By Chris Mackowski
With impeachment in the air, political rhetoric has already ratcheted to such a level that it’s hard to tell what’s really going on without making an effort to sift through the clutter. In the midst of that cacophony, though, one of President Trump’s tweets has come across as especially inflammatory: “If the Democrats are successful in removing the President from office (which they will never be), it will cause a Civil War like fracture in this Nation from which our Country will never heal.”
President Trump was paraphrasing Robert Jeffress, pastor of a Dallas megachurch and Fox News contributor. During a Fox appearance, Jeffress predicted, “If the Democrats are successful in removing the president from office, it will cause a Civil War-like fracture in this nation from which our country will never heal.”
Like many of the president’s tweets, this one sparked controversy. The reaction of Fox’s legal affairs analyst, Andrew Napolitano, was typical: “The president’s allusions to violence are palpably dangerous. They will give cover to crazies who crave violence, as other intemperate words of his have done.” Napolitano added, “This language is a dog whistle to the deranged.”
Is such reaction overblown, or is there credibility to the idea of a second Civil War?
As Eleanor Clift of the Daily Beast pointed out, this “second Civil War” idea didn’t come out of left field (or right field, as the case may be), and a quick internet search shows some of Trump’s most right-wing supporters take the idea quite seriously. Trump’s critics, meanwhile, mocked him with Civil War sign-ups. Regardless of political leanings, enough people were curious enough about the idea that “Civil War 2” trended on Twitter.
I see three factors at work here, beyond the hyper-partisan environment that over-emotionalizes political discourse.
1) Trump’s tendency to exaggerate flamboyantly.
2) Trump’s narcissism.
3) Trump’s—and America’s—general ignorance about American history.
I realize it looks like I’ve just crossed an analytical line here, so please let me explain.
First, Trump’s powers of exaggeration have been well documented. Starting with the controversy over his inauguration attendance, everything in the Age of Trump has been bigger, better, greater, faster, more powerful, and most excellent. “Bigly” became a catch phrase for a while (I notice the president has stopped using the word).
As a rhetorical tool, exaggeration is useful for several reasons. It simplifies and, thus, clarifies. It raises the stakes. It makes rewards seem greater. Trump effectively takes advantage of all these things.
Second, Trump’s worldview puts himself at the center of all events. When he accepted the Republican nomination in July 2016, for instance, he ticked off a litany of American problems and boasted “only I can fix it.” In August of this year, he warned supporters that his defeat in 2020 would send Americans’ 401(k) retirement accounts “down the tubes.” Just this past week, he blamed the steep drop in the stock market on “All of this impeachment nonsense” rather than on reports showing slowing job growth and a downturn in manufacturing.
As the hero of his own story, he becomes, by rhetorical extension, the hero of a story his supporters can relate to. The more they connect, the more invested in the story they become. Trump effectively takes advantage of the resulting emotional connection, which overrides logic. (That’s the same reason we’re apt to forgive plot holes in a movie we love.)
Finally, Trump seems woefully ignorant about American history. He tends to get away with it because Americans themselves, by and large, remain ignorant about our own history.
As an example, on September 25, 2019, Trump tweeted, “There has been no President in the history of our Country who has been treated so badly as I have”—the most recent of several such claims he’s made.
My first reaction is to always wonder how presidents Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy might respond to a statement like that.
Beyond the four victims of assassination, three presidents faced impeachment: Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton. Thus, Trump’s claims of unprecedented poor treatment notwithstanding, if current impeachment proceedings go forward, he would share the fate of three predecessors—making his treatment hardly unprecedented. Johnson and Clinton both survived impeachment (as Trump would be apt to), although Johnson survived by only one vote. Nixon, of course, resigned. If Trump has been treated so badly, perhaps he’d like to trade places with Johnson or Nixon.
Trump’s penchant for exaggerating and his narcissism make it easy for him to overlook the precedents American history offers. History becomes, then, just one more set of “alternative facts” to be forgotten, dismissed, or ignored.
And this brings us back to civil war.
The polarization we see in America today is hardly new. It is, I admit, bad but I don’t think it’s the worst it’s ever been. I don’t think we can even say it’s as bad as it’s been since the run-up to the Civil War.
If one wonders about bitter divisiveness, one can look back as far as the 1790s.
“Through the 1790s harmony gave way to savage quarrels over the country’s future direction…” historian Bernard A. Weisberger has pointed out. “Partisan rancor festered and erupted in riots, repressive laws, and vicious slanders.” It was also an era of rapidly increasing literacy. Newspapers took on an outsized role in reporting on—and shaping—the news. Papers all had editorial slants as partisan as the politicians themselves.
As a result, says Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph Ellis, “in the supercharged atmosphere of the time, all political attack, no matter how preposterous, enjoyed some claim on credibility.”
Partisanship during the early part of the decade grew so rancorous that Thomas Jefferson, George Washington’s secretary of state, founded an opposition newspaper critical of Washington. Jefferson selected Philip Freneau to run the paper, the National Gazette, and paid him by putting Freneau on the State Department payroll ostensibly as a clerk. As another example, America’s ambassador to France, James Monroe, actively worked against Washington’s foreign policy objectives while in Paris.
The atmosphere became so poisonous that Washington—America’s indispensable man, the very embodiment of the Revolution—decided to retire rather than seek a third term in office (which he surely would have won). “These things…fill my mind with much concern, and with serious anxiety,” Washington admitted. “Indeed, the trouble and perplexities which they occasion, added to the weight of years which have passed over me, have worn away my mind more than my body; and renders ease and retirement indisputably necessary to both….”
John Adams, the vice president, followed Washington into the presidency in 1796. Political divisions became so entrenched that Adams, who tried to rise above them, found himself a man without a party. The Election of 1800—so notorious that it earned capitalization—became one of the most (if not the most) contentious in American history. “Partisans worried the Election of 1800 might be the young republic’s last,” notes Pulitzer-winning historian Edward J. Larson.
America, of course, survived. The “apparent death-spiral,” as Weisberger called it, culminated in “a triumph” because, despite the acrimony, the transfer of power from Adams to Jefferson “passed in peace.” Larson characterize the Election of 1800 as the “critical election that, more than any other, stamped American democracy with its distinctive bipartisan character.” It would have been hard to imagine that the ascension of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe—the Virginia Dynasty—would culminate in a period known as “The Era of Good Feelings.”
One can look to the 1850s as another time of extreme divisiveness. The Industrial Revolution and an influx of immigrants redefined social dynamics in ways most Americans could not have anticipated. Labor strife, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, an early decade rise in nativism, a Northern industrial economy that overshadowed the Southern agricultural economy, and violent mayhem in “Bleeding Kansas” as a result of the supposed Kansas-Nebraska compromise over slavery all contributed to tensions. However, as historian James McPherson points out in his Pulitzer-winning Battle Cry of Freedom, “The greatest danger to American survival at midcentury…was sectional conflict between North and South over the future of slavery.”
“[T]he country’s sprawling growth…made the issue so explosive,” McPherson adds. As more territory came into the United States, the question of whether to allow slavery in that new territory had a direct impact on the balance of power between North and South in both the House and Senate. The political stakes grew enormous.
As did the moral stakes. A religious revival had swept America in the early part of the century, the Second Great Awakening, sparking the anti-slavery movement known as abolitionism. Although a minority of the northern population, abolitionists spoke with a voice magnified by their own moral certainty. “By midcentury this antislavery movement had gone into politics and had begun to polarize the country,” McPherson writes.
Newspapers remained as partisan as ever. “[I]n the age of Lincoln,” writes Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, “the press and politics often functioned in tandem to win power and to promote—or, alternatively, resist—political and social change.” (For more on media bias in “the age of Lincoln,” check out this post I wrote at Emerging Civil War in 2017, “Outraged about “media bias”? Read a Civil War newspaper.”) With a literacy rate reaching almost 90 percent in the 1850s, the public had some 2,500 newspapers, including some 373 dailies, to keep them informed (Harris, 9).
Meanwhile, the “social media” of its day, the telegraph, made seemingly instant updates possible across great distances. President James Buchanan, before leaving office, wondered about the impact of this technology not only on media coverage but on the public imagination:
I do not know whether the great commercial and social advantages of the telegraph are not counterbalanced by its political evils. No one can judge of this so well as myself. The public mind throughout the interior is kept in a constant state of excitement by what are called “telegrams.” They are short and spicy, and can easily be insert in the country newspapers. In the city journals they can be contradicted the next day; but the case is different throughout the country (Harris 8).
When the first domino of Secession finally fell in South Carolina in November 1860, though, it was the culmination of a debate—argument?—that began not during the fractious 1850s but decades earlier. In 1832, South Carolina threatened to secede, sparking an incident known as the Nullification Crisis, which President Andrew Jackson, himself a southerner, diffused.
Decades before that, disgruntled Federalists in New England discussed the possibility of seceding at a late 1814 meeting known as the Hartford Convention. Even before that, Jefferson and his political partner James Madison drafted the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, which contended that state governments had the right to overrule, or nullify, Federal laws they disagreed with.
Even as the Civil War itself raged, discussion arose among northern malcontents and Confederate subversives about a possible breakaway by the Old Northwest—Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota—although the ersatz “Northwest Conspiracy” amounted to little.
So, we’ve heard talk of civil war before last weekend’s Trumpian tweet. We’ve experienced plenty of bitter partisanship and deep political division. We’ve been troubled by the role of the media as a reporter of and contributor to the national tumult.
History may not repeat itself but, as Mark Twain contended, it does rhyme.
The Civil War represented not only a geographic split but also a philosophical one about race. A similar philosophical discussion split America during the women’s suffrage movement, which divided America along gender rather than racial lines. The 1930s saw significant disagreement over how to deal with the Depression and what the government’s role should or should not be in the solution. The 1960s—particularly the post-Camelot years—saw significant disagreements about the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. Violence broke out repeatedly.
It took four bloody years and as many as 750,000 lives to settle the Civil War. At times, the answer remained in doubt. “Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish,” Lincoln said in his second inaugural address. “And the war came.”
Those are the words of a president who knew civil war intimately. He did not speak of it casually. He avoided histrionics. He did not try to score political points or underscore his own importance by situating himself at the center of the war, although that’s where history ultimately placed him. Instead, he used his position to lay out a vision for America that speaks to the better angels of our nature:
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.
Joseph Ellis, His Excellency: George Washington (New York: Knopf, 2004), 230, 231.
Brayton Harris, Blue & Gray in Black & White (Washington: Brassey’s, 1999), 9.
Harold Holzer, Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014).
Edward J. Larson, A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign (New York: Free Press, 2007), 4.
Bernard Weisberger, America Afire: Jefferson, Adams, and the First Contested Election (New York, Harper Collins, 2000), 8.
Chris Mackowski is a professor of journalism and mass communication at St. Bonaventure University’s Jandoli School of Communication, where he serves as associate dean of undergraduate programs. He is also the editor-in-chief of Emerging Civil War (www.emergingcivilwar.com) and the author of more than a dozen books about the Civil War.