It’s been five years since I first speculated in this space about the end of American democracy.
In doing so, I felt like a man climbing out on an especially creaky limb. But as hyperpartisanship rose to ever more bizarre extremes, as the misinformation crisis left ever more people babbling angry gobbledygook, as voter suppression resurrected the zombie of Jim Crow and as Donald Trump swore an oath he didn’t mean, that limb began to feel like bedrock.
Even so, I struggled with the obvious follow-up question. If America faced an existential threat, what form would it take? I thought: maybe a newly energized secession movement. Or a fascist regime rising from the ruins of a hollowed-out democracy.
Truthfully, it was hard to say. The difficulty of being definitive lay in the fact that, though many of us likened this period to the 1850s, it was hard to conceive of it leading where the 1850s did, to states taking up arms against the federal government. For the record, it still is. But what has become increasingly clear is that avoiding the Civil War redux is not the same as avoiding violence.
Which brings us to Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., and the astonishing thing he said in a Sunday speech. “If our election systems continue to be rigged and continue to be stolen,” he told his audience, “then it’s going to lead to one place, and it’s bloodshed.” He suggested he’d be in the middle of any bloodletting. “As much as I am willing to defend our liberty at all costs,” he said, “there is nothing that I would dread more than having to pick up arms against a fellow American.”
A spokesman later claimed this was Cawthorn advocating for peace. It was actually a manifesto of sedition.
And I feel constrained to repeat: He’s a congressman. Yet, this barely made the news. Which suggests how inured we have become to the extremism of so-called conservatives. Not that we don’t have reason to be.
After Stephen Bannon suggested Dr. Anthony Fauci be beheaded and Trump ally Joseph diGenova called for a federal official to be “taken out at dawn and shot” and there was an invasion of the Michigan statehouse and the Proud Boys brawled against anti-fascists in Portland and death threats forced apostate Republican Liz Cheney to hire extra security and the right wing made martyrs of rioter Ashli Babbitt and accused murderer Kyle Rittenhouse and a man claiming he had a bomb threatened to blow up the U.S. Capitol and insurrectionists sacked that selfsame edifice, well ... let’s just say we are no strangers to right-wing threats.
And while it’s unlikely we’ll see regional armies clashing as they once did at Antietam and Shiloh, is it so hard to imagine the country descending into a maelstrom of conservative terrorism, the kind of hit-and-run asymmetric warfare — random bombings and shootings — that rocked Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s? Certainly, the weapons and the sense of grievance are there.
Maybe you think that’s far-fetched. Maybe it is.
As far-fetched, perhaps, as turning jetliners into guided missiles. Point being that it was, as much as anything, a failure of imagination — a literal inability to conceive — that made the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001 possible. We didn’t even realize we were in a fight till after we’d been hit. That’s a mistake our government, news media, police and military cannot afford to repeat.
The radical right has explicitly shown us and told us what they plan to do. I propose we take them at their word — take the threat seriously.
And act accordingly.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, Fla., 33172. Readers may contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.