Republican MAGA movement folks have been predicting another civil war. The federal government’s deep state is trampling upon their freedoms and those of former President Donald Trump.
Two days after Election Day in 2020, Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers armed extremist group, told his high-ranking members: “We aren’t getting through this without a civil war.” Twitter posts mentioning “civil war” soared nearly 3,000 percent, denouncing the F.B.I. for searching Donald J. Trump’s Florida home for missing classified documents.
The last time a civil war was threatened occurred was when the Abolitionists, the core group creating the emerging new liberal Republican Party, pushed the Southern states to abandon slavery.
Liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats were fiercely divided on whether enslaved Black people should be freed, but it took place within the context of individual states defining citizenship. Did the federal government have the right to declare new states free from slavery? Or should the new states have the freedom to have Black slaves?
The threat of civil war then and now is about defining citizenship. In the past, the struggle was to allow Black slaves to achieve citizenship. Today it is to secure functional citizenship for ethnic and cultural minorities.
History does not repeat itself as a carbon copy. Instead, it replicates patterns. By identifying them, we can better comprehend how our current social movements sustain or destroy our democratic society.
The abolitionist movement became the most significant disruptive political movement of the late 1850s; the biggest today is MAGA. Each achieved a national presence by displacing the leadership of one of the existing two political parties that form a duopoly of controlling national political power. The Whig Party floundered and then folded as the abolitionists made the Republican Party the second-largest party in the nation. Since the election of Donald J. Trump as President, the establishment Republican political leaders have succumbed to the MAGA wing of their party because of its grip on the primary system.
Although abolitionists did not initially push for expanding citizenship, once Black slaves were to be freed, they did not actively oppose it. However, they were joined by many citizens in the North who feared that the South was threatening their citizenship.
The growth of the abolitionist movement can be directly attributed to a response to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act that the Southern-dominated Congress and President Pierce sponsored. As described by Glenn Young in The Winning Words, “a wide range of local and ordinary people were taken into custody for failing to support the professional slave catchers who came to their communities.” And in response, “there were public demonstrations and even riots in support of Blacks, instead of the traditional riots attacking Blacks and white supporters of abolition.” Protests and the explosion of the underground railway, which ran through the North to Canada and freed an estimated 30,000 slaves, led to the revival of the dormant push for the abolition of slavery.
The threat of an aggressive South was highlighted when Massachusetts, Republican Senator Charles Sumner, was physically beaten on the Senate floor by pro-slave South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks. The South defended Brooks’ actions. The Richmond Enquirer denounced Sumner, editorializing that “these vulgar Abolitionists in the Senate … have been suffered to run too long without collars.”
Today those in the MAGA movement fear that their citizenship is being diluted through immigration, particularly by the wave of asylum seekers that appear to be overwhelming our border facilities. And the primary thrust of MAGA (Making America Great Again) harkens back to when Black citizens were discriminated against in public schools, private businesses, and facilities serving the public. Citizenship was then more narrowly defined. Looking back to that era, it was seen as a period of security from an influx of strange new inhabitants.
When President Trump pushed for building “the wall” to keep unregistered immigrants from crossing our Mexican border, he voiced the fear many MAGA folks felt about having their citizenship replaced by the newcomers; America wasn’t their home anymore.
And when Trump was impeached and indicted for possible criminal actions, he was treated like a hero speaking the truth, much as Brooks was when he beat down Sumner. The MAGA folks are as passionate about drastic change as the Abolitionists were a hundred years ago. But unlike MAGA supporters, they recognized the presidential elections as legitimate when their first candidate John C. Frémont lost.
The Abolitionists didn’t ask for the Civil War. They even tried to avoid one to preserve the Union. In 1856 they conceded to allowing slavery in the existing slave states but nowhere else. The Republicans did not win the 1856 presidential race. However, when Lincoln ran in 1860, the abolitionist movement was steering the Republican Party, and he was their candidate, although not their first choice.
The South declared that if Lincoln were elected president, they would secede from the United States. They knew that by only adding new non-slave states, they would be outvoted in Congress and have their South Slavocracy threatened. They were willing to fight for their beliefs, as were the Abolitionists who would not tolerate creating new slave states. So, the Abolitionists did spark the Civil War by refusing to accept the growth of slavery in America.
The Abolitionist and MAGA movements gained significant weight within one of the dominant parties to determine national policies. Their passion for pursuing an agenda to the brink of a civil war, according to Elizabeth Neumann, assistant secretary for counter-terrorism at the Homeland Security Department under Trump, raises “The question [of] what does ‘civil war’ look like and what does it mean?” She is concerned because she had not anticipated “how rapidly the violence would escalate” about the January 6 insurrection and the following violence.
In comparing these two movements, there are two primary reasons why there is little to support the contention that we will see another civil war fought between the states.
First, civil wars need a geographical base for the opposing sides to operate from, as happened in our Civil War, North against South. The MAGA base is dispersed across the country, but principally in rural areas; they need a secure territory to command—the alternative for radical MAGA members would be to carry on long-term guerilla warfare, which rarely finds victory. Without sustained shelter and heavy outside funding, rebellions usually dissipate and fail to replace the existing regime.
Second, a civil war requires a fight over controlling an identifiable and tangible objective. The North wanted slavery eliminated. The South wanted it to continue. MAGA aims to eradicate the deep state, but where? Who’s in it? For MAGA, the deep state is present in all 50 states that approved the “stolen election.” Any former Republican Party member who is anti-Trump, or not loyal to him is also in it. The organizational problem for MAGA is that the enemy is too amorphous to target since it is seen everywhere and could include anyone at any time, even former allies.
Although America will avoid a classic civil war, it already is in a “cold” civil war of heightened polarization and mistrust between the MAGA base and liberals. That condition has morphed into violence and threatened violence against individuals doing their civic duty. Extreme cases involved making death threats to volunteers overseeing the 2020 presidential election results, and such threats continue three years later.
On August 16, 2023, NBC News learned that the purported names and addresses of members of the Georgia grand jury that indicted Donald Trump on state racketeering charges were posted on a fringe website that often features violent rhetoric. A post on a pro-Trump forum responded to the exposure of the jurors’ personal information: “These jurors have signed their death warrant by falsely indicting President Trump.”
These potentially deadly actions replay the political and philosophical conflicts that have historically divided our nation into opposing interest groups for asserting citizenship rights and privileges. Those divisions center around racial, ethnic, economic, religious, and geographical clashes.
Examples go back over 150 years. In 1860 the American Party was close to becoming the second party, not the Republican Party, based on its hostility to immigrants and Catholics. Hostility to Catholics was finally snuffed out when John F. Kennedy became president. Malicious opposition to immigration has ebbed and flowed, with it peaking again. Racial and ethnic discrimination has remained an institutional legacy, and while churchgoing has decreased, religion remains a rallying force in the MAGA movement. The rural, urban political divide is greater now than ever before. One constant feature in America’s past, and every other nation, is the conflict between the haves and the have-nots.
Some commentators recommend that opposing sides listen to each other, as Monica Guzman writes in Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times. Listening to the other side is the first step toward rational discussions. But our history shows the odds of that happening on a grand scale to eliminate intense fights are slim.
However, there is traction among some Democrats and Republicans, which are the political bases for MAGA and liberals, to recognize and respect the democratic functions of government regardless of who is in public office. That is a heavy lift for these outliers, whose friends are deeply suspicious about the reliability of the government to be fair to their side of the divide.
However, through the effort of some leaders, no matter how scorned, to emphasize the need to operate within a democratic republic’s institutions, citizens can ignore the siren’s songs of despair and anger. And thus, avoid crashing our society upon the ragged shores of a civil war, whether that war is violent or illegally subversive.
Nick Licata is the author of Becoming A Citizen Activist and Student Power, Democracy and Revolution in the Sixties. He is the founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of over 1,300 progressive municipal officials. Subscribe to Licata’s newsletter Citizenship Politics