Stephen Marche is a writer based in Toronto. He is working on a book about the possibility of a second American civil war.
Deep in the Canadian soul is the desire for a good long nap. It’s the privilege of being peripheral, this temptation to disengage, to let the world take care of itself for a while, to drift off and hope that things look better in a bit. The election of Joe Biden offers a seeming opportunity to relax. After four years of Trump insanity – our country deemed a threat to American national security, forced to renegotiate a trade deal essential to our prosperity, generally overwhelmed with the feeling of being manacled to a meth head on a bender – it’s easy to feel we deserve a break. Unfortunately, the Biden presidency will only be a pause, a four-year respite. Every day of those four years will be necessary to extricate ourselves, as much as possible, from the nightmare that’s coming.
There is a strong hope among American liberals and a portion of American conservatives that the storming of the Capitol represents the moment the fever breaks, the moment the American political insanity, fully revealed, finally begins to ebb. I’ve been working on a book about the possibility of an American civil war for two years now, and I see no evidence to back up that hope. Forty-five per cent of Republican voters support the assault on Washington. “There’s a lot of people out there calling for the end of violence,” Rush Limbaugh said on his show the day after. “I am glad Sam Adams, Thomas Paine, the actual tea party guys, the men at Lexington and Concord, didn’t feel that way.”
Within a few months, the people who stormed the Capitol and smeared feces on its walls will be considered heroes to a significant portion of the American public. You can call it treason if you like, but as Alexandre Dumas said, “the difference between treason and patriotism is a matter of dates.” Those men and women storming the Capitol aren’t traitors to the country they believe they belong to.
The past four years have not been an exception to the trend of American politics; they’ve been a continuation. Donald Trump is far less meaningful than either side understands. The smartest thing he ever said about his political career was in a 2017 press conference: “I didn’t come along and divide this country. This country was seriously divided before I got here.” In 2015, a routine military exercise across the Southern U.S., Jade Helm 15, spawned a vast labyrinth of conspiracy theories. Millions believed their own government was preparing the American people for a Chinese invasion. Others believed the operation would coincide with an asteroid collision. Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones claimed that “helm” was an acronym for “Homeland Eradication of Local Militants.” Texas Governor Greg Abbott, apparently swayed by the notion that the federal government was about to seize control of Texas by force, sent the Texas State Guard to monitor the operation. Before Mr. Trump, the disinformation pipeline flowed into real power. It will continue to flow: Internet-generated fantasies move through conservative media into the arena of policy.
The events of Jan. 6 have been described as an insurrection. They were not an insurrection, and it is vital to be precise in these matters. The rioters were barely armed, they were only loosely organized and they had vague political support, no military support. It was less an insurrection than a desecration. The insurrection, when it comes, will be vastly worse than what we saw last week.
The militias have only begun to make themselves felt. The hard right has infiltrated law enforcement in the United States to such an extent that no police department or federal agency could be relied upon in a struggle against white supremacy. This infiltration has been consistent and strategic. There have been connections between law enforcement and white supremacists or far-right militias discovered in Alabama, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, Washington State and West Virginia. These connections number in the hundreds.
A 2019 poll reported by the Military Times of 1,630 active-duty soldiers found that 36 per cent had seen evidence of “white supremacist and racist ideologies in the military,” a significant increase since 2018, when the number was 22 per cent.
White supremacist violence, spearheaded by militias, is inevitable. Where does that leave Canada? Foreign governments need to prepare for a postdemocratic America, an authoritarian and hence much less stable superpower. They need to prepare for a broken America, one with many different centres of power. They need to prepare for a lost America, one so consumed by its crises that it cannot manage to conceive, much less to enact, domestic or foreign policies. Extrication, as far as possible, should be the immediate goal: Connections with the U.S. are connections to establishments with crumbling foundations.
There is also the question of the international order and Canada’s place in it. The U.S., for the foreseeable future, will be the battleground for democracy. If Canada wants democracy to survive, it will have to be an active participant. Obviously, our virtues and our self-interest coincide on this point: An autocratic U.S. is a massive threat. How do we manipulate its electoral process and its government to serve the interests of global democracy? If we are too squeamish and too conventional to engage, the enemies of democracy, currently rampaging, will go unopposed.
Mr. Biden’s victory speech claimed that it was “a time to heal.” We can only hope that was empty rhetoric. The Republican Party, and its wide base of national support, does not believe in democracy. They’ve proved it consistently. They’re continuing to prove it even after the physical safety of their own members came under threat. There is every evidence to suggest that the moment American conservatives come to any power again they will use it to subvert the workings of legitimate government. It is not the time to heal. It is the time to fight, for the Americans who want to keep their republic, and for us. Premiers, cabinet ministers, chief executives – no naps for you. Time to wake up.
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