The hysterical fantasy of an impending civil war

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The hysterical fantasy of an impending civil war

America’s elites have developed a pathological hatred of democracy.

Frank Furedi

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Topics Long-reads Politics USA

The governing elites of the Anglo-American world are in the grip of hysteria.

Early symptoms of this hysteria were showing in their panicked response to the pandemic. However, since the turn of the year, these symptoms have developed into full-on delirium. The main prompt for this has been the anniversary of the Capitol riot in Washington, DC, on 6 January.

Elite media outlets have been unable simply to reflect on the events of that day a year ago. Instead they have been indulging in endless speculation about the likelihood of a new civil war in America. The Guardian, in particular, has been full of such dystopian claims. ‘US could be under right-wing dictator by 2030, Canadian professor warns’, runs one headline. ‘America is now in fascism’s legal phase’, runs another. As one article in the same paper puts it, ‘There will be those who say that warning of a new civil war is alarmist. All I can say is that reality has outpaced even the most alarmist predictions.’

And it’s not just the Guardian indulging in feverish dreams of fascism and civil war. A piece in Politico asserts that ‘the Trump years… have awakened a conflict so profound that, as in the 1860s, democracy, constitutional order and union itself are in peril’. In the Washington Post, three retired American generals warn that ‘the military must prepare now for a 2024 insurrection’. Even long before 6 January, a Vice article cited ‘several experts’ to back up the assertion that a ‘we’re already in the early stages of [a civil war], a period before large-scale political violence the CIA defines as an “incipient insurgency”’.

Others are content merely to ask if a civil war is approaching. This is not an innocent question, however. It is a way of framing any challenge to the reigning political establishment as evidence of the approaching civil war.

The idea that America is facing a civil war is being most systematically and cynically elaborated by the New York Times. It presents the threat of insurgency as a permanent fact of life, the far-right Trumpist threat always at the gates.

The Times seems almost addicted to this fantasy of an impending civil war. On the very first day of this year, it issued an editorial statement declaring that ‘every day’ is now 6 January. The implication of the editorial was clear enough: the republic faces an existential threat, made worse by too many not recognising it as such. ‘No self-governing society can survive such a threat by denying it exists’, the Times argues.

The worldview of America’s political and cultural elites is now shot through with allusions to insurgency and insurrection, and peppered with knowing nods to organised conspiracies to bring down a democratically elected government. The function of such wilfully fearful rhetoric is twofold. First, it provides its proponents’ defence of the status quo with a moral, righteous lustre. And second, it serves to delegitimise their political opponents. That is, it presents any challenge to the status quo not as a political challenge, but as part of an attempt to bring down the republic. A neo-fascist insurgency. A far-right, white-supremacist putsch.

A Trump supporter inside the Capitol, 6 January 2021.
A Trump supporter inside the Capitol, 6 January 2021.

Since the publication of its editorial statement, the Times has continued to interpret American public life through the prism of an impending civil war. In an article entitled ‘How to stop Trump and prevent another [6 January]’, Times columnist Thomas Friedman positions himself on the side of truth and facts against ‘the distorted beliefs about the attack on the Capitol’. These, he said, are ‘fueled by crackpot conspiracy theories circulated by Facebook, Fox News and Republican politicians’. In reality, however, the most corrosive crackpot conspiracy theory is the one that attempts to present the events of 6 January as part of a new civil war.

Demosphobia

The hysterical framing of the events of 6 January tells us very little about the attack on the Capitol. But it does say a lot about the disorientation of America’s ruling elites, and their greatest fear – the democratic will of the people.

There is of course no excusing the shameful scenes from a year ago. Rioting supporters of Donald Trump invaded the Capitol. They assaulted police officers guarding the building, vandalised property and occupied the Capitol building until they were ejected by security personnel. The events of that day ought to be condemned. But they need to be condemned on their own terms, as a politically motivated riot that got out of hand.

What they certainly were not was an organised insurrection. And only a determined fearmonger would present them as such. So when vice-president Kamala Harris compared 6 January to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and to 9/11, she was being spectacularly and deliberately dishonest. There seemed to be no other point to such comparisons than to heighten the public’s sense of alarm.

Remember that although five people died during the Capitol riot, the rioters themselves did not kill a single person. In contrast, 2,403 people were killed at Pearl Harbor and 2,996 were killed in the 9/11 attacks. Yet the tendentious, fear-mongering presentation of the Capitol riots has been unquestioningly internalised by a hysterical media. The Huffington Post’s White House reporter, SV Dáte, tweeted that the three-hour-long riot at the Capitol was ‘1,000 per cent worse’ than 9/11. Harris and her media supporters not only misrepresent the events of 6 January 2021 – they also trivialise 9/11 and the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Moreover, the FBI and other police agencies have signally failed to provide proof of an organised insurrection or conspiracy. Last August, Reuters reported that ‘the FBI has found scant evidence that the 6 January attack on the US Capitol was the result of an organised plot to overturn the presidential election result’.

But a lack of evidence has not stopped the Democratic establishment from presenting 6 January as an organised insurrection. The Democratic House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, recently declared that ‘it is essential that we preserve the narrative’ of 6 January. In other words, it is essential for Democrats to continue to present 6 January as an organised insurrection, regardless of the facts.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi attends a vigil commemorating the anniversary of the Capitol riot, 6 January 2022.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi attends a vigil commemorating the anniversary of the Capitol riot, 6 January 2022.

The key question, of course, is why? Why are so many among America’s political and media elite determined to present what happened on 6 January as something it was not? At first sight it is tempting to dismiss this catastrophist framing of the Capitol riot as pure scaremongering propaganda. But it is more than that. Sections of the political and cultural establishment really are fearful. Not because of what actually happened a year ago, but because they have become so paranoid about what they perceive as the threat of populism that they have lost the capacity to assess threats objectively. This paranoia hasn’t come out of nowhere. Rather it has its roots in the elite’s growing anxiety about the people – the demos. Indeed, in the 21st-century, this anxiety has become pathological – it has become demosphobia.

This demosphobia, or the fear of the people, acquired its most virulent form in 2016, in the aftermath of the vote for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as US president. These two democratic events delivered body blows to the ruling elites in both the UK and the US. Since then, the political, media and cultural elites have become accustomed to using words like fascist, authoritarian and anti-democratic in order to delegitimise and undermine their populist opponents. Indeed, populism has invariably been represented as a threat to democracy. Which is deeply ironic, given the elites’ reaction against Brexit, Trump and populism in general was animated by powerful anti-democratic sentiments.

This is how we should understand the elites’ civil-war narrative-cum-fantasy – as a sublimated expression of their ongoing culture war against democracy.

Anti-democratic sentiment abounds in elite circles today. In Democracy and its Crisis (2017), philosopher AC Grayling effectively complains that democracy does not deliver the ‘right’ results. This was illustrated, he argues, by the Brexit referendum and Trump’s election victory. According to Grayling, they both show that ‘something has gone seriously wrong in the state of democracy’ (1).

Demosphobia has led to a dystopian view of democracy. The idea that democracy itself is a threat is captured by the titles of the glut of books that have emerged in the past few years. For instance, there’s Saving Democracy From Suicide, Democracy in Chains and even How Democracy Ends. The narrative of there now being a never-ending civil war in America is the merely latest form taken by demosphobia.

Since the advent of the pandemic, elite anxiety about the workings of democracy has become hysterical. Indeed, populism is sometimes portrayed as a virus that is no less of a threat than Covid itself. Take Australian Labor politician Andrew Leigh’s What’s the Worst That Could Happen: Existential Risk And Extreme Politics. Leigh claims that the existential threat posed by climate change, pandemics and nuclear war are not unlike that posed by populism itself.

This is how we should understand the hyperbole about an impending civil war – it is part of an elite attack on populism and against the exercise of popular sovereignty.

Thankfully most Americans are not taken in by it. A recent CBS poll showed that 76 per cent of respondents said they saw 6 January as a ‘protest that went too far’ rather than an attempted putsch. Which is hardly a surprise. Most people are far too intelligent to confuse a violent protest with an insurrection. Their response shows that there is a real popular pushback against this elite politics of hysteria. Which means that the conflict over what really happened on 6 January will continue, too.

Countering the elite’s politics of fear with a robust defence of democratic decision making has never been more necessary. The future of the American republic depends on it.

Frank Furedi’s 100 Years of Identity Crisis: Culture War over Socialisation is published by De Gruyter.

(1) Democracy and its Crisis, by AC Grayling, Oneworld Publications, 2017, p11

All pictures by: Getty.

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