My debut novel comes out next week — it is (I hope) a funny chronicle of my home state of Vermont contemplating secession. But I can’t stop wondering if our erratic president has sown so much division that the vision of a truly United States may start to blur for real, not just in fiction — if scenes like the ones from the recent secession referendum in Catalonia might lie in our future too.
We live at an unprecedented moment, when Washington has abandoned its usual unifying role: We have ceased all federal efforts to deal with climate change, even as it takes its toll on California, Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico. The White House is trying systematically to dismantle our not-very-robust health care system, even as the nation’s life expectancy starts to slip. Congress fixates on cutting taxes on the rich, even as inequality reaches record heights. Our president indulges in race-baiting, even as our population accelerates its long demographic shift. Every one of those trends is impossible to maintain, and yet that’s where we are — and, daily now, new hard-right federal judges come on board, locking in place those outdated attitudes.
The best outcome is that the national electorate rises up decisively — one hopes that on election night next November there will be a palpable sigh of relief, as a legislative check on the current strangeness emerges. The worst outcome, of course, is that we cope by going to distracting war.
But it’s also possible that the unprecedented weirdness continues — even into another presidential term. And if it does, it’s worth asking what else unprecedented will start to happen. My guess is that many places will start cutting whatever ties they can with D.C. and try to figure out how to go it increasingly alone. My novel not withstanding, secession probably won’t begin in a small, graying state like Vermont (the threat to Social Security payments would likely be threat enough). But, say, California?
California is a long way from Washington — it points toward the Pacific, increasingly the planet’s center of gravity. It has the world’s fifth-largest economy — it’s essentially Germany, with a specialty in the fastest-growing industries and services on earth. Even before Trump, a third of Californians were secession-curious, and with good reason: Those 40 million people have the same number of senators as the 600,000 people in Vermont. They pay far more money to the federal government than they get back. And they get even less respect: Not only has the president not visited his most populous state, even his hyperactive Twitter account has barely acknowledged the most disastrous fires in its history. The problems California faces — climate change, perhaps above all — aren’t being addressed by Washington in any meaningful way; its ethnicities are increasingly the subject of scorn. Why would it put up with this forever?
Its governor has called for a giant meeting of “subnational actors” — cities, states, regions — to gather in San Francisco next year for a Paris-like climate conference. He’s joined with Canadian provinces to auction carbon credits, and led a high-profile state visit to Beijing. He’s even talking about launching climate satellites to replace the ones Trump is grounding. And others are going further — citizens are busy gathering petition signatures for a ballot initiative about greater autonomy for the state. An earlier effort faltered when one of its leaders absconded to Russia, but one would be wrong to assume this logic will never catch on.
If California drifted, Washington state and Oregon might well follow. And hey, the GOP might let them go: The country would then be unimpeachably Republican, in the way that Scottish secession seemed likely to entrench British conservatives. But facing a lifetime of rule by Alabamians, New Englanders might decide they constituted a natural republic. New York? It has, after all, thought of itself as an empire. The center can probably hold — it’s bright red on every map I see. But the edges might be in play.
None of this is certain, nor necessarily desirable. I grew up in Lexington, and my summer job was giving tours of the Battle Green, “birthplace of American liberty” — I’m a sentimental patriot. But I’m also aware that those Minutemen fought against the unpredictable, unrepresentative, and unaccountable power that the king represented. They felt they had no more voice in the central government than many feel right now. Perhaps Trump is the sum of the problem, and, when he goes, our public life will resume its normal course. Or perhaps a nation of 300 million is approaching the limits of governability.
Democracy, at any given moment, always has people who are on the outs, losers in the last election, disappointed with their leaders. But the polling indicates there’s never been a moment that felt as crazy as this one, with as many people convinced something has gone fundamentally wrong. The resistance that’s arisen to Trump is a healthy sign — antibodies fighting off a systemic infection. But not every case of gangrene heals; sometimes amputation results.
Bill McKibben is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College and the author of the forthcoming “Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance.”