A New Civil War?

Years ago, one of the most popular courses offered by the History Department at my University was entitled Conspiracy and Dissent in American History. The lecturer was a visiting Professor from California who looked exactly the way we Canadian students thought a Californian should look: tall and tanned, with a full head of ‘silver fox’ hair.

If the course could be summarized in a single statement, it would be as follows: in the absence of a strong external enemy, the United States begins to tear itself apart because it is divided, from within, by two powerful visions or ideologies of what America is, or should be. These ideologies are so diametrically opposed as to be irreconcilable.

If, like me, you’re caught up in the troubling, but vastly entertaining spectacle of American politics, you’re witnessing the latest incarnation of this ideological civil war.

Predictably, the battleground is over Immigration.

On the one side, the Trump administration and Republican Party are using the fate of 1.8 million young people, the children of illegal immigrants mostly from Latin America, as a bargaining chip to push for fundamental immigration reform.

Such reforms would severely restrict family reunification (to which Trumpists have given the sinister new nickname of ‘chain migration’) and would put an end to a visa lottery that sets quotas for immigrants from the poorest, most disadvantaged nations. This new ‘modernized’ policy would have, at its core, a points-based system that gives preference to immigrants with skills and education considered advantageous to the American economy.

On the surface, this may seem reasonable to many Canadians. Our immigration policy is largely based on attracting educated, skilled immigrants. However, Canadian policy also includes family reunification and compassionate immigration–most recently applied to Syrian Refugees.

What most concerns the other side in this ideological war is that its champion, Donald Trump, based his entire Presidential campaign on vilifying and blaming immigrants for all of America’s ills: crime, unemployment, and in the case of the American Muslim community, domestic terrorism.

Of equal concern to Trump’s opponents is his apparent belief that African, Haitian and Latin American immigrants could never qualify for U.S. citizenship based on skills and education; hence his infamously plaintive statement ‘why can’t we get more people from Norway?’

There is strong evidence to support the argument that four in 10 Americans agree with President Trump’s vision of a new, ‘whiter’ immigration policy. Distasteful as it may sound, it’s the most credible explanation for President Trump’s continued political resilience in the face of the countless gaffes, scandals and missteps that would have sunk any other American President.

Even as evidence mounts that Trump’s team colluded with Putin’s Russia to steal the election, and that the President and his Congress are conspiring–successfully–to discredit the Mueller investigation, his approval rating stubbornly remains at 40 per cent of the electorate.

What’s significant about this 40 per cent isn’t so much that they’re currently punching well above their weight class in terms of political power. It’s that America is virtually split down the middle between opposing ideologies; between “Build the Wall” and “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

In terms of context, when the U.S. had its devastating Civil War from 1861-1865, the Confederate States that went to war against the Abolitionist Union to preserve their slavery-based economy and society made up 40 per cent of America’s population.

I’m not suggesting that the current war between these ideologies will ever escalate into a military conflict. Today’s war in being fought, just as bitterly, through cable television, newspapers, talk radio and Russian bots.

What troubles me most about our neighbour’s ideological civil war is something else I remember from Conspiracy and Dissent in American History: in the absence of a powerful external enemy, the United States has a tendency–consciously or not–to create one in order to deflect its self-destructive angst.

This is why Trump’s comment on January 30, 2018 sent a chill down my spine:

“I would love to be able to bring back our country into a great form of unity. Without a major event where people pull together, that’s hard to do. But I would like to do it without that major event because usually that major event is not a good thing.”

Gee, President Trump. You think?