On July 4, 1863, Robert E Lee retreated from Gettysburg back to Virginia after a devastating three day battle with Northern forces, leaving 7,000 dead and over 30,000 wounded on a Pennsylvania field. Only two years earlier, prominent Alabama politician Leroy Pope Walker had confidently predicted that all the blood shed as a result of secession could be wiped up with a handkerchief.
Will the United States have another civil war? Even with the deepening political chaos and crisis in Washington DC and around the country, it seems unthinkable. And yet we seem to be living in an era where the unthinkable has happened, and continues to happen with alarming frequency. As of now, much of the public is holding its breath that our established institutions will hold the country together, that things will go back to normal. We hope that the judiciary will restrain Trump from his attempts to make Muslims second class citizens. We hope James Comey, the FBI, and the CIA will step up to the plate to make Trump’s impeachment possible when they provide the ‘smoking gun’ about his corrupt ties to Russia. We hope the Republican Congressional leadership will finally come to its senses. We hope the Democrats will take back Congress in 2018. We hope the white nationalist Steve Bannon will be ousted from highest circles of power, and the ugly ‘alt right’ fascists will recede into the background after their 15 minutes of fame.
What if none of this happens, though? What if there is no grand compromise that saves the nation from splintering? There are disturbing parallels between our own times and the 1850’s United States, when compromise failed and the union’s institutions collapsed:
A test run for the upcoming civil war may have already begun.
Last month’s events in Portland and other places indicate what an unpleasant future of civil strife looks like. Three men stabbed, two killed, when they attempted to defend two black Muslim girls from harassment by a neo-Nazi thug. Masses of hooded leftists and anarchists congregated in the streets in the days afterward, fighting street battles with uniformed white nationalists. Most alarmingly, in Portland and other places there is video footage of the police simply abandoning public spaces and pulling back to give the warring factions control of the streets(although they did occasionally intervene to arrest anti-fascist protesters). This could be a sign of things to come: the disintegration of the state, giving way to openly partisan armed groups dueling for control. Is the United States so used to plunging other countries like Iraq, Syria, and Libya into similar chaos that it somehow thinks it’s own society is immune?
Perhaps what has happened in Portland is an isolated incident. Yet the American Civil War was also preceded by a small-scale armed conflict in the West. In Kansas from 1855 to 1858, bands of supporters and opponents of slavery engaged in vicious tit for tat in a contest for the new territories status as a free or slave state. In an attempt to rig local elections, pro slavery settlers streamed into Kansas from neighboring Missouri(Similarly, many of the ‘alt right’ fascists have been descending into overwhelmingly progressive Portland from outside rural areas). It was in Kansas that John Brown first gained national renown as an abolitionist who did not believe in turning the other cheek, hacking pro slavery settlers to death with broadswords. Was there a future John Brown marching amongst the antifascist protesters in Portland?
The emergence of a dispute that carves vast areas of the country into distinct, hostile territories.
In the mid 19th century, this dispute was over slavery. In the 21st century, it could very well be immigration. Mass roundups of immigrants is not new–the Obama administration rounded up up to 4 million undocumented people according to a recent Intercept investigation–but Trump’s confrontational tactic of threatening to starve federal funds from so called ‘sanctuary cities’ and even states (like California), is forcing the issue for many millions who previously did not have to take a position on the huge undocumented immigrant population that exists in their midst. This is similar to how the Fugitive Slave Act brought the ugly reality of slavery into the cities and neighborhoods of Northerners. Before then, most (white) Northerners had tolerated slavery as long as it was out of sight, out of mind.
Prior to 1850, the abolitionists were about as influential in the United States as anarchists and Maoists are now. But the practical necessity of resistance to a clear injustice radicalizes many. As Amos Lawrence, a philanthropist who witnessed the recapture of fugitive slave Anthony Burns in the streets of Boston put it: “We went to bed one night old-fashioned, conservative, Compromise Union Whigs and waked up stark mad Abolitionists”. Despite the finger wagging from the establishment media at leftists willing to fight fascists, as conditions grow more dire many erstwhile non politicized citizens could join the ranks of the anarchists, communists and other radicals defending immigrants and their communities from ICE, Homeland Security, and their fascist paramilitary auxiliaries.
Two deeply dysfunctional parties being strained to a breaking point.
The current Republicans most resemble the Jacksonian Democrats (rather fitting given Donald Trump’s conspicuous idolization of Andrew Jackson). In the 19th century, the Democratic Party was controlled by Southern slave owning oligarchs. These oligarchs spouted off populist rhetoric to attract the votes of mostly Catholic immigrant workers, small farmers and artisans in the North who resented getting the short end of the stick in the emerging Northern industrial capitalist order. Likewise, the current Republican Party is an alliance between some of the most reactionary sections of the capitalist oligarchy, particularly ‘traditional’ industries such as oil and gas, with masses of middle class, working class and poor whites mobilized against ‘free trade’ neo liberal agreements.
On the other end, the current Democrats most resemble the Whigs, which were the party of the banking and industrial capitalist ruling elite in New England/NorthEast, as well as prosperous middling farmers in the Midwest who benefited from the railway and canal projects the Whigs championed. The Whigs also attracted reformers and progressives, including many abolitionists, and had a loyal following amongst Northern free blacks who were appalled by the vile racism of the Jacksonian Democrats.
As the historian James McPherson put it, the Whigs represented the ‘winners’ of the young emerging industrial capitalist system in North America, while the Democrats represented the ‘losers’. The United States has undergone an economic revolution since the 1970’s that is as transformative as the one in the first half of the 19th century, except that neo-liberalism has DE-industrialized vast parts of the United States, instead of industrialized them. The Democrats are controlled by finance capital, the winners in this New World Order, the Republicans although controlled by oil and energy capitalists draw on the mass discontent of the (mostly white) losers of this order to win power.
The two major parties are attempting to hold themselves together by focusing on issues that do not create divisions within the party.
The Jacksonian Democrats and the Whigs could only hold their respective parties together as long as they concentrated on issues that did not threaten to divide their own parties-and slavery was that issue. In 1836 a ‘gag rule’ was passed in Congress prohibiting debating slavery. Likewise, the Republican and Democratic parties are in a bind on immigration- the white nationalist populists who have gained a foothold in the GOP are earnest in their desire to ‘save’ white America from the menace of mongrelization through mass deportations, but the corporate interests that dominate the GOP know that the low-wage police state they desire requires a large undocumented population. On the other side, the growing progressive, multiracial working class base of the Democratic Party sincerely wishes for there to be mass resistance to Trump’s attacks on immigrants, for ‘sanctuary cities’ and states to live up to their name.
But the leadership of the Democratic Party can only go so far beyond posturing and symbolic gestures, since the root causes of mass migration from Latin America and the Middle East are the result of the very policies the neo-liberal establishment of the Democratic Party champions: neo-liberal trade agreements like NAFTA, imperialist wars in the Middle East, US backed coup d’etats against socialist and populist governments in Latin America, and the increasing pressure on resources brought about by global climate change. It was Hillary Clinton, after all, who bears a large responsibility for the 2009 coup in Honduras which threw much of Central America into chaos and prompted mass migration to the north. Unable to truly ‘resist’ the attacks on immigrants despite its rhetoric, it is likely that the Democrats will make one compromise too many to the far right that will drive a permanent wedge between the progressive multiracial working class base and the corporate leadership, leading to the creation of two different parties altogether. This is very similar to the way in which the constant capitulations of the ‘Compromise’ Whigs to the slaveocracy led to the ‘Conscience’(anti slavery) Whigs splitting from the party in 1854, forming the Republican Party.
Ruling oligarchs see a rising threat to their power, and are acting based on that fear.
The reason why the oligarchs that Trump represents are so focused on immigration is because like the Southern slave owners, they sense a gathering revolutionary threat. Micheal Anton, Trump’s director of Strategic Communications for the US National Security Council put it quite bluntly: “the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty means that the electorate grows more left, more Democratic, less Republican, less republican, and less traditionally American with every cycle”.
Just as the rise of Northern industrial capitalism portended the destruction of Southern chattel slavery, for many Republicans close to Trump the waves of working class immigrants from south of the border are particularly jarring because it comes from a region(Latin America) where socialist and leftist politics have mass appeal. Of great significance is the upcoming election in Mexico in 2018, where socialist candidate Lopez Obrador is running a strong campaign for President against the discredited neo-liberal president Enrique Pena Niento. Obrador recently made a tour in the United States, visiting El Paso, Los Angeles, Chicago, and other cities, where he was met by enthusiastic crowds. Although ignored by much of the English-speaking US media, one doubts that the importance of this event was missed by Steve Bannon and others. A Venezuela-style socialist government right on the USA’s southern border could shake the foundations of the entire US capitalist system even more than the Russian or Cuban Revolutions did. Like every ruling class in its death throes, the oligarchs Trump represents must resort to increasingly barbaric measures to stop the progressive tide of history. They will be no more successful than the Southern planters were.
The house is divided and cannot stand
As Abraham Lincoln once eloquently stated ‘a nation cannot exist half slave and half free’. In the globalized, decaying neo-liberal order that exists, we cannot have a WORLD where (far, far more than half) of the world’s population lives in dire poverty and misery, at the mercy of imperialist wars and the disastrous onslaught of climate change, while a privileged minority cloisters itself behind walls and legions of armed men to shield them. In the neo-liberal global world order, capital is free to go wherever it pleases, but labor is restricted, walled in, terrorized and constricted. The contradiction is now coming to a head. The Anglo-American capitalist order which has more or less held firm since World War II is beginning to wobble at its foundations. We are in an era where the only predictability is unpredictability, and the decaying, out of touch, political ‘center’ cannot hold.
Marius Trotter is an artist and political cartoonist in the US Midwest. His work can be viewed on his website.