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The cracks appear – Soft national break-up already underway
With prospects for something much harder
This is the second part of an exploration of widening divisions and increasing social and geographical fragmentation in the U.S. The first part is here. This installment looks at the past year-and-a-half as the setting for an already emerging soft national break-up that could easily morph into something much harder in coming years.
By early summer 2019 when I went up on Disautel Pass to ponder prospects for a national break-up, it was clear something was coming. It was easy to read the tea leaves in the daily news. But I could not have imagined what was coming, or how fast.
In early 2020, a coronavirus from Wuhan, China quickly spread across the world, overwhelming health care systems, shutting down economies. The pandemic cracked the global economy in a way previously envisioned by only a few public health experts. Suddenly, it was no longer business as usual. The plunge into Great Depression conditions that took four years from 1929 to 1933 was compressed into a few months, throwing tens of millions out of work. By spring, hectic downtowns became boarded-up ghost towns. Crowded freeways turned into empty concrete ribbons.
Then in May, cellphone video of a particularly gruesome and cruel killing appeared showing a White Minneapolis cop asphyxiating a Black man to death. Across the U.S. and around the world, streets that had been empty swiftly filled again with protestors. Six years before, after another police execution of a Black man, that of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, only a relative few took to the streets there and in other U.S. cities. Now the cry born in Ferguson, Black Lives Matter!, echoed across the land. The killing of George Floyd sparked an uprising only hinted in the earlier protests. Far more White people joined, and in smaller towns and cities where such actions had not been seen before.
The sight of Officer Derek Chauvin holding his knee to the neck of a helpless man begging for his life touched a nerve that countless grisly videos of Black people being murdered by police had not. Perhaps it was the confluence of the pandemic and the killing. Death was in all our faces in ways it had not been before. Maybe we White people could identify with George Floyd because the combination of disease and economic disruption opened a vulnerability we had not felt before. One that Black people feel every day but from which most Whites are insulated in normal times.
An uprising against police violence spurred hundreds of documented instances of police violence. The police were shown as the domestic military arm of empire, with their armored vehicles rolling into crowds, and “non-lethal” projectiles and gases injuring many, some permanently. From New York City to Portland, Oregon, White people gained a crash course in the police terrorism that wracks communities of color daily.
Meanwhile, a bungled response to the Covid pandemic distinguished the United States from most of the world. Infection and death rates that only briefly dipped after partial spring lockdowns roared back again in summer. It was another war Vietnam won and the U.S. lost.
Ronald Reagan’s 1980s soulmate, Margaret Thatcher, once said, "There's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families." Both Reagan and Thatcher infected their nations with that virus, privileging the market over the political sphere as the prime mediator of human progress. No wonder the U.S. and U.K. were the developed nations hardest hit by the pandemic. These icons of neoliberalism and their “third way” successors, from Clinton and Blair on, deliberately eroded the very institutions and cultural intelligence needed to deal with a crisis requiring a common political and social response. Over the 40 years from 1980 to 2020, public health and education systems were gutted. Scientific knowledge was denied when it went against the unrestrained accumulation of wealth. The sense of the common good, that we’re all in this together, was made a mockery by a self-aggrandizing new aristocracy of wealth. Billionaires with palatial estates across the globe, transiting between them via personal air forces and navies, setting an example for all classes. Like fish, empires rot from the head down.
Thus, the nationwide lockdown of economic activities that could have contained the U.S. pandemic was undermined by a national administration led by a con artist and stuffed with the worst of corporate predators and science deniers. States controlled by “free market” Republicans were slow to mount a response because it would interfere with moneymaking, leaving it to blue state governors. The same dark money billionaires that promote climate denial funded astroturf anti-lockdown campaigns. Wearing a mask became a culture war. AR-15 toting militias waving Confederate flags invaded state capitols to threaten blue state governors. The fact Black, Brown and Red people were dying in disproportionate numbers seemed to encourage them.
Even free movement, so fundamental an assumption of American life, was in question. States such as New York set up checkpoints at the border. Travel by air became substantially more difficult. That iconic tale of ‘60s freedom, Easy Rider, became a twisted version of itself as tens of thousands of aging bikers gathered for their August annual rally in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Easy spreaders soon to become queasy riders. The Dakotas and upper Midwest would see some of the worst outbreaks.
Between the Covid meltdown and the Floyd uprising, with the cultural and racist backlash they incited, some form of national nervous breakdown seemed underway. My grim, gut-level foreboding felt to be taking physical shape, like a vaguely perceived apparition transforming into a poltergeist hurling furniture and sharp objects across the room. A nation incapable of assembling itself to mount a common response in the face of a pressing crisis, broken into warring cultures that appeared beyond any hope of reconciliation, was rolling down a bad road unchecked. A president determined to hold power at any cost was stepping on the gas. His racist dog whistles were morphing into a blaring horn band.
Looming was the apparent inevitability that Trump would try to contest the results of the November election, and that any result would not be accepted by millions on the losing side. Talk of a new civil war took on a seriousness unimaginable a couple of years before. Rightist factions such as the boogaloo bois and accelerationists welcomed that apocalypse, hearkening to the Regeneration by Violence mythology seething in the American psyche, called out by cultural historian Richard Slotkin.
In August. Trump’s former attorney and fixer Michael Cohen released the introduction to his book. “Given my experience working for Mr. Trump, I fear that if he loses the election in 2020 that there will never be a peaceful transition of power.” Sitting in prison, “ . . . I thought about the man I knew so well, I became even more convinced that Trump will never leave office peacefully . . . “
Then in days to follow, after a virtual coup d’etat at the U.S. Postal Service in which senior managers were cleared out, disturbing pictures would appear of trucks hauling off mailboxes, of the blue boxes stacked on their sides, piled on top of one another like cars in junkyards. Mailboxes that still stood sprouted bright red locks barring use. Hundreds of mail-sorting machines were being turned off. Postal workers reported them destroyed.
The Post Office was one of the original institutions of national unity, conceived as such by its first postmaster, Benjamin Franklin, appointed by the Continental Congress in 1775. It predated the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. The Post Office was not to be a profit-making business, not a UPS or a FedEx, but a public good aimed to serve the overarching interest of continental coherence. Now it was being torn apart by a president who as much as admitted it was to sabotage the mail-in votes he knew would put him out of the White House, in a transparent attempt to steal an election. If such a fundamental institution of national unity could be systematically destroyed in such a blatantly corrupt thrust for power, how far behind was national unity itself? M
The election produced the feared scenario. A president desperate not to go to prison claimed fraud. Angry crowds besieged vote counting centers from Philadelphia to Phoenix. The Trump campaign would file numerous lawsuits across the country trying to overturn results, all of them turned back, even by Trump-appointed judges. After some days, it was clear that Joe Biden had won a victory. Though his popular vote margin of more than six million appeared impressive – It would later grow beyond seven million – the Democratic ticket won the electoral college by only narrowly eking out majorities in closely contested states. 11,000 in Arizona. 13,000 in Georgia. 20,000 in Wisconsin. Gone to Trump, that cumulative total of 45,000 would have flipped 37 electoral votes, enough to set up a 269-269 tie and throw the election into the House of Representatives. The one state-one vote rule set up by the 12th Amendment of the Constitution almost certainly would have given Trump a second term.
That bullet was narrowly dodged. But the next would leave a deep wound in the U.S. republic and psyche, when crowds encouraged by a president rampaged through the Capitol January 6 seeking to disrupt the Electoral College vote count. It was just as Michael Cohen had predicted, with scenes of police officers being beaten, congressional offices ransacked, and the Senate chambers taken over by militants wearing horns and carrying bundles of zip ties, presumably to take elected officials captive, possibly before lynching them. While the president sat in the White House viewing the reality show he had helped produce, reportedly delighted as his beloved pulled off their insurrection. As more facts emerged over coming months, it was clear the assault was planned, with growing indications it was aided and abetted by Republican electeds and others high in right-wing political networks.
Coming months would see a hardening of the lines, seemingly beyond any possibility of reconciliation. Though Biden and Harris were sworn in without incident in a heavily militarized capital January 20, by May a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed that 61% of Republicans thought Biden stole it, and 53% believed Trump was the real president. A quarter of all adults polled considered the election fouled by voting fraud. Meanwhile, Republican legislatures in 14 states carried by Trump passed voter suppression laws, while bills were introduced in many other statehouses. The wildly undemocratic result missed by a hair in 2020 was seemingly almost baked into the cake for 2024, ensuring minority rule increasingly unacceptable to a majority of the population.
By mid-2021 it was clear that a soft national break-up was already underway, with far harder prospects coming into sight.
The next installment in this exploration will begin to look at some of the roots of this national crisis that have created a fractured geography far more complex than the U.S. faced in its first Civil War, and will begin to offer insights on how progressives can organize for democratic outcomes across this fragmented landscape.