The Civil War then and now: The what ifs and the what's next


Samuel Damren

This is the final commentary in a four-part series on “The Civil War, Then and Now.” The first three commentaries examined the falsehoods underlying “The Lost Cause,” the similarities in the methods of its propagandists and the politics of Donald Trump, as well as the ability of the “true believers” of mass movements, such as MAGA, to “shut their eyes and stop their ears to facts.”

As was discussed in the third commentary, Trump’s psychopathic mindset that rules, norms and laws do not apply to him produced a symbiotic bond to his hard-core followers’ desire to escape the dissatisfying present and return to a mythical past of perpetual white rule. That same mindset also finds expression in Trump’s interactions with individuals, both inside and outside his personal circle. These interactions are key to understanding Trump’s planning after his November election loss.

Individuals with Trump’s mindset have a very different perspective from the rest of us on interactions with other individuals, especially on the issue of trust. Through the lens of this twisted perspective, other individuals fall into three categories.

First, there are interactions with individuals who share the same mindset: that rules, norms and laws do not apply to them. Because the narcissism of persons operating under this mindset denies the humanity of anyone but themselves, they can never regard anyone, including those who share the same mindset, as an equal.

As a result, when interacting with one another, these individuals cannot help but behave like ancient Greek gods. They continually lie, cheat, manipulate, and betray one another to gain advantage. One Greek god might envy another for strength and the authority of their rule, but that envy is the counterfeit of trust.

The second category of individuals in this mix is the only category with whom persons having Trump-like traits can enter into relationships of trust. Individuals in this category display slavish loyalty and occupy subservient roles.
The relationships can be, but rarely are, long lasting. The display of loyalty is also rarely genuine.

When individuals in this category leave the orbit of the Trump-like personality, they invariably exact retribution for the humiliating experience by writing tell-all books or through other means. In Trump’s case, individuals falling into this category include elected officials who live in constant fear that they can be “primaried” if they fail to act in accordance with his whims.

The third category of individuals is everyone else that is relevant to the Trump-like personality: Individuals needed to achieve goals who are not slavishly loyal and individuals who are obstacles. There is a reason why these seemingly different groups form a single category.

During Trump’s term as president, individuals whom he needed to achieve goals included many knowledgeable senior advisers that were flawed, in his view, by a persistent streak of independence. He only formed these relationships out of necessity knowing that they would inevitably fail and the former advisers would then become obstacles. The question was when.

Would the relationship fail before the goal was achieved? Would the irksome independence of the adviser interfere with other goals? Would it threaten to undercut Trump’s place in the eyes of followers as “the only one who can fix the problem?”

To minimize these risks, Trump relentlessly pushed this category of advisers beyond their comfort zones. Many times, the advisers resigned rather than continue the fraught relationship. On occasion, when Trump believed he had political cover, he fired them. As his presidency progressed, Trump choose more malleable replacements.

Examples abound, but one of significance relates to the “What Ifs” in Trump’s plan to orchestrate a government takeover after he lost the November election.

On June 1, 2020 at nightfall, police in riot gear, helicopters and assault vehicles cleared a path for Donald Trump to walk from the White House through a crowd of otherwise peaceful protestors to the front of nearby St. John’s Church in Washington, D. C. When he arrived, Trump held up a Bible. White House and media photographers took pictures. It had been a summer of protests across the country ignited by the murder of George Floyd. Trump vowed to restore law and order through federal force if state authorities did not get matters under control.

Accompanying Trump were daughter and son-in-law Ivanka and Jared, Attorney General William Barr, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, and General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Milley wore a camouflage combat uniform. The event was derided in the press the next day as a “photo op” that crossed the line between the separation of church and state.

It wasn’t merely a “photo op.” It was a test. It was a test of just how far Trump could push Esper and Milley beyond their comfort zones. It was a test of whether Trump could potentially order the United States military to take sides in a domestic political dispute. If you are familiar with American military tradition, you know Esper and Milley flunked the test. From Trump’s perspective, they passed with flying colors.

In the days that followed, Esper and Milley’s actions were roundly condemned by retired U.S. generals as well as former defense secretary Jim Mattis. The rebukes had effect.

In a commencement address to the National Defense University, a few days later, General Milley stated: “I should not have been there … My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”

After the June 1 test, Trump took preliminary steps to move federal troops to Washington, D.C. Esper opposed the move, telling reporters in a June 3 briefing, “The option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort … We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.” Trump was furious but afraid to fire Esper, his third Secretary of Defense, so close to the election.

Having been tricked once, it was a mistake Milley would not repeat. In the aftermath of Trump’s election defeat in November, Milley reached out to Democratic leaders to work with them and others to prevent Trump from executing a long list of possible actions that Milley foresaw as threats to the republic. We will never know how Esper would have handled the conflict. Trump fired him as Secretary of Defense in a November 8 tweet.

Did Trump have a workable path to overturn the election results? He did. It wasn’t lawful or in keeping with established norms for the peaceful change of power in American democracy, but it was workable.

The details are coming to light through the House Select Committee’s investigation of the January 6, 2021 insurrection so speculations here, except for those made with a broad brush, are not necessary.

What if Trump had succeeded in throwing the election into the House of Representatives by blocking the certification process? It is clear that Republican control of a majority of state legislatures provided an available path to overturn the election. However, Trump needed cover to carry out this move that he did not get from the Department of Justice, the vice president, or state legislatures.

What if there had been mass protests in response to the presidential election being referred for decision to the House of Representatives? No one should doubt that the 45th president would have declared martial law.

So, what is next? The fissures in American society caused by the Civil War and its aftermath of racial injustice, the propagation of the myth of The Lost Cause and the expression of those tensions in the politics of Donald Trump are not going away. Instead, they are solidifying into a new form.

Beginning with Georgia Senate Bill 202, various states are in the process of enacting new voting laws. The de facto effect of many provisions in these laws will suppress the votes of persons of color. The pretext for these laws is the false claim that the results of the November 2020 presidential election were fraudulent. This is Trump’s drumbeat. No matter how many times the claim is exposed as the Big Lie, Trump and the fearful Republican office holders and candidates in his orbit keep on drumming.

The conflict created by the new voter laws will once again divide America into two groups of states.

There will be Neo-Confederate states, where new voter laws disproportionately suppress the vote of persons of color compared to the white vote. There will be Neo-Union states, where the voting laws remain as they were in 2020 and where Republicans will falsely contend that voter fraud likewise remains rampant.

Two groups of states with different rules for counting citizen votes in presidential elections do not belong in the same country.

Under the Constitution of 1787, enslaved Africans who could not vote were nevertheless counted as 3/5ths a person in the calculation of state votes in the electoral college. As a result, the strength of slaver states in the electoral college count disproportionally increased compared to free states. That problem coupled with America’s original sin of slavery led us to Civil War then.

The present-day reformulation of that problem into Neo-Confederate states, where the application of new election laws create a de facto discount in the votes of descendants of enslaved persons and other persons of color; and, into Neo-Union states, where laws do not discount their vote, is the Civil War now.

Until we show the courage to confront the history of America’s original sin in all its formulations, past and present, and as long as much of the country continues to deny, teach, and perpetuate that sin in new and ever evolving forms, the state of our country will be Civil War forever.

In concluding this series of commentary, another analogy to Greek gods is apt: the myth of Sisyphus. Depending on your point of view, the boulder that the American Sisyphus is condemned for eternity to roll up a steep hill only to watch it roll back down is either the cause of racial equality or the cause of perpetual white rule.

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