After years of Rush Limbaugh and his media offspring deriding their opponents as whiners, sore losers and grievance-mongers, could proponents of secession—Limbaugh, paragon of courage, is only predicting it, not advocating it—do the rest of us the courtesy of at least stating their grievance and explaining its magnitude?
Secession is largely a sideshow, or was, until the state chair of a major political party—Allen West, who heads the Republican Party in Texas—was for it before he was against it. The proximate cause of West’s suggestion that “law-abiding states” should consider “form[ing] a Union of states that will abide by the constitution” was the Supreme Court’s rejection of a truly insipid lawsuit in which Texas demanded that election results be tossed in the exact number of swing states that would have flipped the Electoral College to President Trump. One would think they would have thrown in Minnesota or Arizona to disguise their intentions, but this gang hasn’t shot straight since Election Day.
What they do well, however, is unleashing viral vapidities that infect those parts of the body politic whose immune systems are already weakened through exposure to unrelenting claims of conspiracy. Since West’s call—which of course was not a call for secession because he did not use that word, which is like saying a dog whistle is not a whistle because it is not audible—elected officials have echoed it. The underground-but-above-ground conspiracy theorists are talking about it. It will go nowhere. But it does raise an interesting question: What, exactly, is the problem?
They won an election, governed for four years, then lost one in a closer race than pundits expected. They narrowed the gap in the House and, for now, have kept the Senate. In a country less obsessed with politics, this is called politics.
The secessionists, however, are drawing on a sense of profound grievance and existential crisis fueled by Trump enthusiasts who are, or ought to act as though they are, more serious than West or Limbaugh. This crowd emerged in 2016 on the theory that the country was hurtling toward the abyss. It had precedents. In 2013, a thoroughly ordinary time—so ordinary a president had just been re-elected—newly minted U.S. Senator Ted Cruz told the Values Voters Summit:
These are extraordinary times. Listen, every one of you is here because you love this country. Because you love freedom and you know that we can’t keep going down this road much longer. We’re nearing the edge of a cliff. And our window to turn things around, my friends, I don’t think it is long. I don’t think it’s ten years. We have a couple of years to turn this country around or we go off the cliff to oblivion.
Four years later, Michael Anton, under the melodramatic and aggrandizing pseudonym Publius Decius Mus—the Roman consul who sacrificed his life by riding into the enemy camp, falling “overwhelmed with darts”—warned of a “Flight 93 election” whose stakes were so high that “you charge the cockpit or you die.” Ken Masugi predicted the 2016 election would “shape
America as decisively as the 1860 election that made Abraham Lincoln president.” (Masugi also
called Trump “a real unifier.”) By 2019, with the country not yet unified, Anton was back at it.
The subtitle of his book-length sequel to the Flight 93 election warned, predictably, of “what we
still have to lose.”
Which is—what, exactly? The actual grievance—Progressivism is destroying the Constitution, the left is going Chairman Mao on kindergarten students, immigration is diluting national identity, Joe Biden won through systematic fraud perpetrated in advance in only the number of states required to match Trump’s 2016 margin—is murky. It shifts from audience to audience and circumstance to circumstance. Pieces of it contain the genetic material, long since mutated, of defensible arguments gone haywire. But could we get real? Has the countryside really become the hellscape of “American carnage” on the perception of which Trumpism thrives? Or might we simply have problems—serious ones, sure; there always are some—with which to deal? The apotheosis of American tyranny has arrived in the person of … Joe Biden?
There is another possibility, which is that the crisis-mongers have a conflict of interest. It distills to what looks like a contradiction but is actually an illustrative contrast: an aversion to politics and an attraction to power. The aversion to politics amounts to the entitlement to be agreed with. Politics entails living in company with people with whom one disagrees. Pile 325 million citizens into one country, and an election or two is likely not to go one’s way. Individual policies are almost certain to be so diluted by compromise as not to accord with anyone’s personal notion of the ideal. The ability to share the sandbox with the other kids is the essence of citizenship.
What the secessionists—or, more precisely, those who encourage them—want is not politics. It is power, the first taste of which is usually only an appetizer. Cruz, hurtling toward the cliff to oblivion in 2013, plunged into the abyss of reelection in 2018. Anton selflessly charged into the enemy camp in 2016 and fell, covered in darts, right into a White House job.
Power thrives on crisis. The irony is that this has been the incessant hunger of the great Trumpian bogeyman of Progressivism: Government always needs more power because there are always more problems to solve. Yet the tactic of Trumpism is indistinguishable from that upward spiral. Those who hunger for power always forage for crises.
Lincoln, whose memory has been profaned in the service of Trumpism, warned against crisis- mongering in his Lyceum Address. The greatest threat to American liberty, he warned, would be the ambition for greatness in ordinary times. For the ambitious, the most horrifying American carnage is the possibility that maybe, all in all, things are fine out there.