Why Does the GOP Want a Second Civil War So Badly?

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Members of an armed militia group arrive near the Virginia Capitol building to advocate for gun rights in Richmond on Monday, Jan. 20, 2020. Stephanie Keith / Reuters

A decade ago, CNBC’s Rick Santelli launched the Tea Party movement with a cry of “Can you hear me now, Mr. President?” from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. That was the era of tri-corner hats, contrived 18th-century verbiage, occasional Obama-hanging-in-effigy displays, and deep concerns about the national debt that turned out to be completely insincere. There were guns, and there were militias, to be sure, but the general tone was “Take our country back.” Granted, they usually left it vague as to who they were taking it back from because conservatives back then still said the quiet part quietly, but it was pitched as a restoration — to the good old days when Those People knew their place.

Now, segments of the GOP has descended to pushing for a second Civil War. They want destruction.

Town Hall columnist Kurt Schlichter wrote a column yesterday all but goading Democrats to “man up” and overthrow the government he claims they hate so much. (Link if you must.) Here’s the opening graf, which comes in … a little hot:

I want to know why you Democrats are such cowards that you have not yet launched another civil war to free America of the totalitarian nightmare of President Donald J. Trump. I mean, if he’s truly Hitler 2: Electric Boogeyman, then isn’t it your sacred duty to remove this cancer on our body politic with arms if necessary? Look, I get that you Dems have a track record on insurrections designed to oppress the rights of Americans you feel superior to that is pretty poor (0-1) but come on, heroes of democracy, make your move! Just sitting here in the midst of this crisis you keep whining about makes you look like sissies or lying piles of talking garbage.

Mmmkay, so it’s usually best not to take the bait on these things. But this isn’t just some loner outrage addict spoiling for hate-clicks. He’s previously fantasized about a civil war that starts with an attack on the Bay Area, in fact. And it’s part of a bigger strategy, just like that show of force in Richmond last week. The one-time Confederate capital is now home to a Democratically controlled legislature that’s been on a progressive tear, passing legislation on gun safety and LGBTQ rights and even becoming the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. (Whether that’s valid decades after its supposed cut-off point is a separate debate, however.)

It’s related to Dana Loesch’s videos for NRATV calling for armed insurrection — until the NRA’s implosion last year took her platform away.

It’s related to the president’s spiritual adviser calling for thetermination of all satanic pregnancies— a truly bizarre rhetorical move that seems to give evangelical prayer warriors a Scriptural basis for determining who may reproduce.

It’s related to the conservative outcry over the impending sale of Trump’s D.C. hotel, a Washington safe space that served as a symbolic beachhead in enemy terrain.

Charlottesville ‘Unite the Right’ rally. 2017

The MAGA brigades are mostly cosplayers, of course. The angry white people at Trump rallies who some journalists simply cannot stop themselves from interviewing against all better judgment are mostly hot air and bluster. But sometimes they’re not. And they want liberals to shoot the proverbial Archduke Ferdinand to get the party started. That way they can rally the faithful in a campaign of extermination against the people who infest this country — a favorite Trump term — causing it to rot from within. 

In the absence of mass bloodshed, here’s another frustrating element to this. Genuinely conservative Republicans like Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee — not a household name, but bear with me — have suddenly become “moderates” because they occasionally make faint noises about breaking with Trump over impeachment to uphold the rule of law instead. Any day now, Mitt Romney may be crowned a moderate, too, just as Sen. John McCain got a posthumous upgrade from maverick to saint.

Conservatives never stay conservative for long, because all this Civil War 2.0 cheerleading acts as a pipeline to deliver new crazies to the scene. That might be the point, actually: not encouraging liberals to take up arms, but holding conservatives’ feet to the fire so that they live in terror of being primaried from the right.

The New York Times, contrasting House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy with former Speaker Paul Ryan last week, claimed that a decade ago they were part of a “young, hip, fit” brand of new Republicans. That characterization was meant by way of mild criticism over the way McCarthy has transformed into a toadying Trump lieutenant, but the idea that this Paul Ryan was ever hip even by Congressional standards defies belief. Was it because he listens to Rage Against the Machine? Well, Tom Morello had some words about that.

Ultimately, the tendency to retcon the previous generation’s arch-conservatives as secret centrists is not only dishonest but dangerous. It’s like the activated charcoal of American politics: a lie that promises to filter out toxins but actually makes things worse. Under the next Republican president, when white-supremacist militias openly occupy rural courthouses and abortion is a capital crime, they’ll be eulogizing those lost days of innocence under Donald Trump.

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Peter-Astrid Kane

Peter-Astrid Kane

Peter-Astrid Kane (they/them) is the Communications Manager for San Francisco Pride and a former editor of SF Weekly.