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Fox News host Sean Hannity speaks during a taping of his show, 'Hannity,' in New York on Aug. 7, 2019.Frank Franklin II/The Associated Press

In the recent news cycle, the end of American democracy has emerged as a top topic. Books, essays and punditry warn of the impending collapse of institutions, if not the U.S. itself.

It would be unwise to scoff, but there are institutions and events that do in fact unify an allegedly hyperpolarized country. As evidence: CBS drew an average 41.5 million viewers for the 49ers-Cowboys National Football League playoff game on Sunday. Viewership peaked at 50.2 million. Apparently, those are the best ratings for any NFL Wild Card game in seven years. To put this in context, the Academy Awards in 2021 landed at just 10.4 million.

So, while Americans unite to worship at the altar of the NFL, the to-date entirely bogus civil war is being fought on cable news. It has been a particularly crazy week in that arena, and just listing the incidents of craziness gives a sense of near-feral agitation. It is not, however, a sign of a real, looming war.

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Remember One America Network (OAN)? The little all-news channel was fervently pro-Trump and spread conspiracy theories about the past presidential election. Well, cable and satellite carrier AT&T recently decided to drop OAN from its menu. So, OAN host Dan Ball went a bit bonkers on-air, asking viewers to dig up dirt on AT&T’s board chairman. Ball said, “Cheating on his taxes, cheating on his wife, saying racial slurs towards white people, folks do that, whatever it may be, find it for me.”

Lara Logan, once a respected reporter at CBS News and a 60 Minutes host, has been doing punditry on Fox News Primetime for a while and in late November had a few things to say, comparing Anthony Fauci with Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor who performed medical experiments on Jewish prisoners. Last week, the United Talent Agency acknowledged that it had dropped her as a client. Her show on the streaming Fox Nation service is, meanwhile, on hiatus.

Over on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News, Glenn Beck, who used to be a Fox star before building a solo media empire, came on to talk about his new book. It’s called The Great Reset: Joe Biden and the Rise of 21st Century Fascism. Carlson let Beck chunter away about Washington State setting up internment camps for people who refuse to be vaccinated. Carlson didn’t ask for proof, said he’d heard about what Beck described and would look into it. Beck’s book is now the number-two bestseller on Amazon in the U.S. in the Politics & Government section.

Meanwhile, Sean Hannity had the rare experience of being laughed at on Fox News. His guest was economics professor Austan Goolsbee, who was, during Barack Obama’s first term, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers to the president. Goolsbee often turns up on right-wing TV and radio, willing to use facts to counter propaganda.

On this occasion, Hannity tried to attack President Joe Biden over energy production. Goolsbee fact-checked him with a laugh and a willingness to shout louder than Hannity. The host claimed that Biden, “inherited energy independence, and we were a net exporter of energy, and now he’s begging OPEC.” Goolsbee, highly amused, said, “He inherited an economic downturn bordering on catastrophe.” The debate went on as Hannity got more frantic and the professor laughed.

On CNN, Don Lemon fights on, mainly against antivaccination campaigners: “We have to start doing things for the greater good of society and not for idiots who think that they can do their own research, or that they are above the law and they can break the rules.” This assertion became an online Fox News story about how Lemon had “mocked” people for “doing their own research” about the virus and vaccines.

Look at this list of incendiary statements, counterstatements and viciousness and you can see corrosion and craziness. It’s a proxy civil war, with a lot of money being made by media conglomerates. It is not, however, the harbinger of real military conflagration, nor does it make the breakup of the U.S. inevitable.

On a good night, Fox News might have around three million viewers for Tucker Carlson and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, on the other end of the political spectrum might have 1.7 million viewers. Those are minuscule numbers compared with a Sunday NFL game. (They are way smaller than the number of people who watched Emily in Paris and Bridgerton on Netflix.)

Dire warnings about civil strife in the U.S. are not exactly poppycock but they sometimes seem like a puerile attempt to heighten noise into war.

A real civil war requires mass engagement by two sides, and the main mass engagement in the U.S. in sports as entertainment. The rest is hubbub and the so-called civil war is just noisy cable news, long under way already.

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