ZMotivated by patriotic zeal, Americans believe that their country is an exception to all historical rules. The Land of the Free, however, is currently hurtling towards a predetermined, seemingly inevitable crack-up. Its governmental institutions are crippled and a constitution designed for an agrarian society in the 18th century stands in the way of reform; its citizens, outnumbered by the weapons they carry, divided into armed and antagonistic tribes. Under these conditions, the riot on Capitol Hill last January may have been a rehearsal for an impending civil war.
Looking at this hot Toronto mess, Canadian novelist and essayist Stephen Marche ominously predicts: “The United States is coming to an end. Such a statement could only be made by a stranger. For Americans, the idea of civil war remains unthinkable, the words indescribable: during his inauguration, Biden vowed to end “this uncivil war”, which implied that the only missiles exchanged were verbal without danger. According to Marche, the impending war will be a continuation of the previous one between the Union and the Confederacy, which broke out in 1865 without closing the gap between races, regions and economic prospects. To these man-made inequities, Marche adds the intemperance of nature: New York is in danger of being flooded by the next hurricane, and California’s forests are already burning. In 1776, the founding fathers envisaged an egalitarian renewal of humanity. Today, the decline of the United States warns that the Anthropocene era could be doomed. Marche, doubting that the walls erected by Fortress America can keep out refugees, the poor and rising oceans, suspects this is “how a species goes extinct.”
The next civil war is fatalistic but somehow thrilled as Marche vividly imagines the “incredibly intense events” that lie ahead. He has done the required historical research and conducted interviews with officials and academic experts, but he cannot help but elaborate scenarios of conflagration and collapse which he offers as examples of the “fantasy genre”. future civil war”. One, told with bitter amusement, concerns an explosive row in a Western state where local protesters, infuriated by a cunning and cynical sheriff, are fighting with federal bureaucrats who shut down a dangerous bridge. Another, which resembles the plot of the disaster movie Two days later, follows an evacuee from flooded Brooklyn who pauses to reflect that a submerged highway looks “almost beautiful.” A third “thought experiment” follows a nerdy loner who guns down the US President at a Jamba Juice outlet, after which a commentator solemnly describes the motive of misfits like this as a “desire for transcendence”.
As Marche puts it, “the power of spectacle drives American politics,” and its “cultural scripts” turn terror into sinister entertainment. He is inspired by films such as Independence Day Where Olympus has fallen, which depict the apocalypse as an adventure tour; the difference is that this time no superheroes fly or ride to save the republic. Marche bestows “iconic status” on the 9/11 atrocities, but pokes fun at the agitators in his own bridge fable as “ridiculous fanatics” who appear to be dressed for Halloween or a rock festival: the dare-to- he do better? There is a tempting and exciting danger in this, for sooner or later such prophecies will come true in action. Marche may be enjoying his romantic nightmares a bit too much, maybe even a smirk of Canada’s security as the United States crumbles.
An equally excited anticipation of the ending briefly disrupts Barbara Walter’s study, How Civil Wars Start and How to Stop Them. Walter teaches political science in San Diego, and she writes with devoted academic sobriety comparing her disintegrating country to failed states in the Balkans and the Middle East. She studies charts, manipulates datasets and deploys nonsensical jargon, classifying the United States as an “anocracy” because it is halfway between democracy and autocracy. But her buzzy lecture comes to life when she, like Marche, begins to imagine what an American Civil War would look like. Projected to 2028, the result looks like a fashionable Hollywood pitch, with the synchronized explosion of dirty bombs in state legislatures, a botched presidential assassination attempt, independent militias patrolling the streets and, worse than all ! – attacks on big-box stores. Like Marche, Walter is aware that political warriors need to rely on a “mythic narrative,” and she notes that some of the Capitol’s insurgents carried Bibles: in the absence of a sacred text, the scrambled synopsis of a disaster film be enough? just as well? After these dramatic flurries, Walter calms down by suggesting ways to avoid conflict. Most of her proposals require constitutional change, which she must know will never happen or will come too late; she also recommends reintroducing the study of civics in American schools, as if these pious courses of community engagement could be an antidote to the Civil War.
Walter admits that after the last election, when Trump refused to concede defeat, she and her husband considered emigrating. They leafed through their flotilla of available passports – Swiss, German and Hungarian as well as American and Canadian – and decided to drive north to cross the border into British Columbia. In the end, they chose to stay in California, as Walter announces after ritually reciting the National Creed and thanking the United States for “the gift of pursuing our dreams.” Marche concludes his book with a more reserved homage to America’s perhaps naïve “faith in human nature” and the risky “openness to difference” of the constitution. He then explains why he is happy to live in Toronto: Canadians, he says, “talk placidly and exchange endless words” rather than boast, rant and insult each other like their neighbors to the south, and they have only the “cold snaps” of time to face incendiary social convulsions. In times like ours, being comfortably domiciled in a boring country is surely the best bet.
The Next Civil War: Dispatches from America’s Future by Stephen Marche is published by Simon & Schuster (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply