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Opinion | Niall Ferguson

How close is the United States to a civil war?

Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

At the beginning of the Cold War, the artist wife of the physicist Alexander Langsdorf came up with the image of the “doomsday clock.” It appeared in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to illustrate the fear of many physicists—including some who had been involved in the creation of the atomic bomb—that a “technology-induced catastrophe” might be terrifyingly close. Midnight on the doomsday clock meant nuclear Armageddon.

I have no doubt that somewhere in academia someone is busy devising a civil war doomsday clock. Any day now they’ll publish it under the headline: “Two minutes to Fort Sumter.” But just how close is the United States to the kind of internecine slaughter that began in April 1861?


As I’ve argued here before, there is a kind of cultural civil war already being fought on social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. With the midterm elections just over a week away, that culture war gets more febrile by the day.

Of course, the culture war is no more a real war than the trade war President Trump has launched against China. Nevertheless, the news last week that amateurish pipe bombs had been mailed to half a dozen of President Trump’s best known critics — including Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, the hedge fund billionaire George Soros and the actor Robert De Niro — provided the cue for new prophecies of a second American Civil War.

The arrest on Friday of Cesar Sayoc was immediately greeted with cries of “Gotcha!” His white van was covered in pro-Trump stickers, including one reading “CNN Sucks.” “Trump owns this,” declared Edward Luce, a normally sober Washington correspondent.

I don’t much like Trump’s regular criticisms of the mainstream media and occasional glorification of body-slamming. But a direct causal relationship to a nut posting a bunch of homemade bombs? Did Bernie Sanders “own” the attempted murder of Steve Scalise by a Sanders supporter in June last year?


Saturday’s massacre at a synagogue in Pittsburgh makes matters much worse. Trump is no anti-Semite, but some alt-right elements routinely abuse Jews. Then again, the hard left has its anti-Semites too.

That people on both sides of the political divide are using intemperate language is undeniable, even if the Left will always insist that the other side is worse. That there is a potential for an increase in political violence in the United States seems clear. By European standards, there are terrifying numbers of lethal weapons in private hands. But civil war?

Some of the people who make this argument can be dismissed as scare-mongers. When a Canadian novelist fantasizes about Trump being assassinated, the United States tearing itself apart, and all the nice Americans moving to Canada, it’s better to avert your gaze. Same drill when a Marine-turned-talk-show-host calls for red states to secede if a future Democratic administration comes for their guns, or when a New York progressive with fishy Russian connections argues for Californian secession.

Yet when my colleague at the Hoover Institution, the historian Victor Davis Hanson, warns that we are “at the brink of a veritable civil war,” we all need to pay attention. I also take seriously the work of Peter Turchin, who has been arguing for some time that several leading indicators of political instability (notably inequality) are set to peak around 2020, making the United States “particularly vulnerable to violent upheaval.”


Hanson’s argument is that the tensions arising from globalization, the Internet, campus leftism and illegal immigration have led to an ideological split that is also geographical. The current toxic atmosphere puts him in mind not only of the 1850s but also of the 5th century BC, when “stasis” (meaning internal strife) tore apart the ancient Greek city states.

Like our colleague, Morris Fiorina, I am inclined toward the optimistic view that most normal Americans find the culture war exhausting. As I argued here last week, the evidence suggests that the extreme right and extreme left are two noisy minorities. They would be lost without one another, but they turn everyone else off.

But Hanson — who is no determinist and still sees further polarization as avoidable — makes a crucial point. History repeatedly shows that “zealous and sometimes warring tiny minorities can escalate tensions, nullify opposition, and bully the silenced majority to sanction — or at least not object to — violence.”

The most troubling analogy I heard last week was between the 2020 presidential election and that of 1860. My interlocutor noted that Abraham Lincoln won a four-way race in 1860. If a centrist — say Ohio Governor John Kasich — runs as an Independent, if the Democrats nominate a progressive (Kamala Harris, anyone?) and if Trump seeks reelection, we could have a somewhat similar situation.


The implication is not comforting. The election of 1860 exposed that the divisions over the issue of slavery had become unbridgeable. Lincoln’s victory was swiftly followed by the secession of seven Southern states and the formation of the Confederacy.

True, there is no single issue in today’s culture war. True, the time on the civil war doomsday clock looks more like 11:08 than 11:58. But when I tell you who drew the 1860 analogy to my attention, you’ll know why I’m troubled. Reader, it was Steve Bannon.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.