When white Americans talk about a “second civil war” there can be no mistaking their meaning — a return to a divided society with men at the top and Black Americans and other segments of the population at the bottom. How deep this goes depends on the individual, but it is difficult to escape that the United States Civil War was a fight to retain slavery.
For Black Americans, many of whose ancestors were brought across the ocean as captives as long as a century and a half before the Declaration of Independence, this is a continuation of a racist past that refuses to entirely go away. It is also the lifeline of a Republican establishment facing demographic changes that otherwise threaten to make it a permanent minority party. In this, they have dangerous allies — far right activists goaded on by a president entirely without scruples.
In an extraordinary observation, the director of a regional Homeland Security office wrote of the present threat of domestic terrorism, “You have this witch’s brew that really hasn’t happened in America’s history. And if it has, it’s been decades if not centuries.” The statement should give you pause, but it was not all. It was part of a new threat assessment that concluded that white supremacists presented the most deadly threat to the United States.
Chad Wolf, the director of Homeland Security, wrote in his preface to the assessment that he was “particularly concerned about white supremacist violent extremists who have been exceptionally lethal in their abhorrent, targeted attacks in recent years.” Though these are people at the extremes, retrogressive ideas about race, gender, and ethnicity are widely shared among many Americans. The report found that white supremacist extremist attacks resulted in more than three-quarters of domestic terror deaths in 2019. F.B.I. director Christopher Wray has made similar observations in appearances before congressional committees.
To cite just one instance, some of the 13 white men arrested in a plot to kidnap and possibly kill Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer have been described as part of a rising threat of white power activity. President Trump has said there were “very fine people on both sides” and from the very start of his 2016 campaign made ethnic hatred central to his message, calling Mexicans rapists and criminals. This is an administration that put immigrant children in cages, and was proud of it — and one that has had unbending support from our own representative in Congress, the Republican Lee Zeldin.
It is the Republican Party’s open secret that racism could still tip the Nov. 3 election in its direction. Studies of conservative racial attitudes among 2016 Trump voters showed that they were a key factor. The evidence is clear too that this effect persisted into the 2018 midterm elections. Other research has demonstrated that racism also crosses party lines and was a factor in Mr. Trump’s 2016 support among Democratic and independent white voters and that it could be again. Capitalizing on hateful ideas about others has become more important to Republicans’ hopes for the future. President Trump is just a lot more obvious about it.