Domination or Dissolution, Rule or Ruin
The Right is fantasizing about secession, “national divorce,” and civil war – because they will not, under any circumstance, accept pluralism.
Whenever you are weighing in on politics, society, and culture, ask yourself: Would you feel comfortable making this argument directly to the face of the people whose lives, rights, and dignity are most immediately affected by the issue in question?
I can’t quite remember where I first encountered the idea that we ought to approach politics through this lens at all times. It has profoundly shaped my perspective. And I’ve been thinking about this a lot in recent days, as the reactions to last week’s piece on the Texas border standoff came in. The Right loves to talk about secession and civil war. And quite a lot of people on the center and on the Left seem to have come to the conclusion that “blue” America would indeed be better off if we severed all ties with “red” states and unburdened ourselves from the reactionaries who are evidently not on board with the idea of egalitarian multiracial pluralism. I get all the frustration and exasperation. But would you feel comfortable making this argument – let them go do their own thing! – to the tens of millions of people who happen to live in those Republican-led states, who want nothing to do with the reactionary project, but would suffer most under authoritarian white Christian patriarchal rule?
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Fantasizing about secession and civil war
Not much has happened in the ongoing conflict between Texas and the federal government over the past few days. The big non-event over the weekend was the “Take Our Border Back” trucker convoy: Organizers had been hoping for 700,000 (!) trucks – God’s Army, they called it – making their way from Virginia down to the southern border. Instead, about 100 vehicles arrived near Eagle Pass and the disputed part of the Texas border with Mexico. A sad, paltry contingent of hardcore MAGAs and white Christian nationalists. It’s hard sometimes not to dismiss the rightwing threat to democracy as just silly, pathetic cosplay from a bunch of grifters, buffoons, and lost souls.
The situation is quite a bit more serious than that, unfortunately. Not only is there simply no guarantee that grifters and buffoons can’t bring down democratic self-government. The trucker convoy fiasco also doesn’t change the fact that the border standoff is acting as a catalyst for the pervasive lusting for civil war and ubiquitous fantasizing about secession on the Right. This isn’t confined to extremist online fringes either. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, for instance, fabulated we would “have a war on our hands” were president Biden to federalize National Guard troops. Kevin Stitt, the Republican Governor of Oklahoma, argued that the Texas National Guard was merely “protecting their homeland” from the federal government. And Representative Clay Higgins posted on Ex-Twitter that “the feds are staging a civil war, and Texas should stand their ground.” These aren’t just outlier voices. Texas, with the explicit support from 25 Republican governors, is deploying precisely the argument slave states used to justify secession.
A history of violent struggle and dreams of secession
Fantasies of a coming civil war and dreams of secession from a country that is supposedly being turned into a liberal hellhole are not a new phenomenon on the Right. Some parts of the Right were never content with accepting the post-1960s reality and railed against what they saw as the acquiescence and appeasement of the forces of multiracial pluralism. Far-right forces and ideas have always shaped modern conservatism as a political project, and they have been waging war, at least metaphorically, against pluralistic America for a long time: “There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America,” Pat Buchanan infamously declared in his 1992 Republican National Convention Speech. Buchanan was a leading proponent of an ascending paleo-conservative tradition and a key figure in the mainstreaming of an emerging rightwing populism that took hold of the power centers of conservative politics after the end of the Cold War. There is a clear path from there to those on the Right today who believe “conservatism is no longer enough,” that a reactionary counter-revolution by the rightfully aggrieved defenders of “real America” against nefarious “woke,” “globalist” elites is urgently needed.
Other factions on the Right have fought against pluralistic America in a more immediately violent fashion. The white power movement, for instance, formed in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and declared war on the federal government in the early 1980s. They envisioned a form of guerilla warfare modeled on the ideas outlined in the “Turner Diaries,” a neo-Nazi novel published in 1978 that has served as a central reference point for the extremist Right ever since. In the book, a small group of dedicated white supremacists manages to bring down the federal government and, ultimately, over the span of a little more than a century, restore white domination not only in America, but across the globe. Such ideas, as historian Kathleen Belew has emphasized, have influenced the tactics of fascistic militias like the Proud Boys that led the charge on January 6. And the white supremacists who regard the future depicted in the “Turner Diaries” not as a dystopian nightmare, but as an aspiration, have moved much closer to the center of conservative politics: On January 6, they stormed the Capitol literally in service of the man who is still, three years later, the leader of the Republican Party.
One way the mainstreaming of violent rightwing extremism and the radicalizing of the conservative mainstream has manifested since 2020 is in a more visible neo-secessionist movement among state-level Republicans. Texas has been the epicenter of these attempts to break free from what is seen as federal tyranny. Here, state party leaders have explicitly endorsed secession as a viable option. In the summer of 2022, the Texas GOP adopted a party platform declaring that “Texas retains the right to secede from the United States, and the Texas Legislature should be called upon to pass a referendum consistent thereto.”
Meanwhile, all this secessionist fantasizing has been flanked by an increasingly violent political rhetoric – and open endorsement of political violence. In the run-up to the 2022 midterm elections, Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene campaigned on the idea that “Democrats want Republicans dead and they have already started the killings.” If someone were to truly believe that the president of the United States, the party in power, and the forces dominating a sinister “deep state” are engaged in a campaign to murder all members of the opposition party – what are they supposed to do? Just last week, Greene’s fellow Georgia Representative Mike Collins casually called for an extrajudicial killing styled after a foreign authoritarian regime’s terror campaign: “Or we could buy him a ticket on Pinochet Air for a free helicopter ride,” Collins posted on Ex-Twitter, referring to a man who had allegedly been involved in an attack on New York City police officers. This was a reference to the authoritarian military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile. After overthrowing the democratically elected Allende government in September 1973, the Pinochet regime persecuted dissidents and “disappeared” them. One way of doing that was to throw them out of aircraft, usually into the ocean. The practice of “disappearing” people had been a key tactic of the military dictatorship in Argentina; it was the focus of an international human rights campaign against Chile in the 1970s. “Make Leftists Disappear Again” has been a meme on the Far Right for several years – you’ll see it on t-shirts that sport the slogan plus the silhouette of a helicopter. That’s what this translates to: Let’s kill those “leftist” enemies here in America, like Pinochet did in Chile.
The line between far-right extremism and the power center of conservative politics was always, at best, a permeable membrane. Now it has been completely eviscerated, to the point where no one should be surprised that a GOP congressman is openly propagating such ideas. The Republican Party doesn’t just tolerate such extremist figures in an attempt to appease the fringe – this isn’t simply a matter of acquiescence out of cowardice. This sort of radicalism is widely seen as justified on the Right. The GOP has abandoned and is now actively assaulting the foundations of democratic political culture. Accepting the legitimacy of the political opponent and denouncing the use of political violence: Republicans are delighting in crossing those essential lines.
Do Noem, Stitt, Higgins, Greene, Collins, Abbott, and all those publicly endorsing secession with all its violent implications, *really* mean it? A lot of this is, undoubtedly, calculated polemics: Republican elected officials know they can score with the base if they look tough threatening the big bad Feds. But at the very least, then, this grandstanding is indicative of where the rightwing grassroots are: A heavily armed base, in a constant state of frenzy, primed to believe in conspiracies of Great Replacement and globalist elites conspiring with the federal government against the will of “real Americans.” And now their political leaders are telling them they have the right to secede – or otherwise start shooting.
The “national divorce” chimera
Sometimes, these violent secessionist fantasies are being presented in a sanitized, pseudo-reasonable package that is supposed to appeal to a more mainstream audience. Last week, Nikki Haley, always trying to straddle the line between appealing to the MAGA base and looking “respectable” to mainstream America, argued on a radio show that Texas indeed had the right to secede: “If that whole state says, ‘We don’t want to be part of America anymore,’ I mean, that’s their decision to make.” Haley added that “states have the right to make the decisions that their people want to make.” As Jamelle Bouie explained brilliantly in a column on the conflict over secession and nullification from the Founding through the mid-nineteenth century, Haley got this completely wrong. In fact, Haley herself has since conceded that the Constitution does not actually allow secession (always straddling the line…) – while still trying to justify Texas defying federal authority specifically and all the talk about dissolving the Union among Republicans more broadly: “But what I will say is … Where’s that coming from? That’s coming from the fact that people don’t think that government is listening to them.” Because it is certainly a genuinely democratic concern over what “the people” want, over ensuring “the people” are being heard that is animating Texas Governor Greg Abbott in all he does.
Another sanitized version of the civil war and secession fantasies is the idea of a “national divorce.” Marjorie Taylor Greene has been talking about this a lot. Almost exactly a year ago, she argued that “We need a national divorce. We need to separate by red states and blue states and shrink the federal government. Everyone I talk to says this. From the sick and disgusting woke culture issues shoved down our throats to the Democrat’s traitorous America Last policies, we are done.” Greene has just endorsed “national divorce” again, this time triggered by the Texas standoff. And what’s wrong with that: Divorce. If the two sides can’t stand each other anymore, have conflicting ideas of how to live their lives, they should go their separate ways, should they not? Compared to the specter of a fascistic uprising and devastating civil war, isn’t this the much better scenario?
But the analogy simply doesn’t work. First of all, there is, in practical terms, simply no way for an amicable split between “red” and “blue” America that doesn’t involve disastrous political, economic, and social consequences. Secondly, the “divorce” analogy is grotesquely misleading in that it suggests a defensive posture on the Right, as if they just wanted to do their own thing, unbothered by an encroaching government or totalitarian progressive elites.
Granted, there is a tradition among influential rightwingers to get out and turn their backs on an increasingly liberal America they were no longer willing to endure. L. Brent Bozell Jr., for instance, admired the authoritarian Catholicism of the Franco regime, and so he moved to Spain in the 1960s. Bozell was a leading conservative activist and intellectual in the postwar period, a staunch supporter of McCarthyism, and William F. Buckley’s close friend and brother-in-law. His most impactful contribution came when he ghostwrote Barry Goldwater’s “Conscience of a Conservative,” one of modern conservatism’s foundational texts.
More recently, Rod Dreher fled the “collapsing imperium,” as he once put it, to seek refuge in Victor Orbán’s Hungary. Dreher was a long-time columnist and still is editor at The American Conservative. He is a prominent figure on the reactionary religious Right. Dreher has always been staunchly anti-liberal; since 2020, he has radicalized to a new level – and is now constantly raging against the “moral horror” of “trans totalitarianism,” in particular. He is the biggest fan aspiring European autocrats have among American reactionaries. Find someone in your life who admires you half as much as Rod Dreher admires Viktor Orbán. In 2022, Dreher moved to Budapest and keeps sending his dispatches from a place called “Hungary” that exists solely in the reactionary imagination, a kind of white Christian patriarchal wonderland, where men still get to be real men, where the “woke” hordes and “globalist” enemies are still being kept in check by “the people.”
The defining impulse on the Right, however, is not to pull back, but to dominate and subjugate. Their project stands in a long tradition historian Jefferson Cowie has dissected in his latest book, Freedom’s Dominion: “white freedom,” defined as the ability to curtail the freedom of others. The most aggressive proponents of white Christian domination have almost always claimed to be defending “freedom” – against government tyranny or, more recently, “woke” illiberalism – and to be acting in self-defense: against federal overreach or radically “Un-American” forces of leftism. The goal of the slave states, however, was not merely to defend the institution of slavery, but to expand the empire of slavery and entrench its political and institutional domination over the Union; and today’s Right doesn’t regard Orbán’s Hungary as just a safe haven, but as a role model to be emulated at home.
Imposing reactionary rule on the entire country
The current rightwing mobilization against egalitarian democracy is defined by its willingness to do whatever is necessary to impose a reactionary vision on the majority of the country. This is not a defensive political project. Even within the borders of their “red” states, Republicans have been on the offensive against blue communities, stripping power away from blue cities and metros, seizing authorities over how to police and prosecute crime, centralizing the control of election administration at the state level, away from local officials in blue counties. As is so often the case with Donald Trump, he embodies a version of the rightwing project that is stripped of all pretense: He has promised to send troops into blue cities to restore “order” and fight crime, by which he means suppress protests.
And as much as Republicans like to talk about “states’ rights” and “letting the states decide,” their vision of what America should look like is not confined to just the “conservative” parts of the country. The Supreme Court, for instance, has vastly curtailed the ability of blue states to regulate guns, even declaring long-standing restrictions on the state level unconstitutional, as it did in the Bruen decision in 2022 with regards to a law in New York that had been enacted over a century ago. There is no question that Republicans will institute a nation-wide abortion ban the minute they get the chance. And the idea that they would restrict their crusade against trans people, who they have demonized as an insult to the “natural” order and an acute threat to the moral fabric of the nation, to just red states is preposterous. Remember, the conclusion to Ron DeSantis’ 2023 book The Courage to be Free, an autobiography of sorts that was supposed to serve as his letter of application for the presidency, was titled “Make America Florida.” That was the agenda for his presidential campaign: Florida as the blueprint for the entire country.
The American Right is fully devoted to a fundamentally anti-pluralistic political project. They steadfastly refuse to accept the complex, complicated process of balancing interests, of reconciling different ideas, values, and aspirations that a pluralistic society necessarily depends on. They believe they shouldn’t have to, because they regard it as their prerogative, as the sole proponents of “real” (read: white Christian patriarchal) America, to shape the nation in their image and to define the boundaries of what does and does not count as “American.” If they don’t get to dominate America, then America as they conceive it is no more; they will rule – or might as well ruin.
“We’re better off without them” – but who is “We”?
If that is so, would a national “divorce,” a dissolution of the Union, not be the better option after all? As the gap between Red and Blue America is rapidly widening anyway, shouldn’t the multiracial, pluralistic “blue” part actually hope for red-state secession and press on towards realizing a truly egalitarian democracy? In reaction to last week’s piece on the Texas border standoff, I received many comments from readers who seem to believe exactly that. And from a left-leaning, liberal, blue-state perspective, it might indeed be tempting to say: Well, let them! Let them have their own “America” and turn it into a reactionary backwater!
But that would be disastrous, and not just for the white Christian nationalists who are assaulting democracy. The “blue states vs. red states” narrative too often obscures the fact that America’s political geography is actually mostly shaped by an urban vs. rural divide. What are we telling the people who live in blue urban centers in the midst of red states: Tough luck? “Well, they’ll have to vote with their feet and move!” I’m sure a lot of young people, especially, will do exactly that. But it leaves those behind who aren’t able to uproot their entire existence – often precisely the people who will suffer most from white reactionary politics.
Would you feel comfortable making the argument for a “national divorce,” for letting red states secede, to people who live in those states and happen to not be straight white Christian men? To make the argument to millions of people who are opposed to the reactionary vision of “real America,” many of them belonging to communities that are most vulnerable to the rightwing crusade, that they should move – or be left behind to struggle, suffer, and endure on their own? I find that unfathomable.
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