When it comes to prognostication, my favorite philosopher has always been the eminent Lawrence Peter Berra. “It’s tough to make predictions,” Yogi famously said, “especially about the future.”
For all his baseball genius, Yogi came by his skepticism honestly. He spent three years managing the New York Mets – enough to make anybody leery about expressing confidence for next year.
Nevertheless, here goes: Regarding American politics, most of this loose talk about an impending civil war is just that: talk. Organized, armed militias running around the countryside attacking political enemies? Not going to happen. Of course there will be violence. This is, after all, the United States of America, where there are cranks and loons of every kind and description armed with guns and explosives.
Terrorism, maybe. After all, it was no less an eminence than Thomas Jefferson who wrote, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Oklahoma City terrorist Timothy McVeigh had the phrase emblazoned on his T-shirt when he was arrested. McVeigh imagined that murdering 168 fellow citizens with a truck bomb would spark civil war. Instead, he was tried, convicted and executed in 2001.
For the record, Jefferson penned the unfortunate phrase in France, a slave-owning aristocrat playing revolutionary at Paris dinner parties. He wrote regarding Shay’s Rebellion, a 1787 anti-tax uprising in Massachusetts, which his fellow Virginian George Washington believed demonstrated the need for a strong national government. At the subsequent Constitutional Convention (which Jefferson did not attend), Washington’s views prevailed. As president, he sent soldiers to put down the Pennsylvania “Whiskey Rebellion” with prejudice.
Following his own presidency, Jefferson founded the University of Virginia and designed its staggeringly beautiful campus: a living monument to stability, order and Jefferson himself. One of the most appalling things about the “Unite the Right” torchlight parade there in 2017 was its desecration of “Mr. Jefferson’s university,” as Virginians call it. But you couldn’t expect a barbarian like Donald Trump to understand that.
But I digress. The main reason there’s so much loose talk about civil war is the publication of recent polls showing that strong majorities of Republicans continue to believe that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” from the aforementioned Boss Trump. Meanwhile, the latest Washington Post-University of Maryland poll shows that the “percentage of Americans who say violent action against the government is justified at times stands at 34%.” (Forty percent of Republicans vs. 23% of Democrats.)
That and similar surveys show that between 58% and 71% of Republicans tell pollsters that Trump was the actual winner of an election he lost thunderously, making Joe Biden an illegitimate president.
It bears mentioning that contrary to the usual 50-50 framing, Republicans represent nowhere close to half of the electorate. One-quarter is more like it. Looking at it that way brings the actual proportion of the sorehead minority down to something like half the headline number saying somebody needs to kick ass to bring back the glorious reign of the old p***y grabber.
It doesn’t say how many are prepared to drop the remote, clamber out of the recliner, and take up arms whenever Tucker Carlson says it’s time. Given the advanced age of the Fox News demographic, I’m confident the great majority of would-be warriors – like Trump himself – mean to follow the action on TV.
“The thing that’s most concerning is that [this false belief] has endured in the face of all evidence,” says Rep. Adam Kinzinger, one of two honorable Republicans in Congress (the other being Liz Cheney). “And I’ve gotten to wonder if there is actually any evidence that would ever change certain people’s minds.”
The answer is almost certainly not. After all, this is pretty much the same demographic that has resisted science and medicine amid a pandemic. Indeed, many are now angry with Trump for boasting about the very vaccines that they’ve risked their children’s lives resisting. They’re about to have a rough few weeks. Swallowing his election lies is risk-free and easy by comparison.
There are also signs of waning certitude. The same Washington Post poll shows that the percentage of Republicans denying Biden’s legitimacy has dropped from 70% to 58% since the Jan. 6 insurrection. What’s more, fully 72% of all Americans saw the Jan. 6 riot as a threat to democracy, according to an ABC/Ipsos poll – a number that can only rise as investigations proceed.
Once the dam springs a leak, it’s doomed.
Having spent much of my adult life as a Yankee in the American South, I have seen this movie before. As recently as the 1960s, many Southern whites thought the world would end if schools and universities integrated. Watch the upcoming Alabama-Georgia game, and tell me what you see.
Civil war over Trump?
Not going to happen.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at [email protected]