Civil War II Is Already Underway. If Dems Don't Fight, the Union is Lost

Civility only works if both sides are acting in good faith. Republicans have none.

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Pundits have been fearing that Donald Trump may provoke a second Civil War before his presidency is over. But the new Civil War is already happening. States may not be seceding and forming their own governments, but it’s absolutely true that Trump and the Republican Party have been waging a racial/psychological/procedural war against the American working class and American institutions for years.

Here’s a quick breakdown of what this war looks like: Loading courts with right-wing judges, demonizing journalism, lying more than 20,000 times, separating immigrant children from their parents and fighting to deny them basic hygiene, forcibly sterilizing undocumented women in concentration camps, violently suppressing protest, obstructing mail delivery for political purposes, tying pandemic relief for workers to legal immunity for employers who force workers to put their lives at risk, and giving corporations a $500 billion slush fund with essentially no oversight while millions of Americans wait six months for their first unemployment check. The list goes on.

Like a war, there’s also been bloodshed. The far right’s foot soldiers have already been involved in more than 560 incidents of violence and/or menacing of overwhelmingly peaceful and nonviolent protesters since June. When including the 19 protesters Forbes tallied in June and the two people Kyle Rittenhouse is accused of murdering in Kenosha, people aligned with far-right causes have killed at least 21 people since June.

The body count is far higher if you include all the casualties of right-wing terrorism since Trump’s inauguration. More Charlottesvilles, Pittsburghs, San Diegos, Gilroys, El Pasos, and Kenoshas are all in our future if the cancer of right wing extremism is allowed to dig in deeper over the next four years. Even Trump’s own DHS admits right-wing extremism is the biggest terror threat the US currently faces.

In a normal country, an 87-year-old judge’s death wouldn’t mean that the far right would potentially be able to cement power for 20 to 30 years. But we don’t live in a normal country. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a giant and will be missed, but the bloody partisan battle that her death created just weeks before the most pivotal election so far this century is a shit-or-get-off-the-pot moment for Democrats as an opposition party.

Don’t be surprised by Republicans lack of morality or principles

Senator Mitch McConnell at CPAC 2014 (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons)

To no one’s surprise (outside of the naive beltway commentariat), while Ginsburg’s body was still warm, Mitch McConnell announced that President Trump’s soon-to-be-named Supreme Court appointee would get a floor vote in the US Senate. This means McConnell is abandoning the rule he made up in 2016 as a way of denying a confirmation hearing for President Obama’s third Supreme Court appointee following the death of Antonin Scalia (note the date on the below tweet).

A craven, sneering letter he wrote to Republican senators justifying his about-face made the confusing argument that of course this time is different because in 2016, the White House and the Senate were controlled by different parties, whereas in 2020 the same party controls both entities (McConnell never alluded to partisan control of the Senate in any of the five times he said there shouldn’t be confirmation hearings for Merrick Garland in an election year). He called his prior position the “Biden rule,” which is not a real rule but a reference to a 1992 speech then-Senator Joe Biden made when there was no vacancy on the Supreme Court.

You can expect more hypocritical 180-degree pivots from other Senate Republicans in the coming days. Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) wrote an op-ed for the Cincinnati Enquirer in March of 2016 supporting McConnell’s position of waiting until after the election to fill the Supreme Court vacancy. Before he was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) vowed that even if a Republican president was in the White House and there was a Supreme Court vacancy in 2020, he wouldn’t support filling it until after the election.

The modern Republican Party must be absolutely destroyed

Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) praised Dr. Martin Luther King’s strategy of using nonviolent confrontation to expose the brutality of the segregationist South during the civil rights movement, but he was also quick to point out its limitations.

“[King’s] major assumption was that if you are nonviolent, if you suffer, your opponent will see your suffering and will be moved to change his heart. That’s very good. He only made one fallacious assumption: In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.”

Similar to nonviolence, Democrats’ adherence to civility as a means of governing also makes a fatal assumption; that when engaged civilly, the opposition party will be willing to come to the table and work with you on something that will be beneficial for everyone. But civility only works if both sides are acting in good faith. The Republican Party has none.

This isn’t hyperbole. In 2019, pseudonymous author Paul Nailer — a national security expert who used to draft the annual National Intelligence Estimate that presidents and members of Congress use to view national security threats — named the Republican Party as “the first national-level ‘insider threat’ the United States has faced since the Civil War.”

An enemy of the United States might seek to sow discord between ethnic groups, or to wage a disinformation campaign, or to highlight moral inconsistencies that weaken the standing of the United States on the world stage. An enemy of the United States might try and degrade the capacity and public trust within our intelligence apparatus. It might use propaganda and weaponised information. It might seek to engage in fraud or other criminal acts to sway an election in their favour.

Does any of that sound familiar?

The Republican Party has steadily embraced authoritarianism, suspect electoral tactics, and racism more and more over the past few decades. That process has been turbocharged with Trump at the helm of the party.

We’re now seeing an explicit embrace of white supremacy. Denial in the face of climate change. Deliberate sowing of discord within the FBI and the CIA. Weakening of the rule of law. Brazen criminality. Removing funding for elections oversight. Blatant human rights abuses at the border.

The explicit nature of these acts is the point. The Republicans mean to bludgeon any and all resistance to their reshaping of the nation’s institutions to their will.

And so far, they’ve gotten away with it.

Since 2017, both Trump and McConnell have made it their goal to fill the courts with far-right acolytes, as the federal judiciary is capable of undoing both executive and legislative actions. In July, Pew Research found that Trump had appointed more federal appeals court judges than any other president, at the same point of their administrations, since the 1970s. Nearly one in four federal judges today are Trump appointees. These judges are in their positions for life, and will use their positions to overturn any attempts to undo Trump’s legacy.

Institute a temporary period of strategic authoritarianism

Like it or not, this is a war. And war is a zero-sum endeavor in which one side will win after the other side has been completely crushed. Because the far right has already managed to concentrate an astronomical level of power under Trump, and because the confirmation process for Justice Ginsburg’s replacement will happen during the lame duck period, Democrats will need to be willing to embrace a temporary period of strategic authoritarianism (let’s call it the People’s Slate) provided they succeed in winning back the White House and the Senate majority, and they’ll need to ask voters to trust them while they fight fire with fire.

What would the People’s Slate look like?

  • Grant statehood to Washington, DC and Puerto Rico and add four Democratic US Senators.

  • Use the new, expanded Senate majority to abolish the filibuster.

  • Use the new filibuster-free Senate to pass legislation that would expand the Supreme Court from nine justices to 13, and add additional justices to US circuit courts to offset Trump’s judges.

  • Appoint an economist who believes in Modern Monetary Theory (like Stephanie Kelton) to chair the Federal Reserve, and print money to finance Medicare for All and the Green New Deal like Ben Bernanke did for Wall Street.

  • Any policy that can’t be accomplished through legislative means should be done by executive order.

  • If Republicans accuse something of being done illegally, assert executive privilege and force them into years of litigation purgatory while the policy gets time to entrench itself.

  • Pay no mind to negative headlines.

  • Once the job has been done, destroy the tools that were used to do it like Lucius Fox did at the end of The Dark Knight. Codify the norms Trump and the GOP violated — and that you had to also temporarily violate to counteract them — into law. Undo Trump-era, Obama-era, and Bush-era executive expansion.

If they succeed in November, Democrats should look to Louisiana Governor-turned Senator Huey Long as an example of how to govern in the wake of Trump.

“I used to get things done by saying please,” Long once said after an unsuccessful impeachment vote against him in 1929. “Now I’m a dynamiter.”

Huey Long often utilized procedural warfare as governor to circumvent the legislature and enact his policy agenda. While Louisiana was reeling from the Great Depression, Long undertook a New Deal-esque endeavor to revitalize the state’s infrastructure and create thousands of public sector jobs, expand public education and healthcare to poor people and people of color, and impose stiff regulations on banks that were preying on the poor.

Long worked to consolidate and expand his power by means that many felt were authoritarian. He gained a reputation for punishing political opponents early in his career, firing hundreds of bureaucrats and civil servants at every level of the Louisiana state government who didn’t support him and replacing them with people who did in the days after he took over the governorship. When politicians or institutional leaders opposed his agenda, he blocked funding and authorization for programs they wanted, ousted their family members from government jobs, and targeted them with retributive legislation. Incensed by negative coverage in the press, he founded his own newspaper. Later he co-founded an oil company, extending his powers of patronage beyond politics and into industry. Even after joining the Senate, he continued pushing bills through the Louisiana state legislature and retaliating against enemies and promoting supporters using his personal connections and state funding.

These tactics, Frank R. Kent summarized in a 1933 Atlantic article, “enabled Huey to win the battles waged against him, to save himself by a hair from impeachment, to elect himself to the Senate, to substitute a creature of his own to succeed him as Governor, to elect his personal counsel as his Senatorial colleague, to dominate all but one of the Louisiana House delegation, to force the publisher of one of the hostile New Orleans newspapers to eat out of his hand—in short, to reduce his opponents, who include the best people in the state, to a condition of complete impotence.”

This will be hard for a lot of Democrats to swallow, including Joe Biden should he win the election. This is where the power of protest needs to be utilized. The mass protests that defined the latter half of the Trump administration need to continue under a Biden administration to pressure him to use the full power of the executive branch to counteract entrenched right-wing extremism. The reason Obama surrounded himself with DC swamp creatures and Chicago party bosses and failed to enact a truly progressive agenda was because nobody pushed him to do otherwise. We can’t make the same mistake with Biden.

House and Senate Democrats who aren’t willing to fully commit to the mission of political chemotherapy to eradicate the cancer of Trumpism from the federal government should expect primary challenges. Senator Bernie Sanders should join forces with House members like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Jamaal Bowman, and Cori Bush to fundraise for primaries against obstacles in the way of the People’s Slate. Like Sun Tzu said, “let advance be richly awarded and retreat be heavily punished.”

The only alternative is to roll over and let the far right complete their conquest of America. And that’s something that can’t be allowed.