Intellectuals on the right have primed conservatives for secessionist thinking with their attacks on democratic processes, their attacks on liberals, and numerous ideas about the need for separate conservative communities and spaces.
After four years of Trump, I find many things about the American political landscape disorienting, and this includes recent gestures towards secession on the right. When Rush Limbaugh suggests that he believes that “there can’t be peaceful coexistence between conservatives and liberals” and that “the US is trending towards secession,” is it something to take seriously?
On the one hand, the answer seems clear: no, not really. Limbaugh is right to observe that liberals and conservatives are polarized (thanks in part to folks like him), and that it is difficult for people who disagree in fundamental ways to get along. Furthermore, secessionism (or the right to self-determination and revolt) is an ever-present part of democratic life. But these are basically just truisms about American politics. And the most obvious rebuttal to suggestions about succession is to point out that, while it’s hard to live together, it would be harder to go through with a divorce. We all speak comfortably in ways that suggest clear divides — and in terms of red states and blue states in particular — but the truth is that these are sloppy shorthands. The more serious divide between Americans isn’t between the states, it’s between rural and urban America (what Will Wilkinson calls “the density divide”). And even rural/urban is too simple-minded, because the majority of Americans live in the suburbs, and the suburbs tend to be a mixed-up purple hue. And so, while our starkest divisions may well be political right now, secession is not a serious option thanks to the political geography involved. It’s a delusion rooted in a willful misunderstanding of the political landscape (as well as in false ideas about the ‘soft’ and/or unpatriotic temperament of American liberals: a lot of secession talk is just, it seems to me, one more iteration of faux-masculinity and “own-the-libs” preening).
On the other hand, even if secession is not a serious option, the idea still poses a very serious threat to the civic fabric of the country. The danger of secession talk is not that a real secession movement will take place, it’s that some people will take violent action towards other more inchoate political ends. This is also the natural trajectory, it seems to me, of so much of the lying and catastrophism that we see coming from the American right.
So-called conservatives are primed for secessionist insurrection in several ways.
First off, the Republican party under Trump has engaged in persistent denials of the political system’s legitimacy. Eventually, if people come to believe what Trump and so many others on the right keep saying — that the system is rigged, that the election was fraudulent, that our electoral system is like a “Potemkin drama” — then eventually some of them are going to feel compelled to act. If even someone like Patrick Deneen thinks that Trump represented “a burst of Democracy” and then that the “elite made sure to roll that back,” then shouldn’t someone take action?
Second, Republican leadership under Trump has consistently portrayed the entire opposition party as an evil enemy, rather than as political opponents deserving of (grudging) respect. Of course at this point both Democrats and Republicans accuse one another of all manner of bad things, but there is a real asymmetry when it comes to what leaders on the two sides are willing to say. It’s one thing for a #Resistance account to Tweet that #AllRepublicansAreFascists; it’s quite another to hear former Attorney General Bill Barr speak of how “progressives” and “secularists and their allies” are involved in an unremitting assault “organized destruction” of society. It’s one thing for Hillary Clinton to make one awful statement about Trump’s “basket of deplorables“; it’s another for the president to make persistent racist attacks against Democrats, or for the president’s son to build slogans from notions like “liberal tears,” or to see a Senior Fellow at one of the country’s Trumpiest think tanks spew lies about the residents of Washington, DC. Such rhetoric has a long history on the right, but it has now reached a point of dehumanization, even among sophisticated intellectuals. At some point, if people keep believing this stuff, they will feel compelled to act out en masse.
In addition to the constant delegitimation of political institutions and dehumanizing anti-liberal rhetoric, there is also a sense in which folks on the American right are primed specifically for political retreat and/or separation. Religious traditionalists on the right have been advocating for retreat from mainstream culture for decades. In 1981 Alasdair McIntyre famously wrote about the need for the “construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.” He writes of a new age of darkness, and warns that “this time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time” (After Virtue, 244-5). Rod Dreher’s influential work on The Benedict Option echoes this sentiment, and Patrick Deneen’s big 2018 hit, Why Liberalism Failed, makes use of it too. For these traditionalists, all of contemporary culture is so corrupt that people of goodwill and good faith should retreat and form other novel communities (the legal and constitutional status of which is left quite ambiguous, at least in Deneen’s case: he punts on the question of whether his new local communities might take autocratic or theocratic forms). It’s one thing to advocate for new forms of novel community and fellowship; it is another to accuse whole swaths of one’s fellow-citizens of total moral degradation because they have a different outlook on human affairs.
More chilling — and somehow also more absurd — are those voices coming from the more Trumpy right, like the Claremont Institute’s Matthew Peterson, who warned in an October discussion that a lot of very important people he’s connected with are *all* “thinking very dark thoughts about where this country’s headed” (and he quotes one: “this country is going to need a peaceful separation in some way”). On November 30, the Claremont Institute’s blog, The American Mind, published what amounts to a fantasy fiction piece by a certain “Tom Trenchard” about the need for a secession of “the United American counties.” In a subsequent post, Prof. Trenchard suggests that “Biden’s Urban America has already seceded from the United States of America that many of us know and love. Trump’s Counties can be a life raft for the American experiment in its most dire hour of need.”
I admit that I find it difficult to assess the ultimate reach of these ideas, but it seems to me that the dangers of mass-radicalization-via-conspiracism are real, and that these separationist ideas have the potential to dovetail with the dehumanization of liberals and the delegitimation of political institutions in explosive and unpredictable ways. The domestic threat posed by white supremacist groups here and around the world is not news, nor am I the first to observe how, at least in this country, concepts like the Benedict Option tend to run parallel to notions of white supremacy.
On that note, it’s worth acknowledging that, over this past summer we saw protest, unrest, and violence on American streets after the murder of George Floyd. At that point, these same voices on the right had very little (read: zero) interest in defending the legitimacy of the so-called “autonomous zones,” which in some respects parallel calls to secession (though they are typically set up as temporary protests). Nor were they interested in the substantive racial matters at hand, which differ considerably from baseless claims about election fraud. Furthermore, and unlike the vast majority of leaders on the left, the president and his entourage have seemed all-too-eager for escalation, both over the summer and right now.
In America today, most secessionist ideas (including the notion of fully autonomous zones) are like conspiracy theories in that they are not grounded in reality and they do not point to viable futures; but that doesn’t mean they won’t tear up the country further, and it doesn’t mean they won’t get people killed. I suspect that, for all their bravado, many conservatives who flirt with secessionist ideas – some of whom seem very “online” and disconnected from reality – don’t take these dangers seriously enough. They’re in it for the clicks, and for proximity to power, and perhaps a bit self-deceived, but that doesn’t mean they won’t help to inspire violent acts by their compatriots, on behalf of truly nebulous ends.
While Trumpy elites posture online, I worry that their work fuels and exacerbates serious feelings of alienation and desperation. And that at some point reality calls their bluff.