A Whiff of Civil War in the Air

Malice and misinformation are driving national division.

On Thursday the University of Virginia released polling results that should shock exactly no one who closely follows American politics and culture. A majority of Trump voters (52 percent) and a strong minority of Biden voters (41 percent) strongly or somewhat agree that it’s “time to split the country.” 

Why would they even contemplate taking such a drastic step? Well, the poll provides the answers, and they’re not surprising. Competing partisans loathe each other and view the opposition as an existential threat. This also isn’t new. It’s been tracked in poll after poll for year after year. This one found that a “strong majority” of Trump supporters falsely believe there is no real difference between Democrats and socialists. A majority of Biden voters falsely see no real difference between Republicans and fascists.

What this poll tracked better than many others is that the mutual loathing is based more on emotion than policy. In fact, the poll found that majorities of Trump voters expressed support for most elements of the Biden infrastructure and reconciliation plan. Even the least popular plank (supporting unions by banning state “right to work” laws) garnered 42 percent support from those who voted for Trump. 

Yet broad consensus on the most important legislation now pending in Washington didn’t stop 80 percent of Biden voters and 84 percent of Trump voters from viewing the opposing party as a “clear and present threat to American democracy.” 

We’ve seen it time and again. The combination of malice and misinformation is driving American polarization to a fever pitch. While there are real differences between the political parties, a fundamental reality of American politics is that voters hate or fear the opposing side in part because they have mistaken beliefs about their opponents. They think the divide is greater than it is.

For example, other polls have found that Americans “substantially exaggerate the extent to which members of the other party dehumanize, dislike, and disagree with them.” In addition, “Democrats and Republicans imagine almost twice as many of their political opponents as reality hold views they consider ‘extreme.’” Moreover, this “perception gap” gets worse with increased education and media consumption. 

Last week the Washington Post’s Robert Kagan published one of the most important essays of the year. Called “Our constitutional crisis is already here,” Kagan persuasively argued that America was set for an electoral confrontation (especially if Trump runs again) that could lead to the “greatest political and constitutional crisis since the Civil War, with a reasonable chance over the next three to four years of incidents of mass violence, a breakdown of federal authority, and the division of the country into warring red and blue enclaves.”

He’s not wrong, and the reason he’s not wrong is hidden in an under-discussed paragraph deep in the essay. He understands what few people grasp—that American radicalism has now filtered down into the ranks of the “normal” folks, the solid citizens who are often the pillars of their communities. Here’s Kagan:

The banal normalcy of the great majority of Trump’s supporters, including those who went to the Capitol on Jan. 6, has befuddled many observers. Although private militia groups and white supremacists played a part in the attack, 90 percent of those arrested or charged had no ties to such groups. The majority were middle-class and middle-aged; 40 percent were business owners or white-collar workers. They came mostly from purple, not red, counties.

He says, “Most Trump supporters are good parents, good neighbors and solid members of their communities.” Yes, absolutely. In fact, it’s that normalcy in all other areas of their lives that blinds them to their increasingly dangerous and radical politics. They think, “I’m a completely normal person, a responsible citizen who never protests anything, and even I can see the existential threat of the left. You can’t? What’s wrong with you?”

Moreover, they are absolutely, positively, pass-a-polygraph convinced that they’re saving democracy, not destroying it. All of the state election reforms? They’re motivated to make sure that no one can “steal” an election again. Even if they’re not convinced of the Kraken-style massive fraud theory, they’re convinced that the 2020 election was “rigged” by Big Tech and Democrats colluding to change the rules and then suppress Trumpist speech (never mind that virtually every act of Twitter censorship only worked to amplify the censored speech, making it a topic of endless conversation on right-wing media).

The cycle works a bit like this. Malice and disdain makes a person vulnerable to misinformation. Misinformation then builds more malice and disdain and enhances the commercial demand for, you guessed it, more misinformation. Rinse and repeat until entire media empires exist to supply that demand. 

Moreover, there are different kinds of misinformation. There’s of course blunt, direct lying, which is rampant online. But there’s also deception by omission (a news diet that consistently feeds a person with news only of the excesses of the other side) and by exaggeration and hyperbole. 

I’ll give you a perfect example of the latter. Last week The Atlantic’s Emma Green published an interview of Ryan Williams, the president of the Claremont Institute, perhaps the leading intellectual home of Trumpism. Read this exchange:

Green: Glenn Ellmers wrote an essay for The American Mind about why the Claremont Institute isn’t conservative. One of the things he writes is that some people residing in the United States—“certainly more than half”—are not Americans in any recognizable sense.

What does it mean to declare that more than half of the people residing in the country are not truly American?

Williams: Glenn was, of course, being provocative and polemical. But if Claremont thinks real Americanism is a belief in the principles of the American founding, we have to acknowledge that a good portion of our fellow citizens don’t agree with our principles and conclusions about what politics is for. If we differ on those fundamental things, we’re really two Americas.

Even during the Civil War—I think we’re more divided now than we were then. As Lincoln said, we all prayed to the same God. We all believed in the same Constitution. We just differed over the question of slavery.

We just differed over the question of slavery. The question of whether a person has the right to own another human being is a heckuva “just.” The eradication of human bondage is one of the most significant social, political, and cultural movements in all of history. 

But note the messaging. Two Americas. More fundamentally divided than before the Civil War. Exaggeration. Hyperbole. Indeed, this kind of language is in many ways more dangerous than outright lies. You can fact-check the Kraken lawsuits. How can you possibly “disprove” the statement of opinion above? Or the burning conviction that if only Twitter hadn’t suppressed those Hunter Biden emails then Donald Trump would have won? 

Once your eyes are open to hyperbole, you see it constantly. On Friday, for example, the left side of my Twitter feed burned up with retweets of Dinesh D’Souza. I can understand the argument that mainstream commentators have overestimated the severity of January 6, but I cannot understand this:

The right side of my feed, meanwhile, kept retweeting Rolling Stone. I can understand the argument that the Biden infrastructure plans are, on balance, better-designed to combat climate change than alternative plans or no plan at all, but I cannot understand this:

And sins of media omission are often worse than sins of commission. Again, mistakes can be corrected, but a steady media diet of true negative stories about our opponents can build a sense of profound grievance. Stripped of any kind of balance, one can easily build a monstrous caricature of your political opposition.

I’ve written about all of this before. I even wrote a book about it! Divided We Fall came out a year ago last week, and it presented a simple argument—that America’s strongest social, political, and cultural forces were driving America apart, and that if we did not arrest the trend and address the culture of grievance that animates our politics, the future unity of the nation could not be guaranteed.

I think I released the book a year too soon. Now the trends are so abundantly clear that warnings about potential coups, rising hatred, and civil strife appear in virtually every major American publication. Secession talk has moved from the fringe to the mainstream with alarming speed. 

There’s something else that’s going on. With rising hatred, I’m seeing a rise in a purely destructive spirit, especially on the right. “The fight” becomes everything. The destruction of the “elite” is the object. There’s a famous French Revolution-era maxim that declares that one does not make an omelet without breaking eggs. That maxim has served as a shorthand warning against Utopianism ever since. 

But what if there’s not even an omelet? What if the movement is simply about breaking eggs? What if “fighting” isn’t a means to an end, but rather the end itself? 

In his excellent G-File on Friday, Jonah highlighted a perfect example of destruction as an ideology. GOP Senate candidate J.D. Vance went on Tucker Carlson’s television show and said, “Why are we allowing the companies, the foundations that are destroying this country to receive tax preferences? Why don’t we seize the assets of the Ford Foundation, tax their assets, and give it to the people who’ve had their lives destroyed by their radical open borders agenda?“ 

If we take Vance seriously, consider the sheer destruction of his proposal. To make it happen, you’d have to demolish the First Amendment, dramatically ramp up state power to seize private assets, and then enable distribution of those funds through pure patronage. There is no “common good” or “social justice” at the end of that process. It’s tribalism. Me and mine versus you and yours. 

And if we’re not supposed to take Vance seriously, then that presents a whole set of competing problems. It represents the continued descent of our political class into what Jonah calls the “parliament of pundits”—a collection of people who exist less to set policy than to whip up anger and rage online. 

It’s important to understand that there is no policy fix for malice and misinformation. There is no five-point plan for national harmony. Popular policies (like the Biden policies supported by Trump voters) don’t unite us, and there are always differences and failures to help renew our rage. 

Instead, we are dealing with a spiritual and moral sickness. Malice and disdain are conditions of the soul. Misinformation and deception are sinful symptoms of fearful and/or hateful hearts. 

One of the great tragedies of our time is that a nation oppressed by malice and misinformation should be ready to receive a Christian message of love and truth. It’s exactly now that a healthy church could be a beacon in the darkness. Yet is that truly the Christian presence in our political culture?

Let’s take, for example, something as simple as the Ninth Commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” That’s not just a command. It’s a way of living. The Westminster Larger Catechism states our obligations powerfully. Read this in light of our modern political discourse (emphasis added):

The duties required in the ninth commandment are, the preserving and promoting of truth between man and man, and the good name of our neighbor, as well as our own; appearing and standing for the truth; and from the heart, sincerely, freely, clearly, and fully, speaking the truth, and only the truth, in matters of judgment and justice, and in all other things whatsoever; a charitable esteem of our neighbors; loving, desiring, and rejoicing in their good name; sorrowing for, and covering of their infirmities; freely acknowledging of their gifts and graces, defending their innocency; a ready receiving of a good report, and unwillingness to admit of an evil report, concerning them; discouraging talebearers, flatterers, and slanderers; love and care of our own good name, and defending it when need requireth; keeping of lawful promises; studying and practicing of whatsoever things are true, honest, lovely, and of good report.

It’s hard for me to read those words and not hang my head in shame. I too often fail to achieve that standard. Yet vast numbers of the Christian political coalition do not even try. To them, there is a hidden politics exception to virtually every relevant command. 

I do not pretend for one moment that there aren’t significant differences between left and right. But our system was built from the ground up to channel political differences through a Constitution that is designed to protect the fundamental human rights of both winners and losers, majorities and minorities, including minorities of one. 

So long as those constitutional guarantees last, the stakes of our political disputes should never grow so high as to necessitate the rupture of our national union. And if we want social peace in a time when false accusations of “socialism” or “fascism” echo across the land, then telling the truth about our opponents is the most fundamental and necessary start. 

One more thing …

Is it wrong to promote my book one year after release? I’ve returned to its themes in this essay, but there’s one aspect I wanted to single out. Just as we won’t make our way through the wilderness by exaggerating disagreement, we can’t minimize our differences either. The path forward isn’t through a “squishy” moderation that asks members of our political and religious communities to abandon or alter their fundamental beliefs as a condition of full participation in American society. 

A healthy pluralism allows Americans to bring their authentic selves into the public square. Here’s how I put it in the book:

Our nation should be a nation that sustains and nurtures “an increased variety of parties.” It should protect a legal system and culture that in turn protect a “variety of sects dispersed over the entire face” of continental union. 

That does not mean for a moment that any citizen abandons their faith, their truth claims, or their quest to end injustice as they see it. It does mean, however, that this quest is to be accomplished—whenever possible—through persuasion and minimal necessary coercion. It means restraint in imposing unwanted systems on unwilling communities unless essential civil liberties are at stake. It means changing a narrative that is presently teaching each great American faction that every national political loss is a reason for existential despair. And perhaps most importantly, it requires an act of common citizenship—extending yourself to fight for the rights of others that you would like to exercise yourself.

More:

But to embrace pluralism is to surrender the dream of domination. To embrace pluralism is to acknowledge that even the quest for domination is dangerous. It understands that human beings will not yield that which is most precious to them, even at the point of a gun. Embracing pluralism means embracing the lessons of history and understanding that not even our great nation is immune to the forces that have fractured unions older than ours. Our nation’s angriest culture warriors need to know the cost of their conflict. As they seek to crush their political and cultural enemies, they may destroy the nation they seek to rule.

Check out the whole thing. I’m very sad to say that the book’s warnings and predictions hold up even more now than they did one year ago. 

One last thing …

I love this new song by Kristene DiMarco. She says on Instagram that she wrote it “in the heat of a summer full of people arguing … a summer where we were all right in our own eyes.” I love the opening line, which speaks so clearly to our idolization of politics and cultural power: “I’m done trusting in what’s sinking, these boats weren’t built for me.”