This story was produced as part of the Democracy Day journalism collaborative, a nationwide effort to shine a light on the threats and opportunities facing American democracy. Read more here.
I saw an article about a survey asking Americans how likely they thought it was that a civil war would break out in the next decade. Almost half the respondents answered in the affirmative. They didn’t ask about the civil war happening right now.
Some time ago a neighbor of ours set up a flagpole, anchored in a large concrete block, where he flies an oversized American flag. It is uphill from us, overlooking our property. He dutifully raises the flag every morning and takes it down every afternoon.
One afternoon, I was in the yard bringing in some firewood when I heard a voice say, “Fucking Communist!” And out of the corner of my eye I saw our neighbor gathering in his flag.
We live in a very small town, where everybody knows everybody. We aren’t fast friends all around, but you wave in passing and say hello at the post office. We aren’t all on the same page politically, which just means any conversations are about family, or town events, or even the weather—not politics.
I was certainly aware of my neighbor’s politics, which are in stark contrast to my own. Nevertheless, and against my better judgement, I wondered if I had really heard what I heard. The flagpole is two or three hundred feet away, so maybe it was the wind, or something.
Except a few days later, same scenario. “Communist! Quisling!” This time there was no doubt, although I did award points for the historical reference. I went into the house with the “Hey, you’ll never believe what just happened,” news for my wife. We gave each other a look. What’s to do?
Next time, we were outside taking down our Christmas lights. “Fucking Communist!”
At this point it was clear we had to do something. I had tried calling him, but got no answer and only left a message asking what the heck was going on. He wasn’t doing anything illegal. He was on his own property, and not making overt threats. But the effect was certainly to make us feel threatened.
We reported it to the County Sheriff anyway, and a couple of deputies came to the house. We explained the situation, and they understood, but just the same he was technically not doing anything against the law. Maybe disturbing the peace, but that was a stretch.
They did ask if we wanted them to go up and have a word with him, which we immediately agreed to. That is what they did, and there have been no further incidents since.
So what’s to think about an unfortunate, ugly incident? Where is its place in our civil war, as Trump MAGA World squares off against their fellow Americans? How does it fit in their scheme to replace our Republic with an authoritarian state, led by their revered “strongman,” legions of elected and unelected toadies and kleptocrats next level down, and at the bottom a population in part cheering the whole thing on and in part wondering how the hell it happened?
To find the answer, step back, and look at the attacks, threats, and intimidation Trump MAGA World is inflicting on institutions of all sorts, and their fellow citizens.
The targeting of election officials, judges, and government employees—from local county clerks, to school or library boards, to National Archives workers—is part and parcel with the January 6 assault on the Capitol, the attack on the FBI office in Cincinnati, and countless other threats to all aspects of government, news media, and civil society. As different as they might seem, there is no daylight between my neighbor’s profanities and Donald Trump’s description of the FBI as “vicious monsters.” There is no daylight between January 6 and Lindsey Graham’s prediction of “riots in the streets” should Trump ever be indicted.
It is all one single, continuous onslaught of literal and figurative violence.
Now, Trump MAGA World has abandoned even the pretense of legitimacy, or whatever norms they have not already shredded. Trump’s commitment to pardon January 6 rioters is odious enough, but it really isn’t aimed at them. Their cases will have been resolved, and sentences served, before he can take office again—except, notably, for the most serious offenders. It is aimed at future mobs, the ones Trump will call upon next time he loses an election.
The FBI’s discovery and seizure of classified government documents from Mar-A-Lago leaves Trump MAGA World with the unacceptable possibility that their strongman might be charged with a crime.
And President Biden has given several remarkable speeches in which he precisely described the current threats to democracy, and laid the blame exactly where it belongs, at the feet of “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans.”
As we go into the mid-term elections, the lines are drawn. The more pointed, and dangerous the confrontation becomes, the clearer we can see what is happening to our country. There is no ambiguity about which sides are which, and what they stand for.
The elections could well be very disappointing for Trump MAGA World. Democrats appear energized, and the judicial branch of Trump MAGA World has apparently poked a bear with their reversal of Roe v. Wade.
A loss for Trump MAGA World would be a setback, for sure. If nothing else, it would make their minority status clear in the eyes of the country. But ultimately elections don’t matter to them. If they win, so much the better. If they lose, they simply don’t accept the results which, to the degree that they control the election apparatus, can render democracy meaningless.
To say the outcome of our civil war is uncertain is the understatement of the century. It pains me to say this, but at age 73 I do not see a definitive resolution in my lifetime. The struggle will go on. The followers of Trump MAGA World are numerous, entrenched in cable news and social media, and too devoted to their world view to ever go away.
The level of violence will ebb and flow. Endorsed by the highest levels of Trump MAGA World, it will be dialed up or down, depending on the situation. The more desperate they become, the more they will turn to violence, which may or may not be their undoing. It’s easy to overplay that hand, and perhaps someday the country will have had enough.
And it’s true my neighbor did eventually change his behavior. To begin with, we did not, and could not, accept what he was doing. The authorities, in the person of two deputies, simply by their presence offered him a face-saving way to stop. Not by abandoning his opinions or admitting guilt, but by acknowledging the rule of law they symbolized. And, though I have not mentioned this, his family—wife and adult children–were mortified and ashamed of his behavior, and told him so.
Maybe my personal example can be applied on a wider scale. Resolution lies in some mix of resistance, sensible application of authority, and a rediscovery of what it means to be a good neighbor.
Emerging from this strange and menaced time won’t happen quickly, or be easy. But as my high school geometry teacher used to say, “No rest for the wicked, and the righteous don’t need any.”
Erich Obermayr, a columnist for the Sierra Nevada Ally, is an author, community activist, and career archaeologist specializing in sharing historical and archaeological research with the public. He writes about Nevada politics and social issues. He lives in Silver City, Nevada, with his wife. Support Erich’s work in the Sierra Nevada Ally here.
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