Empty Thunder

In the aftermath of the Civil War (once also called the War of the Rebellion), many people were certainly concerned, uncertain, and baffled about the future. The purpose of the war had been the preservation of the Union. That statement, that explanation, however, contains within it manifold intentions and issues with which we evidently struggle to this day.

Chief among them being the question, Union of What?

Lee’s surrender at Appomattox gave a formality to the end of the war which was deceptive. Hostilities raged on in various places for years. Look at any war and it is obvious that formal declarations of surrender, victory, etc, are only that—declarations. State intentions. Conflagration continues in the aftermath, small conflicts, what we call brushfire wars, go on over unresolved questions of territory, national identity, ideology, all to some extent driven by the refusal to acknowledge that it is over.

If we look at the events of this past January 6th and take them as evidence of a civil war, then it might be legitimate to say that the successful inauguration of Joe Biden marks the formal end of that war, and it would be about as true as any other such declaration. It might be well for us to examine all the elements of that event to see where it might lead.

Firstly, is there a Civil War?

Let’s look at the prior one and see how it compares.

Our Civil War was fought over the issue of slavery.  (Issue number one, among many “issue number ones” this time, is the accuracy of that claim. Despite the wishes of naysayers, it is indisputable that the secession movements of the 1860s were centered on that one issue. They said so themselves. The desire to claim otherwise in recent years is one of the hallmarks of our current difficulties and in a significant way the reason the current movement lacks any credibility.)  Dress it up any way you like, slavery was the issue. I can say this regardless of claims to the contrary even without the written proof by the hands of the secessionists by a simple formula. States Rights is the less odious claim. But States Rights to do what? To be a state? That right already existed and was not under threat. The drive to secede must therefore have been spurred by a sense of threat to a perceived right that was at issue. The “state right” under threat was the right to hold human beings in chattel bondage. Period. That was the defining issue for those states, that they claimed the right to maintain the one institution that they saw as essential to their very identity, i.e. slavery. 

All through the Trans-Atlantic Slave period, there were people arguing that slavery was immoral, inhumane, and ultimately despicable, so it was not that they didn’t know any better, it was only that those practicing it believed in their own self-interest more. Inasmuch as we regard this as at least in some part a class issue, the assumed superiority of the slaveholders is demonstrable across social lines. If they could have found a way to enslave the poor of any ethnic group, they would have (and in many ways did). The racist aspect becomes evident when the clearly-stated and institutionally pernicious differences between the various forms of bondage are examined.

How does this relate to the present?

That desire for self-superiority has never been fully dealt with and drives most if not all of the current politics informing those who participated in the insurrection on January 6th.

What the states that formed the Confederacy possessed that the present agglomeration of socially and economically disaffected reactionaries lack was a concrete set of conditions over which to separate themselves from the Union. Concrete but ultimate insupportable. Slavery as an economic system had limits, and was reaching them. The only thing that would have allowed the South to maintain the system in any economically sustainable way was expansion and that was severely threatened politically by the actions of the North. Even without that, the South was in many ways trying to maintain a dying system that could not be sustained either environmentally, morally, or economically. At some point it would have become clear that the slaveholders would not have been able to afford to maintain the system. The returns were already trending in that direction, hence the urgency in expansion. They were on the long road to bankruptcy. Outlawing slavery outright would have brought that about much sooner. 

By comparison, what do the present crop of the disaffected have to fear?

Going down a list of issues, few have the kind of concreteness faced by the antebellum elite. And yet, there is a similarity that is tragic in much the same way.

The casualties (on both sides) of the Civil War fell most heavily upon the poor. Men drafted into service to fight for a cause of which they had no real stake. The average Confederate soldier did not and never would own a slave. 

In the same way, the people in Washington D.C. who invaded the Capitol are not and never will be independently wealthy.

And yet in both instances they were coopted into fighting for those whose ranks they could never join—in both instances, the rich.

Before going into that, though, consider the issues presently fueling this movement. Most of them are entirely fabricated. QAnon is entirely nonsense, and yet it has dangerous momentum. The libertarian aspirations on display are at most distractions. The protests against LGBTQ rights are informed by the worst kind of misapplied identity tropes. Abortion is the one issue with any real traction and even it is projected in opposition to secularism and questions of gender equality which on their face require one to ignore so many ancillary realities as to be little more than antiquated prudery dressed up as a moral crisis.

These are all wedge issues, existing for only one purpose—to divide people into camps that can then be manipulated into fighting each other. Reasonable solutions are available to answer differences of opinion, but they are cast as betrayals to some kind of fundamental morality and undermines American Exceptionalism.

The tagline for the movement gives it away. Make America Great Again.

That begs so many questions.

Now, this is the kind of thing that seems to annoy the reactionary the most, the request for definition. They know what they mean, and see your inability to understand what they mean as a sign that you are part of the problem. That you would ask the question automatically defines you as their opponent in a struggle for the unquestioned emergence of the wonderfulness they support. It should, it seems, “go without saying.”

It must be asked, though—what good is anything that cannot be said? And is the lack of definition just a mask for that which has no reality?

Greatness, however one defines it, is only legitimate as an emergent property. If it is a set goal, with predefined shape and expectations, it is both unachievable and illegitimate.

Those who seem to be Trump’s loudest and most energetic supporters seem not to understand this. They seem to regard Greatness as a prize to be won, a condition with evident benefits that can be bought, a state of being understood by the adulation it commands. This is clear in Trump’s case by any casual look at the produce of his life—if it looks great, that’s enough, never mind what substance it contains. He is, above all, a promoter, and the promoter never has to produce, he only has to sell. The “promotion” comes into play when what is being sold is not quite what it is claimed to be.

Consider: the insurrectionists invaded the precincts of the Capitol. They invaded, they took the halls, the floors, had run of the building. They rushed in there believing they were about to achieve their goals. And then what? They acted like children. They wandered around, they collected trophies, they took selfies. 

They had no plan.

What if they had captured some congresspeople? Some were clearly prepared to arrest those they had been told are the source of their disaffection. What then?

What demands might these people have made? And on whose behalf?

Many are now lamenting how they had been misled. They blame Trump, certainly, but that misses the point, which is that had they not prepared themselves to be misled, he would never have been able to draw them in. They were there because they wanted to be.

But wanted to be for what?

Among the various signs on display, a variety of bigotries were evident. Antisemitism. Ethnic exclusiveness. Libertarian protestations. QAnon messaging. As one digs through the morass of ideological motives, it moves from ancient hatreds to contemporary fantasy. A melange of distortions, absurdities, and petty insecurities. It is not difficult to find ample information to debunk and delegitimize each and every position. But it has all found common ground among people who would rather attack the institutions defined for them as their enemy than consider reexamining the bases of their disaffection.

One woman recently charged by the FBI posted about her intention to find Speaker Pelossi and “shoot her in the friggin’ brain.” This is evidence of a profound disconnect with any reasonable picture of reality. 

Again, though, the question must be asked—over what?

So far, no one has been found with any after-takeover plans. Nothing has been revealed about the intended replacement of current institutions with something different. Given that the complaints about the government have become surreal and that of the people who chose to go to Washington and who participated in the insurrection, an answer to this question is a bit more than academic. The stated intention to abduct representatives (not only federal but state officials), in some cases kill them, in every case render the government as it is unable to function requires an explanation. And at some point at least an idea what would take the place of what would be destroyed.

Instead, we see the fire and fury and no plan. No intention to govern in place of. No one stepping up to the plate with a set of ideas on what to do instead of what has been done. 

Largely, this is because we have a method, a plan, a set of procedures here to put forward changes. It’s called an election and representative democracy. The insurrectionists seem unable to make that work for them. Essentially, because they cannot get what they want, they feel the entire system is a failure and should be burned down.

But what it is they want, other than not to have to deal with what is? 

If this were only a problem of a rabble it might not be such a problem. But in fact, the Party that presumably represents them the most—the GOP—exhibits the same frustrating condition. They block, they oppose, they condemn, the filibuster, they deny, they appoint judges, challenge legislation, and except for one tax cut after another, they do not put forward substantive plans as a Party to replace what they clearly seek to tear down. So the model is there, writ large, for the rabble to follow. Just tear it all down and the “right thing” the thing that will “Make America Great Again” will simply emerge.

For decades now we have been subjected to an erosion of public trust and a decimation of public programs fueled by the antagonistic politics fomented by people who are increasing their market share by virtue of the violence and division created with the intent to destroy. It was learned long ago that chaos can, in some instances, allow profit-taking at an elevated rate. Greater prosperity across the board can be created only in periods of greater unity and cultural amity, but that is neither fast nor easily funneled into the narrow channels that currently feed the so-called 1%. We have been led to places where it seems the only rational response to change and to people different from us is exclusion, intolerance, hatred, and rebellion.

The pot boiled over. We have just been through a battle of the current Civil War. 

And for what?

As odious as the institutions the Confederacy sought to defend were, they were substantive. There was something to them. They needed to go, but the battle was not over fantasies and mirages.

This current battle is over…

“I don’t want to.”

There is a petulance about it all that, despite the intensity of violent imagery and posturing and the cacophony of belligerent rejection, cannot be denied or ignored. Anti-maskers trying to make their refusal to cover their mouths and nose for the sake of public health into a First Amendment issue, which it is not. Anti-vaxxers trying to elevate folklore, self-entitlement, and ignorance to the level of responsible citizenship, which it is not. Anti-immigrant sentiment couched as “border security” rather than what it is, bigotry and the tribal howl of fear of the outsider. Anti-tax sentiment that somehow assumes that taxation is the chief impediment to an economy that will allow greater prosperity, which it is not. Anti-safety net, pretending to be a principled stand against “socialism” rather than a species of political resentment toward people believed to be receiving aid “unfairly,” which is really just class envy and fear of losing privilege.

Petulance. We have a civil war going on over petulance.

There is no plan because any plan can only be another version of the same set of systemic resentments that are presumably the current problem.

All thunder and no rain.

For those who understand this, those who for a long time have been tolerating the lies, the targeted destruction, the flouting of all standards of evidence, and the assumption that all opinions are of equal validity, it is perhaps time to stop allowing the space for it. Nonsense is nonsense and the more it is allowed to go unchecked, unchallenged, and unaddressed, the harder it will be to find solid ground when we need to come together.

There will be no secession this time because there is no Lost Cause at the heart of this. There are only the Lost. The problem is, they are armed and they are angry and they believe that as long as they can shout reason and reality down, then they are right.

Now that Trump is off the playing field, they are milling about and feeling betrayed. All they had to give them focus was him. A blowhard who played them for the benefit of his brand. 

His entire legal team has just quit on him. There is nothing left for them to make any bank on. It is a hollow cause, devoid of substance, and yet of such density that it will suck those still in attendance down into a mire to drown. 

The question now is not, what did they actually think they were going to do? but rather, what are we going to do with them now? Millions of people, many of them the likes of Representatives Greene and Boebert, believe in substanceless conspiracies, false theories of government, and the apparent right of people to separate themselves from everything in order to live according to standards that are only supportable within a community, the very kind of community they reject, are among those believing in…

Well, that’s the problem. Believing in what?

We have four years to figure this out before it all comes back to try this nonsense again.

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