Armed members of the far-right Proud Boys groups stand guard during a memorial for Patriot Prayer member Aaron Jay Danielson on September 5, 2020 in Vancouver, Washington. © Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images

The new American Civil War

Two tribes, Trump and the State of an imperilled Union
October 2, 2020

With the arrival of autumn (or fall, as we say), much of the western United States was engulfed in flames. Two dozen wildfires, covering more than three million acres in California, had been raging for two weeks and had swept up the coast to Oregon (with possible help from arsonists) and Washington: entire towns ablaze with flames fed by dry forest timber and parched fields, tens of thousands of people fleeing their destroyed homes under apocalyptic orange skies, smoke and ash billowing east across the continent.

All the while that other great hovering orange nimbus, President Donald J Trump, kept his distance from California, preferring to jab at its troubles from afar. “I see again the forest fires are starting. They’re starting again in California,” Trump told a campaign crowd in the critical battleground of Pennsylvania. The problem, he explained, begins with California’s poor forest management. “I said, you gotta clean your floors, you gotta clean your forests—there are many, many years of leaves and broken trees and they’re like, like, so flammable, you touch them and it goes up.”

Needless to say, scientists have pointed to other reasons, beginning with volatile weather systems caused by “extreme climate change.” But Trump is not so sure. “I don’t think science knows, actually,” he told officials in California. Nor is he especially curious to discover more. There is a federal fire science budget, but Trump “has twice tried unsuccessfully to eliminate it altogether,” the Washington Post reported.

Trump’s blaming of the afflicted states also ignored another fundamental fact. Many of the charred square miles are federal lands—“nearly 60 per cent of the forests in California, 25 per cent of the forests in Oregon, and 44 per cent in Washington,” as Politico noted. This implies that the federal government has responsibilities—or would, if Trump’s Interior Department was on the case. It is not. Trump’s government is an extension of himself, his cabinet undistinguished and often uncredentialled replaceables, shuffled in and out like underlings in his one-man sham business empire or contestants on The Apprentice. His current Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who used to be an oil lobbyist—ideal for Trump’s cabinet—did fleetingly make the news when he issued a ban on the purchase of drones (made in China) used to control forest-burning.

And yet Trump’s Republican Party, once again, chose not to desert him—for his personal ambitions continue to mesh neatly with their own more ideological ends. As we were reminded when the “October surprise” that so often upends the last phase of presidential elections arrived—weeks early, on this occasion.

Another slot to fill

In mid-September, Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died aged 87 after a long battle with cancer. Ginsburg was a transcendent figure, who had drafted and delivered arguments that in the 1970s helped end legal discrimination against women. Appointed to the Court in 1993, Ginsburg grew into something unheard of for a jurist, a folk hero to young women. They quoted her humane and spirited dissenting opinions, defying the Court’s conservative majority; watched the documentary film The Notorious RBG in which Ginsburg, tiny but indomitable, is shown doing her rigorous gym workouts, complete with medicine ball and barbells; flocked to her onstage interviews in which she commented mordantly on life and law in a tart Brooklyn accent and inspired Saturday Night Live skits.

Older Americans, however, prized something else—stories of Ginsburg’s close friendship with her opposite number on the Court, Antonin Scalia, a brilliant theorist of conservative doctrine. The two were charming opposites—drawn together by their love of opera as well as proud outsiderism, the shy Jewish girl from Brooklyn, the exuberant Italian Catholic from Queens, who had followed very different paths that converged at the heights of American jurisprudence. “Nino’s” wicked humour, often in open court, drew laughs from poker-faced Ruth. Ginsburg-Scalia as bosom-buddy adversaries were celebrated in Washington and beyond. Together the two evoked a distant, much-missed time, when American “greatness” began not in truculence and resentment, but in confident hope and possibility, rooted in the belief many Americans had that their nation was young and aspirant, not aged and wheezing, its best days behind it.

Our dark moment has paired Ginsburg and Scalia in another way: via death. When Scalia died in February 2016 (at 79), the president was Barack Obama, who following normal procedure waited a month and then nominated a replacement, Merrick Garland, for Senate approval. Garland’s pedigree was unsurpassed: the conservative current Chief Justice, John Roberts, had previously served alongside him on an Appeals court and said, “anytime Judge Garland disagrees, you know you’re in a difficult area.” But resistance was immediate—not to Garland himself, but to Obama for presuming to present a candidate. The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, made a novel argument. It was, he said, an election year, and Obama was in his second term; a new president was bound to succeed him. It was only right that “the people” be given “a voice in filling this vacancy.” McConnell simply refused to hold confirmation hearings.

It was a radical break with precedent, and wholly partisan. It is a longstanding curiosity of American politics that the branch of government that might seem to have the least overt connection to political debate has in fact been the arena in which ideological armies have clashed most bitterly. For many decades now, conservative ideologues whose overriding ambition is to reduce the size and reach of the federal government have made the Court their platform of resistance, by honing a judicial “philosophy” that seeks to impose the restrictive letter of the law, as written in the late 18th century, on to 21st-century social policies. They have also looked to the Court to fortify the status of the privileged, and been rewarded—as when, for example, it entrenched the “right” of corporations to spend limitlessly at election time, and restored certain “rights” of governments in Southern states to place obstacles in the way of voters, who just happen to be poor or black.

[su_pullquote]“Trump is keenly interested in what his base wants, even if he doesn’t care personally”[/su_pullquote]

McConnell, who is second only to Trump as a hate-figure for Democrats, is dedicated to all of this. He is also the most Machiavellian and hence most effective Senate majority leader in modern history, the best vote-counter and floor manager since “master of the Senate” Lyndon Johnson in the 1950s. His obstinate stand against Obama was a calculated gamble. If the next president turned out to be a Republican—at that point scarcely anyone imagined it would be Trump—he would assuredly nominate a more conservative justice than the centrist Garland. If the Democrat—presumably, Hillary Clinton—won, yes, it was possible an even more liberal justice could be nominated. But there was still at least the possibility that Senate Republicans might hold on to their majority and be able to block her choice.

And then to everyone’s surprise Trump won the Republican nomination and soon saw the utility of playing up his devotion to Court conservatives. The major issues for much of the base were social and cultural—opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, and support for the rights of gun-owners and “religious liberty” for conservative Christians who wish to discriminate on religious grounds. Trump was himself indifferent to these matters. But he is keenly interested in what his base wants. And if conservatives in Iowa and Mississippi were mad for “strict constructionist” or “originalist” judges, or whatever they called themselves, he would delightedly appoint them. Not only that, he floated the names of possible appointees even before he won. It was one of his many small infractions, shocking to judicial purists concerned to preserve at least the appearance of a clear line between jurisprudence and electoral politics. But Republicans loved it, with hardline insiders thrilled that the names on Trump’s list had all been furnished by the Federalist Society, the legal think tank that has become the gatekeeper for conservative jurists wishing to get ahead.

To old-fashioned Americans the Supreme Court Justices were the most revered officials in the land, appropriately robed high priests. And to most Americans, it is a good idea that the country’s final backstop for resolving legal and constitutional controversies should be peopled by minds that command wider respect. But to Trump, the most “transactional” of “deal-making” politicians—and one of whose sisters was for many years a judge—seats on the Supreme Court bench are just another slot to fill. Another presidential candidate—perhaps every other presidential candidate—would be embarrassed by the naked political trade, and at least nod at high considerations of jurisprudence. But he was then, and still is, willing to give his constituents anything that might keep them happy, so long as it didn’t cost him anything. All he had to do was give them “the judges,” and they were his.

This calculation was thoroughly vindicated on election day. Post-mortem surveys indicated as many as one fourth of his votes—more than 15m—came from Republicans who liked his “position” on appointing conservative judges. And now, as the 2020 election approaches, he has been handed a chance to cement the Court—whose judges sit for life, continuing to etch opinions into history into their 80s—as a conservative bastion for 30 years to come.

The other side

It takes two sides to tussle, and that is true even in conflicts where one side is aggressor and the other is merely defending itself. The American right has been pursuing politics as war since the 1990s, becoming wilder after the election of Barack Obama. With Donald Trump’s encouragement it has finally shed any residual sense of patriotic commitment as something distinct from party advantage. In opposite and less-than-equal reaction, the American left has gone perilously far in demonising the nation’s past, has indulged in slogans—“defund the police”—that may resonate on campuses but are unlikely to in housing projects populated by people of any race, and has also itself forgotten about some of the old norms that the right has been smashing.

Back in 2016, Ginsburg had assumed Hillary Clinton would win. She loathed Trump—and made the mistake of saying so publicly, blurting out to a journalist in June 2016 that she considered him a “faker,” with “no consistency about him. He says whatever comes into his head at the moment. He really has an ego.” Presciently, as it would turn out for 2020, she also added an awkward question: “How has he gotten away with not turning over his tax returns?”

Millions were saying the same things every day. But not Supreme Court justices. Trump was the Republican nominee, and so just conceivably the next president. Humiliatingly, Ginsburg had to apologise for this breach of etiquette. And then Trump did win. He appointed a conservative, Neil Gorsuch, to Scalia’s seat and then, when a second became vacant, filled that too. His choice, Brett Kavanaugh, was dubious from the start. He had a long history in the Beltway culture wars. In the 1990s he had been one of the exuberant young conservatives who tried to destroy Bill Clinton’s presidency. But then, midway through already contentious Senate hearings came new testimony from Christine Blasey Ford, a professor of psychology, who said she had been sexually assaulted by Kavanaugh when both were in high school. Blasey Ford was a highly credible and sympathetic witness—even Trump said so at first—but Republicans rallied around Kavanaugh, and pushed the appointment through. The conflicting “he said-she said” testimony made for riveting live TV, and also mobilised the dependable base in rural states in the mid-term elections, thus shoring up the Republican majority in the Senate even as the “blue wave” swept Democrats into control of the House under Speaker Nancy Pelosi, McConnell’s equal and bitter foe. Congress was now split in two, and out of this came the bifurcated politics of Trump’s last two years, summed up in the House impeachment followed by the Senate acquittal.

But the House has no role in Court confirmations, and the Kavanaugh appointment meant it was now majority conservative—dominated by Federalist Society heirs to Nino Scalia, hardline ideologues and smart technicians, lacking Nino’s flair and mental elegance. They were there to advance the agenda, not to share evenings with Ginsburg at the National Opera house.

And she was sick. There were progressively dire diagnoses and treatments: malignancies in the lung and a second attack of pancreatic cancer in 2018. Ginsburg battled through both and endured, desperate to outlast Trump’s first term in the hope a Democrat would replace him and restore balance to the Court. In January 2020 she pronounced herself, wondrously, “cancer free” after radiation treatment. But she wasn’t. Immunotherapy didn’t take, a scan turned up liver lesions in May 2020. Her public was only half aware she was dying, the large brain and tiny body wasting. There was universal shock when the news of her death finally came. The deathbed note she dictated to her granddaughter underlined how she had held on so long: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”

The message was worthy of the opera she adored, a confession of the reality Ginsburg knew was closing in on her. She knew how politics worked in the age of Trump and McConnell. The mise-en-scène of February 2016 would be restaged again, only with the opposite result. McConnell—adroit, partisan, fanatically dedicated to packing the bench—would bin the script he contrived when Obama was president, and instantly write a new one. For him, too, the urgency was great. Democrats gamely tried to make something of Ginsburg’s last plea, suggesting she was urging only that the Senate wait for the election, no matter what its outcome might be. But Republicans easily brushed it aside. “New president”? Obviously she meant a different one, Joe Biden.

Meanwhile, shrewder than his detractors will admit, Trump showed unexpected discipline. Feigning surprise about her death when journalists asked him about her after a rally in Minnesota, he seemed spontaneous when he expressed his sorrow and called her “an amazing woman, who led an amazing life.” It was left to Fox News to remind the conservative base of exactly what he had originally tweeted when Ginsburg had criticised him: “Justice Ginsburg of the US Supreme Court has embarrassed all by making very dumb political statements about me. Her mind is shot—resign!”

More recently, Trump had been waiting for her to die. He had her replacement ready, an accomplished Federalist Society-approved former law professor turned federal judge Amy Coney Barrett, a protégé to Scalia, whom she had clerked for, and ideologically rock-solid: anti-abortion, sworn enemy of “Obamacare,” pro-gun-rights—the Democrats’ nightmare, and the Republicans’ dream.

It was one thing to nominate anti-abortion male judges. Quite another to name a fluent, attractive and devout Catholic mother, only 48, with seven children, one with Down’s Syndome, and two black, adopted from Haiti. For many Americans, they will put her and any controversial opinions she has on voting rights or anything else, beyond suspicion of racism. The voices that soon rose from the left fringe denouncing her as being in the grip of a white saviour syndrome, only added to her plausibility with the country at large; the coming weeks will reveal whether it is enough to overcome the broad American public’s initial resistance to a rushed nomination that was recorded in polls before her name was known.

But the nomination instantly sent conservatives into raptures. And Trump openly discussed something else too—having his own appointee in place to break the potential electoral stalemate, which he is working so hard to create: “I think this [the election] will end up in the Supreme Court, and I think it’s very important that we have nine justices.” Trump’s party once again lined up behind him, not so much to help him win a second term—in truth, after his show of unhinged rage in the first debate some might privately welcome a spell of Biden-restored calm—as to see the Court become truly their own in a way unseen since the 1930s. Back then, reactionary jurists ruled unconstitutional large parts of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which provided popular relief from the Depression but was deemed “Bolshevistic” by the era’s conservatives. In frustration, Roosevelt audaciously tried to expand the Court by adding new members chosen by himself. The proposal was stopped by Congress, but the mere threat softened the Court’s resistance to Social Security and union rights. And so now Democrats, angered by the last-minute nomination of Barrett, whisper about reviving Roosevelt’s “court-packing” plan should their party prevail on 3rd November.

Trump’s Union Divisible

The Court row will entrench bitter division, and focus it on the institution where it can do most to threaten the stable running of a republic under the rule of law. A rushed nomination by a minority president, prospectively confirmed by a Senate majority itself returned by a minority of Americans concentrated in the rural states, feels like a fix. And it pushes the basic ground-rules of politics to the heart of the partisan battle.

None of this worries Trump. In his own mind he is president not of the United States—an idea he treats like a fiction—but discrete parts of it, such as the “heartland” populations in the rustbelt and the Deep South, the places that did just enough to get him over the line last time despite his shortfall in the nationwide vote, the people who must now rally behind him again if he is to win a second term. He faces a stubborn poll deficit, but as the final stretch comes into view, deliverance still seems conceivable, as he expertly exploits America’s cultural, ethnic and ideological fissures.

Contrary to what his detractors think, Trump did not create these divisions. He has merely outdone all forerunners in exploiting them. Even a politician as polarising as Richard Nixon, leaving office, summoned up the dignity of a departing “president of all the people.” Trump has been the first president to trample that idea underfoot. All sorts of dark questions about the viability of government of, by and for the people rear their heads when the very notion of a unified people is retired. And yet here—once again—Trump has uncovered a deep truth, long buried in the history that has not and never will go away.

The US really is a divided nation: it has been since its founding, was violently so during the Civil War and its aftermath, and remains so to this day. America’s venerable faultlines define the modern Republican Party, which became “Southernised” in the 1960s, when the Democrats stopped indulging their segregationists and became the party of civil rights. The Republicans responded by welcoming “Dixiecrats” into their camp, politicians like Strom Thurmond, who inveighed against the evils of race-mixing, and went to his death in 2003 at 100, having refused to acknowledge to the end the black daughter he had fathered with his parents’ 16-year-old maid. Presidents Nixon and Reagan were subtler in courting this vote, but the party came to rely on it. In 2008, when John McCain was routed by Obama, one wag said, “congratulations, John McCain. You’re now the president of the Confederacy.” It was true. He carried almost all of its original 13 states, and the 11 that eventually seceded and went to war with the Union, to protect its “peculiar institution” of slavery. Trump won those states too in 2016, and may well do so again.

[su_pullquote]“Contrary to what his detractors think, Trump did not create all of America’s divisions”[/su_pullquote]

The states he won’t win are the northern, coastal, highly populated ones. He particularly loathes California whose rising Hispanic population has made it increasingly Democratic over the last generation. Clinton’s four-million vote margin over him in the state in 2016 was on its own enough to deprive Trump of victory in the popular vote nationwide, which still rankles. Oregon and Washington are hated blue states too. In Trump’s world, in Trump’s America, they can all go up in flames.

This formula is not limited to forest fires. The first day of autumn marked yet another grim milestone for the US: its 200,000th Covid death, far more than in any other country, about 20 per cent of the global total, though the US has little more than 4 per cent of the world’s population. Trump’s negligence and his anti-science denialism worsened things horrifically—36,000 lives could have been saved if the administration had “imposed social distancing measures” only a week earlier, said researchers at Columbia University (Trump: a “disgraceful, liberal institution”). He has awarded himself an “A plus” for his administration’s “phenomenal” handling of the pandemic, rationalised by his reading the numbers in a particular way: “If you take the blue states out, we’re at a level that I don’t think anybody in the world would be at.” The disease would be at a “very low level. But some of the states, they were blue states and blue state-managed.”

These remarks come not in muttered asides, or private conversations leaked by adversaries. They are proud, defiant assertions, made by Trump in the calculation that his base delights in rhetoric whacking it to “blue states” even as they burn. But that base, though substantial, is not large enough to reelect him. Unless he can again win a chunk of “switch” voters—those thousands who carry their politics lightly enough to have voted for Obama in 2012 then Trump in 2016—his obvious routes to victory narrow down to the point where he can win only by cheating, or with help from either the Republicans in Congress orstate legislatures or the Republican-dominated courts.

The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin and the Atlantic’s Barton Gellman, the biographer of the Bush era’s chief Machiavel Dick Cheney, have written scary, in-depth what-ifs which lay out the myriad paths by which Trump can effectively mount a legal or legislative coup. “Let us not hedge about one thing,” Gellman writes:

Donald Trump may win or lose, but he will never concede. Not under any circumstance... If Trump sheds all restraint, and if his Republican allies play the parts he assigns them, he could obstruct the emergence of a legally unambiguous victory for Biden... He could prevent the formation of consensus about whether there is any outcome at all. He could seize on that uncertainty to hold on to power.

His rambling in the first debate about the inevitability of electoral fraud prepares the ground for a contested outcome, the very scenario where Justice Barrett may come in. Anything less than an assurance that she would recuse herself if the Court considers Trump’s election should, as the eminent historian of American politics and the Catholic Church Garry Wills put it to me, “be enough to disqualify her on the one task Trump has assigned her.” But due process is not order of the day with Trump, who has recently refused to say whether he would accept a “peaceful transition of power” if the vote went against him, later adding: “We’re going to have to see what happens.”

These words sent waves of astonishment and even fear through the capital. And Republicans were quick to distance themselves from it. “What he says doesn’t matter,” said one Republican senator. “He says crazy stuff,” said a second. “We’ve always had a peaceful transition of power. It’s not going to change.”

But the last four years have shown that, when it comes to the crunch, Republicans on Capitol Hill will always back the president, if the alternative is ceding an inch to the Democratic Party. They have not lifted a finger as he denounces as rigged a vote that hasn’t yet happened and plants the seeds of insurgent post-election protests, uses his influence over the US Postal Service to curtail the mail-in balloting that is democracy’s best hope in a pandemic, and openly destablises all electoral traditions—or at least, all those traditions established after 1860, when the election of Abraham Lincoln prompted an immediate secession of the same states now most loyal to Trump. Why not?

My enemy’s enemy

In the first years of Trump’s presidency, his low approval ratings were news. Today the opposite is true, and it is his unwavering support—even if the numbers have never changed all that much—that deserves attention. In late September Trump’s approval ratings were a bit north of 40 per cent, actually up on two years ago—this, astonishingly, after: (1) his impeachment; (2) a bipartisan Senate panel released a thousand-page report detailing, in the New York Times’s precis, “an extensive web of contacts between Trump campaign advisers and Kremlin officials… and others tied to the country’s spy services”; (3) the pandemic—the worst public health crisis in 100 years; (4) a sudden collapse in the economy unmatched since the Depression; (5) the estimated 20,000 false or misleading statements he made in his first three years as president, before we get to his praise of despots like Kim Jong Un and Recep Tayyip Erdoan.

The dogged support of a large minority would be inexplicable, were it not for the logic of a civil war: all can be forgiven by your own side, just as long as you are merciless with the other. The same logic colours the interpretation of other news that really ought to shock. In late September, the New York Times’s revealed Trump had gone long years without paying any income tax, reporting huge business losses to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) while telling the world that only he knew how to win. At the same time the Times showed Trump has not only been enriching himself through private business deals made from the White House with authoritarian governments (in Turkey, for one), but also owes more than $300m in debts which will come due in the next four years. Trump initially brushed aside the report as “fake news” but the story wouldn’t go away because—as he well knows—the evidence came from federal tax documents. His next tactic was to denounce the leakers. Whoever they might be, they belong to the nameless, faceless enemy who are always there in our new civil war—hordes of invisible others, hidden in ambush.

The suspicion grows that the Oval Office has become Trump’s sanctuary and that his actual motive in seeking a second term is to escape the several prosecutions that will greet him the instant he steps off White House grounds and becomes mere Citizen Trump. Apart from the IRS, he faces two “advanced” investigations in New York—both looking into his company’s finances, one involving payoffs he made to women who have said they had affairs with him. He is also being sued in New York for defaming a writer who has credibly accused Trump of raping her in the 1990s. All this may explain his abrupt decision a year ago to change “domiciles” from Manhattan to Palm Beach, where New York prosecutors and juries can’t reach him. To be fair, Trump has soured on his home state for other reasons too. It went almost as heavily for Hillary Clinton in 2016 as California did—she got nearly 60 per cent of the vote there—a stinging rebuke, from the neighbours who know him best. What did New Yorkers think of Trump’s spurning them for Florida? Goodbye and good riddance. “It’s not like Mr Trump paid taxes here anyway,” New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo said at the time. “He’s all yours, Florida.”

One might think that there would still be conservative patriots alarmed by all of this. And indeed, the former Republican strategist, organiser, and pundit William Kristol was at one point provoked to tweet: “That feeling when the political party you’ve belonged to almost your whole adult life turns into a cult of personality worthy of a banana republic.” Kristol belongs to a small nucleus of “Never Trumpers,” all journalists and writers. Others include the New York Times columnists David Brooks and Bret Stephens, the Washington Post’s Max Boot and Jennifer Rubin, and the Atlantic’s David Frum. In the first months of Trump’s presidency they seemed an important breakaway group, guardians of a serious conservatism. (I wrote about them myself.)

They remain interesting—and worth reading—but exert very little influence on the right, in part because they speak to and for a world that no longer exists. All are Jewish, neoconservatives, admirers of George W Bush, and were connected at one time or another with publications like the Wall Street Journal editorial pages, the Weekly Standard magazine, and the monthly Commentary. But the first has gone over to Trump, the second went out of business, the third occupies an ambiguous place—not exactly against Trump but not quite for him, much easier to decipher in its zealous criticism of Democrats and progressives. Between the trenches of this civil war, there really isn’t much room for right-wing dissent.

[su_pullquote]“In civil war logic all can be forgiven by your own side, just as long as you are merciless with the other”[/su_pullquote]

For the moment at least, the Trump firm has a grip on the conservative future. At August’s Republican National Convention, staged on the White House grounds in almost certain violation of election law, the Trumps were paraded as a “ruling family” with the principal speakers besides the President being his wife, his two daughters, and two sons. One, the hardline Donald Jr, is spoken of seriously as a candidate in 2024. It was he who was actually caught in flagrant “collusion” with Russian operatives in 2016, hoping to get “dirt” on Hillary Clinton that could be useful to Dad. Yet a poll of Republicans ranked him behind only Vice President Mike Pence, and well ahead of established Republicans like Senator Ted Cruz, who finished second in the 2016 primaries, and the 2012 nominee Mitt Romney.

Within the world of active politics—office holders, advisers, policy thinkers—there is scarcely a strongly anti-Trump conservative to be found. They are instead his supporters and in some cases champions. Why? Do they really share Trump’s boastful ignorance about science and health, his ideas about women and people of colour, and “shithole” foreign countries, his contempt for Nato and western democracies?

One revealing answer came in a widely read and discussed Washington Post op-ed essay by the foreign policy expert, Danielle Pletka, a senior fellow at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, one of Washington’s top think tanks. “I never considered voting for Trump in 2016,” the essay was titled, “I may be forced to vote for him this year.” Pletka does not pretend to like or admire Trump, his “erratic, personality-driven decision-making.” Bad as he is, however, she deems “the leftward lurch of the Democratic Party” even worse on issues like climate change, health care and immigration. And she fears that Joe Biden, a man with a centrist record that stretches back 50 years, is in fact captive to his party’s “hard-left ideologues”:

I fear the grip of Manhattan-San Francisco progressive mores that increasingly permeate my daily newspapers, my children’s curriculums and my local government. I fear the virtue-signaling bullies who increasingly try to dominate or silence public discourse—and encourage my children to think that their being white is intrinsically evil, that America’s founding is akin to original sin. I fear the growing self-censorship that guides many people’s every utterance, and the leftist vigilantes who view every personal choice—from recipes to hairdos—through their twisted prisms of politics and culture.”

And so “Trump, for all his flaws, could be all that stands between our imperfect democracy and the tyranny of the woke left.” Here, then, is how the polarising logic of the new civil war is expressed by the educated right. When pushed by an interviewer on why policies such as the sort of socialised medicine present in all other western democracies frightened her so, Pletka clarified that she did not believe that “socialised medicine was somehow going to end our democracy. I merely said that it was going to usher in things that were irreversible that were not going to be good for our country.”

Slippery slopes

This is the slippery slope argument well known to veteran observers of American conservatism. It was made by those intellectuals who rallied with Joseph McCarthy against Communism in the 1950s. (“This isn’t patty-cake we’re playing with the Russians,” said one. “You need a McCarthy to flush out the enemy.”) The same sort of intellectuals later backed Richard Nixon against anti-war and civil rights demonstrators in the 1970s when, in a preview of our own angry days, white vigilantes and black militants were secretly amassing arsenals in anticipation of the “Second Civil War.” Then, in the 1980s, they championed Ronald Reagan, when the enemy was “political correctness” and calls for divestment from apartheid South Africa. Later, after the 9/11 attacks, they rallied behind George W Bush’s crusade against “Islamo-fascists.”

In each case the thinking began in emotion and it does so again today. But long years of economic disappointment across swathes of the country have bred resentment, which today combines with the unhinged id in the Oval Office, to create a definite sense that the emotion could play out more dangerously this time. How dangerous? No one knows, but in late September the New York Times published a story under the headline: “At Pentagon, Fears Grow That Trump Will Pull Military Into Election Unrest.”

What makes this all the more frightening is that the President is—determinedly—looking for the threat in the wrong direction. Intelligence reports indicate that the gravest danger to the republic comes from the organised “alt-right”—its gun-toting militias, online conspiracists such as QAnon (a now not-so-subtle presence in the Republican Party of Texas), and avowed “chauvinists” who don black shirts, like the so-called Proud Boys. At the Cleveland debate, however, Trump insisted “almost everything I see comes from the left-wing, not from the right-wing,” and primed the extremists for action: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.”

Those on the intellectual right may not overtly support such manouevres. Instead they won’t talk about it and keep saying—against the evidence—that the true danger comes from elsewhere, from Black Lives Matter protesters. And they wouldn’t demur from Trump’s follow-up to the incendiary “stand by” line—“I tell you what, somebody has got to do something about antifa [“anti-fascist” activists] and the left.” The right’s deeper enmity, however, is aimed at homelier targets—legislators writing bills to introduce a “Green New Deal” and social-democratic professors on the Ivy League campuses who fill the heads of impressionable students, often enough the sons and daughters of conservatives, with the revisionist picture of America so upsetting to Danielle Pletka.

This is the war being fought within the postal “zip codes” where the well-to-do, Republican and Democrat alike, all dwell together, in palmier days carpooling and play-dating, now mingling at the proper social distance and trading pleasantries muffled by their Covid masks. Don’t be fooled by the proudly maskless Trumpist army; in the upper echelons, conservatives are as mindful of their health as of their investment portfolios. It is out of concern for the second that they smile at the unwashed Trumpists who can be counted on not to play patty-cake with troublemakers who advocate “socialised medicine” or disrespect the old stories about America’s exceptional greatness, as the “indispensable” nation, and a land of limitless opportunity.

In truth, there are no ladders up for many Americans today, including some who support Trump, and there never were many that went all the way to the top: they were only ever scaled by rare examples, such as the savants “RBG” and “Nino” Scalia. But it is in the name of a mythical past that our revolutionists of the right make their impassioned case.

Amy Coney Barrett embodies both halves: notional continuity with past American “greatness,” and disruption to the American present. “Should I be confirmed, I will be mindful of who came before me,” she said after Trump formally introduced her to the public: “The flag of the United States is still flying at half-staff in memory of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to mark the end of a great American life.” Does it matter to Barrett that Ginsburg struggled mightily against death in the hope of keeping a jurist like Barrett off the Court? If so, Barrett knows better than to say so, just as she knows better than to say that her own years as a justice are likely to be spent in repudiating every cause Ginsburg tried to advance.

In this sense, too, Trump has remade his party and the conservative movement. They are all transactionists now, going through the motions of a shared civility while remorselessly advancing a divisive agenda. But they are not only transactionists: they also harbour an authentic fear that the world they know is disappearing or will be changed into something they don’t recognise. That the change is coming about democratically makes no difference. If democracy is making these bad things happen, then democracy itself must be stopped. This is the common ground where the gilded pro-Trump elite meets the scruffier pro-Trump base.

Donald Trump did not create these conditions. They created him, and will outlast him no matter what happens in November. What the country will look like afterwards—whether the idea of the United States of America will survive this moment or become something drastically different—is a question that is now all but impossible to avoid.