In 2019, America Wallows in Disunion — Just Like 1850

You can trace an unfortunate, slave-driven straight line from John C. Calhoun to Donald J. Trump.

These people are not our vision for America. Never were. Never will be.

Funniest thing about people: you can count on them to charge out of the trenches and fight down to the last cartridge when they know they’re outnumbered, defeated, dependent and wrong. Think of the Alamo or southern slaveholders during the Civil War. Or Boris Johnson and his Brexit brigades.

Now think of Donald Trump’s battered, stubborn base. They’ve stayed with him through sexual assaults, election theft, sucking up to America-hating tyrants and presidency for profit. It’s enough to make you think they’ll never give up!

My take? His loyal base, now holding steady at 40% or so, will eventually dwindle down, perhaps to 25% — these are the ones who will never surrender. Who are these people? Why do they cling to their myths about the MAGA-in-Chief through a long string of impeachable, even treasonable, offenses? Excepting only the Taliban, they’re the damnedest bunch of starry-eyed, idealistic, weirdly ethical people imaginable.

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They’re the kind of people — many of the same people, in fact — who believe in the Glorious Lost Cause of the Confederacy. They are living proof that, among other things, war settles nothing — or at least America’s Civil War settled nothing. More than a century and a half after the armed phase of that conflict ended, they still form clubs, ranging from the ragtag Ku Klux Klan to the faux sophistication of the Federalist Society, to promote twisted history, white supremacy and disunion. They festoon it all with badges and banners of American patriotism, coupled with a perverted form of Christianity, and care not ever to distinguish between the two. They behave like heathens and cannot abide the real America, which expresses itself through the majority votes of the people.

Bear with a bit of history. America, in 1850, stood on the brink of disunion. The issue was the one that the Founders glossed over, that led inevitably to civil war, whose tragic aftermath plagues us still: slavery. Everybody knew slavery was evil. Most of the Founders, even those who held slaves, said it was evil, and anticipated its end as a welcome development. Yet politicians like John C. Calhoun, representing South Carolina in the Senate, stopped saying so. He began to represent slavery as a positive good. He gave his fellow Southerners political and even spiritual cover for the country’s original sin. It was just another instance of God’s will being interpreted as convenient for the status quo. With Eli Whitney’s gin reviving the cotton economy, it formed, along with slave labor and free foreign trade, a sturdy tripod of support for wealthy Southern landowners.

Henry Clay, from Calhoun’s border state of Kentucky, took a predictably middle ground, and Daniel Webster, from Massachusetts, was willing to compromise. Together, against Calhoun’s deathbed protestations, they took credit for the Compromise of 1850, which satisfied no one and was, in fact, a spectacular failure that led to war. The compromise banned slavery in California, which angered the Southerners, and it also strengthened the Fugitive Slave Act, which sat about as well with the Northern abolitionists. Webster should not have compromised: Southerners did not need appeasing. They needed putting down, and then they needed help.

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The parallels with today’s politics are inescapable. The heirs of the rebels never admitted defeat. Even after the little setback at Appomattox, they never really gave up on slavery. They’ve opposed labor unions, minimum wages, workplace safety regulations, and every other form of progress for workers, and they still do. This is all in the name of freedom, but it’s the freedom of a savage society, not of the American vision, that they desire. It is the freedom of feudal Europe, where those in possession of sufficient means and meanness were free to quite literally impoverish and oppress everyone else. The American vision of freedom is antithetical to that, because it encompasses and depends on the idea of relative equality. Capitalism, uncontrolled, is a threat to it.

The inheritors of these stubborn rebels have achieved remarkable things. The first is the retardation of the economy in every state where their politics prevails. Second, through evangelical efforts that even Billy Graham would envy, they’ve spread their poisonous ideology to formerly progressive parts of the country, from North Dakota to much of Illinois. Finally, they have achieved disunion of the most destructive sort. This last is the crucial point.

In 1850, and in 1861, Southerners were worried about slavery and other aspects of their primitive system. The Websters — and the Abraham Lincolns — were not. Slavery figured into the equation, of course, but their principal concern was preserving the Union. They knew they were writing important chapters in world history, and they knew their work would be undone by severing the states one from the next. They would not give up on the idea of a strong federal government and a permanent nation founded, not on a federation of sovereign states (“We, the states…”), but on a Constitution (“We, the people…”).

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So what is disunion in 2019? Not a secession of states. The geography is too complicated; the division is no longer along geographic lines. In 2019, the divisions are urban vs. rural and educated vs. ignorant, for the most part, and American society has broken down along these rough lines. Disunion is the failure, even the unwillingness, to communicate between the sides. Disunion is the trap of cooperating with foreign powers who openly want to exploit and deepen the divisions of American society that already threaten us. Disunion is expressed and accelerated by the distrust of institutions that traditionally held us together. It begins with common sources of information and common respect for government. These have been weakened by the assault on public and higher education, the fragmentation of the news media, and the proliferation of opinion over news.

This is when people, in their disorientation, “cling to religion or guns,” as Barack Obama trenchantly observed. It’s a Calhounian kind of religion that feeds their prejudices. As for the guns, their promoters are ever more frank about what they think guns are for, and the purpose of guns, it seems, is overturning the government. The irony is sharp here, because the places where government is least popular are where the most people depend on it, through programs ranging from food stamps to farm subsidies. Government is, in fact, the only institution powerful enough to help them. But they’d rather be grateful for the crumbs from the Koch brothers’ table than ask the government’s help in leveling the field a bit.

A floor for income and a ceiling for wealth would be enormously helpful to them. But that sounds like socialism. And as the old saying goes, they’d rather shovel elephant droppings than get out of show business.