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.
For many years it was the bulletin’s editor, Eugene Rabinowitch, who decided where the hands on the clock stood. After his death a committee took over, meeting twice a year to adjust the clock. During the Cold War the closest it came to midnight was in the years 1953-9, when the Doomsday Clock showed two minutes before midnight. The scientists also thought the years 1984-7 were pretty hairy: it was three minutes to midnight for four straight years.
All of which goes to show how absurd such exercises are. No matter how many reputable scientists endorsed the Doomsday Clock, historians today agree that the most dangerous moment in the Cold War was the Cuban Missile Crisis. But the Doomsday Clock was at seven minutes to midnight throughout 1962 and went back to 11.48pm the following year. Rather disconcertingly, the atomic scientists currently think we are back to two minutes to armageddon today.
I have no doubt that somewhere in academia someone is busy devising an American 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 when Confederate forces opened fire on South Carolina’s best-known fort in April 1861?
As I’ve argued on this page before, there is a kind of cultural civil war already being fought on social media. With the mid-term elections just over a week away, that culture war gets more febrile by the day. (I especially enjoyed the latest self-flagellating ravings of the professor at Emory University who decided to denounce himself for sexist thoughtcrimes. He really would have enjoyed Mao’s Cultural Revolution.)
Of course, the culture war is no more a real war than the trade war Donald Trump has launched against China. Nevertheless, the news last week that amateurish pipe bombs had been posted to a dozen of the president’s best-known critics, including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, 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 a Florida man named Cesar Sayoc, 56, was greeted with cries of “Gotcha!”. His van was covered in pro-Trump stickers including one reading “CNN sucks”.
“Trump owns this!” declared a normally sober Washington correspondent. I wonder. 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?
Strange how in June last year the same journalist omitted to tweet, “Sanders owns this!” after the Republican congressman Steve Scalise and three other people were shot and wounded by James Hodgkinson, a left-wing supporter of Bernie Sanders. You may say that Sanders’s rhetoric was never as inflammatory as Trump’s, but these are fine distinctions. In 2016 Sanders called Trump “particularly dangerous and un-American”, accusing him of “bigotry”. In July of this year he called Trump “our idiot president”.
Yesterday’s massacre at a synagogue in Pittsburgh makes matters much worse. Trump is no anti-semite, but some alt-right elements routinely abuse Jews. But 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 the other side is worse. That there is a potential for an increase in US political violence 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 scaremongers. When a Canadian novelist fantasises 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 chat show host calls for red states to secede if a future Democratic administration comes for their guns.
But when a 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. The same goes for the National Review’s Reihan Salam, whose new book argues that without root-and-branch immigration reform, the US will come apart at the seams. 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 US “particularly vulnerable to violent upheaval”.
Hanson’s argument is that the tensions arising from globalisation, the internet, campus leftism and illegal immigration have led to an ideological split that is also geographical. The 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 towards 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.
Hanson, who still sees further polarisation as avoidable, makes a crucial point, though. 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 the Ohio governor John Kasich, runs as an independent, if the Democrats nominate a progressive (Kamala Harris, anyone?) and if Trump seeks re-election, we could have a somewhat similar situation.
The implication is not comforting. For the election of 1860 made clear 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.