Our Low-Simmering Civil War
There’s too much good TV for there to be a real, all-out Second American Civil War.
Until the never-ending stream of fantastic shows – and movies and video games and whatever other media serves as your soma – dries up, there will be no war between brothers (and sisters). No matter how mad we get online, no matter how our blood boils at injustices real and perceived, no matter how big and brave and brash Americans act, no one has time to take up arms and join a local militia and make plans for attacking political opponents.
There’s new Star Wars shit to watch, we say. Let us be.
(There’s also the issue of physical fitness: Everyday Americans are in no shape to wage a war. Just look at the insurrectionists who had heart attacks because they had to climb a flight of stairs while trying to overthrow the government. We are definitely not in war shape.)
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That there is no actual, organized civil war on the horizon doesn’t mean there isn’t what the zoomers might call a low-key civil war being waged by Republican officials on every level of government. They are carefully and expertly leveraging the extraordinary power of government to support those who would (or have) committed violent acts against the right wing’s many political enemies, endorsing violence as a legitimate political act.
Of all the horrific political norms to which we’ve become accustomed over the past decade – all the desensitization we’ve undergone – this may be the most pernicious and widely ignored, most significantly by major media outlets unequipped to document and analyze a political landscape poisoned by the right’s bad faith.
There’s Good Money In Murder
Republican lawmakers and party apparatchiks have fallen all over themselves to promote Kyle Rittenhouse since he was acquitted by a jury in November 2021. All he had to do was hire lawyers who argued good and bad things are the same and do some fake crying while making the ugliest face any human has ever made and he was free to go after he mowed down Black Lives Matter protesters. Rittenhouse had killed, which is bad, but he killed the right kind of people, which is good.
Since his acquittal, Rittenhouse – famous for taking a gun to a racial justice protest and killing people because he disagreed with them politically – has become a right-wing superstar. It's a good grift if you can get it.
If you desire to be upset on the internet, consider The New York Times’ coverage of Rittenhouse’s absurd courtroom acquittal:
After the shootings, Mr. Rittenhouse was transformed from an unknown 17-year-old from rural Illinois into a national symbol. Some Americans were horrified by the images of a teenager toting a powerful semiautomatic rifle on a city street during racial justice demonstrations, a reminder of the extent of open carry laws in the United States. Others saw a well-meaning young man who had gone to keep the peace and provide medical aid, a response to the sometimes destructive protests that had roiled American cities in the summer of 2020.
Every few weeks on Twitter, I’m unfortunate enough to see a promotion for Rittenhouse coming to a local Republican group’s annual meeting or cookout or some other event where he can make a few bucks while shaking hands with folks who admire his willingness to murder people who oppose racism, an American tradition like no other. A recent Rittenhouse promo urged conservatives to come to a local gun range, where they can fire weapons with the famed, cherubic little marksman. They can also enjoy appetizers and cold drinks while they talk about, I don’t know, the best ways to put bullets into soyboys, things of that nature.
Rittenhouse has lived the right-wing dream, achieving fame as a freedom fighter who drove to a left-wing protest to do what needed to be done. Because that’s what today’s zero-sum politics come down to: Silencing the opposition. How one achieves that is one’s own business. Rittenhouse went about it in a financially successful way, even after he blubbered and told a judge he wouldn’t capitalize on his fame in conservative circles.
Footage of Rittenhouse gunning down BLM protesters was downright titillating to the right-wing audience that would soon reward him with a career in lib owning. Cosplay Hitler mistress Anne Coulter called for Rittenhouse to run for president. Other conservative pundits held up Rittenhouse as a shining example of an ambitious young man who loved his country. Or parts of his country, anyway.
Rittenhouse’s acquittal and the American right’s full embrace of the murderer was nothing short of a full-throated endorsement of the kind of white supremacist vigilantism that defined the decades following the emancipation of black people in the US. He followed in the tradition of white mobs who lynched free black people and burned down their communities in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Rittenhouse getting to walk out of the courthouse as a hero told murder-curious right wingers everything they wanted to hear: That they can carry high-powered guns into left-wing protests, that they can use those weapons and claim self defense, and that Republican officials -- including the sitting president -- and many juries would wink and nod and play the bad-faith game, asserting it was all in self defense.
In the months before Rittenhouse went on his murderous road trip to Wisconsin, state legislatures with Republican majorities passed some of the most heinous anti-protest laws in the nation’s history, including bills legalizing drivers to run over (ostensibly BLM) protesters if they did their protesting in or around the street. This, of course, came a few years after a white supremacist ran his car into a gathering of racial justice advocates and killed an activist, Heather Heyer, at a pro-Trump rally organized by nazi organizations in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Republican legislators in Oklahoma read about a man in a pickup killing anti-racism protesters and instead of seeking to punish the motorist and prevent future killings of folks exercising their basic First Amendment rights, they pointed to the trauma endured by the driver’s children, who were in the vehicle when their father used his truck as a political weapon. I don’t know if this is bad faith or good faith or no faith at all; I only know it’s nauseating.
State-level Republicans knew what they were doing when they passed these bills amid the racial justice reckoning of 2020. There was hardly any pretense behind it. Conservatives deployed a dash of bad faith about BLM protesters breaking a few Walmart windows or damaging a police cruiser and quickly crafted legislation to intimidate the movement. They saw footage and news accounts of motorists running their oversized trucks through throngs of anti-racism protesters and they looked for ways to create legal caveats for these drivers, allies in the fight against justice for black and brown people in the United States. It really is as straightforward as that.
The Law No Longer Applies
Sometimes the right’s endorsement of vigilante violence is subtle. And sometimes it’s not. Such is the case in Texas, where school massacre advocate Gov. Greg Abbott has said he will pardon a man found guilty of murdering an armed Black Lives Matter protester in July 2020, shortly after posting to Facebook that he would, you know, go out and “kill a few people on my way to work.” He did just that, ridiculously claimed self defense, and was found guilty.
Abbott joined every other Republican official in Texas to pan the conviction of Daniel S. Perry as a political attack by the Travis County prosecutor, who apparently did not receive the memo that murder is fine – even encouraged – in Texas when the killer is conservative and the victim is advocating for civil rights.
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Abbott hailed the state’s “stand your ground” law – yet another modern twist on white supremacist vigilantism and terrorism – and said there was no reason for Perry to serve prison time for driving to a BLM protest and opening fire. Kyle Rittenhouse, that doughy killer kid, rallied to Perry’s cause (murdering racial justice activists) and urged Abbott to grant a pardon. Dystopia sometimes makes sense.
The law does not matter to these people. Even an unanimous jury decision to convict Perry can be thrown out if such a legal decision will discourage future vigilante violence against opponents of conservative policies. Abbott’s pardon of Perry is another endorsement of right-wing violence, a clear call to other conservatives who may harbor fantasies of not just owning the libs, but killing them like dogs in the street.
I don’t think Abbott and his ilk are thinking clearly about what comes next, after Americans see the law can be bypassed and the justice system is nothing more than kabuki theater. When the system cannot deliver justice because elected officials won’t allow it, there is only one other form of recourse, and that’s violence.
This is certainly not a call to arms (as Noam Chomsky has said, the left should do everything it can to avoid conflict with the inherently violent right). Our low-simmering civil war could turn hot very quickly if enough people distrust the government to deliver some semblance of justice. Abbott pardoning a right-wing terrorist and Republican legislators crafting laws providing legal protection for those who dream of killing racial justice advocates and the conservative movement embracing Rittenhouse as a wrongfully-persecuted son of freedom: These actions have consequences. Maybe not now, and maybe not next year or the year after. But there is only so much people can take before they take things into their own hands. As autocratic leaders in repressive countries have discovered, you can only push people so far before they break, before all hell breaks loose.
Hopefully the good TV never stops.
Follow Denny Carter on Twitter at @CDCarter13.