts attempting to ban racial minorities from participating in elections and prohibiting education about their culture and history of oppression. Street clashes erupt in urban regime strongholds around the country between regime backers and opposition separatists; opposition forces killed in such clashes are celebrated as martyrs, while those who kill regime backers are venerated as movement heroes, paraded before opposition crowds, and openly hosted by opposition leaders. In rural opposition party strongholds, local police organs resist federal authority and pledge allegiance to the ousted president.
Reading a dispatch like that about another country, the political arc and worrisome direction would be very clear: This is surely what the early stages of a new civil war might very well look like; certainly there’s an insurgency underway.
The reason for the GOP’s sudden turn is clear: Put simply, the Republican Party understands that it increasingly cannot win free and fair national elections, and it’s doing everything it can across the country to undermine them going forward and lock in its ability to rule even as its voter base shrinks. Nationally, it is trying to do everything it can to resist (or avoid) the arrival of a younger, more diverse, more socially tolerant, urban nation. This trend isn’t new (in fact, this dilemma was the core of my first book, more than a dozen years ago, about how globalization and technology would reshape the 2008 presidential race) and in many ways, the radicalization of the GOP began in the era of Richard Nixon and the “Southern Strategy” a half-century ago.
Later this week, I’ll send you the second half of this essay, looking at the 12 coordinated and interlocking strategies the GOP is using to enshrine this minority rule.
I hope you’ll sign-up and keep reading — and if you like this, share it with your friends and colleagues and encourage them to subscribe too….
PS: Two reading and listening recommendations from the random tabs currently open on my computer:
1) This James Fallows essay about the media and this moment in our democracy. Jim is an incredible thinker, and I recommend his Substack if you’ve never read it.
2) Ed Caesar wrote a really fascinating article this fall about Solomun, the top DJ in Ibiza, which inspired me to start listening to some of Solomun’s mixes as part of my background music for writing. If you like that kind of music, here’s a five-hour mix.
PPS: If you’re in or around Austin, I’ll be speaking about WATERGATE on Sunday at the Texas Book Festival, 12:45 p.m. at the Kirkus Reviews Tent (Congress and 11th Street). It’s a great, star-powered lineup for the weekend and I’m particularly excited to meet Mary Laura Philpott, whose book of essays, BOMB SHELTER, is one of my favorites of the year.
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