All national declines ebb and flow. The street violence and chaos of the summer of 2020 marked the moment the curtain was pulled back, the country’s true psychic state revealed for a single season before the curtain fell once more—President Biden entered office, the pandemic subsided, normalcy seemed to return.
In the two years since that summer, I’ve considered the specific series of events that might trigger our final national fragmentation, often in Tablet, and it now seems clear to me that America’s demise will be inaugurated by what has become our country’s pastime: a contested election. In two years from now, both parties will declare themselves the electoral victor, with neither presidential candidate conceding defeat; state electors will ratify two different presidents, according to their preferred narrative or conspiracy theory; the country will then fracture, legally and institutionally, along red and blue lines.
According to recent polling, more than 50% of Americans expect a new civil war in the “next couple of years.” It’s a pathetic scenario more fitting for a semi-authoritarian backwater than the world’s beacon of democracy. National breakup efforts will be coming and, if we’re being honest, they’re behind schedule.
Since 2000, the U.S. has witnessed three contested presidential elections, with one side labeling the results illegitimate. In 2000’s Bush v. Gore, the Supreme Court shut down vote recounts and delivered the election to the son of a former president, a man whose family, at various points, maintained that the 1992 election itself was “stolen” by the querulous Ross Perot and the meddling “liberal media.”
The appointment of President George W. Bush, grandchild of Prescott Bush—who took part in the Business Plot, a bumbling coup d’état attempt against Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s—led the country into two disastrous Middle Eastern wars, one being based on fraudulent premises. In his final year in office Bush stood at the helm while the U.S. banking system collapsed, causing the country’s most significant economic downturn since the Great Depression.
In the next election the U.S. electorate pinned their hopes on Barack Obama, the skinny junior Illinois senator promising to lead the country past the triune plagues of Wall Street greed, racial animus, and Middle Eastern wars. Amid more puff pieces about the beauty of the presidential family than occurred during John Kennedy’s presidential tenure, Obama lost the 2010 midterms.
Six years later, the former first lady, Hillary Clinton, who everyone in elite media penciled in as their next queen, deepened the Democrats’ failure by taking electoral losses throughout the Rust Belt region far worse than Al Gore’s 2000 campaign.
Instead of admitting fault for their losing campaign strategy, Democratic Party apparatchiks and their allies in the legacy media became full-time election denialists. The news operations that made billions airing Trump’s every idiotic word in the lead-up to the 2016 election accepted no responsibility for his eventual victory; neither did the Democratic Party establishment, who all but rigged their own primary process in favor of one of the least popular political figures in American history. The Democratic Party leadership and journalism class did nothing wrong, we were repeatedly informed. It was Vladimir Putin and the Russians who were actually to blame—they hacked the election!
Heading into the 2020 election, COVID-19 crashed what had been a not-quite-as-disastrous-as-anticipated 45th U.S. presidency for Donald Trump. By embracing both the COVID lockdowns and a miniscule relief package that did not tie employees to their jobs, Trump tanked any realistic chance of winning a second term. But instead of admitting his own errors, Trump—like the Bushes, the Gores, and the Clintons before him—blamed everybody else.
Predictably, Trump claimed that his defeat was a fraud. The election, you see, was stolen. Sound familiar? Within a matter of weeks, “stop the steal” became the mantra of the Republican Party. All who refused to abide by its claims were run out of the MAGA camp as traitors—or worse.
Bringing us to the present, when no one in leadership takes responsibility for anything—not America’s military generals, nor its public health officials, and least of all its president. Scapegoating and conspiracy accusations are the norm. Both left and right view instigating mass hysteria as a legitimate political tool—not only for career advancement, but also institutional takeover. Where does that leave us?
Entire nations can go insane. Here’s a way to test if we’re headed that way: Watch five minutes of TikTok—anything related to politics, beauty tips, or social justice. Follow that up with five minutes of MSNBC, then the same amount of Fox News. Next, read a chapter of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility—any chapter. Lastly, carefully scan some QAnon Reddit posts. Immediately after doing all this, take a shower and then ask yourself: Is American political culture not in the throes of degenerative madness? Might the seemingly stable present be attributable to the fact that we remain too rich, militarily impenetrable, and geographically insulated to face the full consequences of our psychological derangement?
Once a political culture embraces the path of the dark triad—narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy—negative end products are not simply possible, but inevitable. There’s only one chance to stave off the worst potential outcomes in the United States: Recognize our 50-state partnership as a failed marriage and, like adults, move on. Here’s how it could look:
California, parts of Oregon, Washington, and Nevada agree to become one new federal system but keep their independent statehoods—and legislative bodies—intact. Utah, Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and the Dakotas do the same. The Rust Belt states, including, let’s suppose, a separated western Pennsylvania, forge together as another similar regional governance agreement.
Connecticut, Massachusetts, and the rest of New England become another confederation of nation states. Upstate New York, Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and eastern Pennsylvania join it, or perhaps Canada would like a few new wealthy provinces. The five boroughs of NYC should probably be given unique status inside this new New England, similar to Scotland’s place inside the United Kingdom: a distinct parliament and some separate form of micro-nationhood.
Down South, the former Civil War border states of Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri can collaborate in a new state partnership. Similarly, the 11 states of the former Confederacy join together once more, minus Texas, who we all know—because they remind us incessantly!—has been counting the days until it can declare full independence again.
Alaska and Hawaii are beautiful and luxurious places. They’ll easily find a home in one of these new state partnerships. Puerto Rico, America’s long-suffering and neglected stepchild, might seek independence, which is increasingly popular with its citizens: In 2020, the Puerto Rican Independence Party picked up 13.6% of the vote compared to 2.1% in 2016; the anti-colonial Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana, meanwhile, garnered 14% of the vote, signaling a full quarter of the territory is ready to cut ties with the U.S.
There’s nothing sacred about 50-state America. Breaking up the country into six or seven new semiautonomous state partnerships won’t solve all, or even most, of our political or cultural problems. It should, however, end the insane and unwinnable culture wars over the national identity of a country that was never intended to have a massive top-down, one-size-fits-all solution for how its citizens should live. America was founded to allow local experiments in democracy to flourish within regional cultures. That tradition has been destroyed by a ruling class made up of people who were all educated at the same schools and taught to believe that technocratic solutions were the answer to every problem. Corporations and federal surveillance bureaucracies may object to a national breakup on the grounds that it would make their jobs harder, but why should ordinary Americans feel the same way?
How much of America’s present dysfunction is the result of Abraham Lincoln’s 1861 choice to forcibly keep together two regional cultures that detest each other? Few comparable civil wars exist in world history where one side vanquishes (and humiliates) the other and then the two sides stay together peacefully—but teeming with unresolved resentment—for more than a century and half.
Like it or not, the United States is poised to Balkanize at some point. If anything, sustained independence movements are overdue. The 21st-century ascent of the critical-race- and gender-as-a-social-construct ideologies might not actually represent an effort to dismantle a “hegemonic white patriarchy,” as claimed. A better way to understand the tremendous popularity of woke thought among the bureaucratic class could be as an unconscious attempt to create the moral economy needed to forcefully keep the union together a second time. For, if the red-state voters and rural Americans are merely dens of “deplorable” “racist” “fascists” then there’s simply no choice but to deny them democratic independence when they inevitably ask for it.
Since I started writing about the topic of national breakup two years ago, the concept of a second U.S. civil war has become presque vu across much of the American media landscape. The round-faced YouTuber Tim Pool has made a living posting daily videos on the topic. With his head hovering in the bottom right corner of the screen, Pool displays the day’s news. After reading a few lines, Pool will then sigh, pause for dramatic effect, and offer commentary that, nearly without fail, contains the phrase “I tell you what” and some reference to the notion of a second civil war.
My YouTube algorithm pairs Pool’s videos with advertisements for bulletproof vests, tactical knives, and other self-defense paraphernalia. Prepare yourself nancy boy, YouTube whispers in my ear. The zombies are coming.
In need of an informed interlocutor, I called F.H. Buckley, a foundation professor of law at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, and outlined my predictions for America’s end. We discussed two distinct national breakup possibilities:
Scenario A is the “Buchanan,” named after President James Buchanan’s apathy toward the South’s independence efforts. In this scenario, Trump—or any other Republican—occupies the White House when Californians set in motion a serious move toward “Calexit.” According to Buckley, the Republican president responds by saying “‘goodbye and good luck.’”
Scenario B, the “Lincoln” (named after Lincoln’s inexorable campaign to keep the union together by force): Under a Democratic chief executive—including a Biden second term—red states launch independence movements. Buckley believes this is where the true danger lies. “The question is which party is prepared to invade and occupy the territory of another part of the country,” he asks rhetorically. The Democrats, he goes on, “wouldn’t hesitate to make war on the Republican parts of America.”
I share with Buckley that I live in a solidly middle-class neighborhood in north central Florida. Roughly 30%-35% of my neighbors are African American. On the road directly in front of my house, kids ride their motocross bikes wearing cowboy boots and unironic mullets. On this same road, I’ve heard Punjabi and Mandarin spoken by neighbors walking by with their children. However, when November rolls around and lawn signs go up, most of them plug Trump, Ron DeSantis, or other GOP candidates. There are plenty of Biden signs too, but I’ve never witnessed any consternation and certainly no ethnic animosity. “Mixed-race” couples are common to the degree that they’re unremarkable—as aligns with demographer Richard Alba’s recent research on the expanding American mainstream.
“The ironic thing is that American conservatives are the tolerant people here,” Buckley says. “I’m from Quebec and lived through a real secession debate,” he then says. “There was never such animosity between English and French Quebec as there is between conservatives and liberals in America. There is such a degree of deep-seated contempt and widespread fantasies of what life would be like without the other side around.”
In our chat, which happened more than a month ago, Buckley argued that the most likely outcome of the 2024 presidential election is a Biden presidency. Due to Biden’s advanced age and visible health problems, I hadn’t even contemplated that as a possibility.
Should Buckley’s prediction prove true, following a second Trump defeat, it feels inevitable that “stop the steal” morphs into some form of red-state “national divorce”—rhetoric already used frequently by Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and many on the American right. The Libertarian Party has also made #NationalDivorce part of their refrain.
What does the federal government do under that 21st-century “Lincoln scenario”? I ask Buckley.
“March troops into seceding red territories,” he says without hesitation.
B. Duncan Moench (@DuncanMoench) is Tablet’s social critic at large and a scholar of political thought and American character studies.