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At a moment when the country has never seemed angrier, two political commentators from opposite sides of the divide concurred recently on one point that was once nearly unthinkable: The country is on the verge of “civil war.”
First came former U.S. attorney Joseph diGenova, a Fox News regular and ally of President Trump’s. “We are in a civil war,” he said. “The suggestion that there’s ever going to be civil discourse in this country for the foreseeable future is over. . . . It’s going to be total war.”
The next day, Nicolle Wallace, a former Republican operative turned MSNBC commentator and Trump critic, played a clip of diGenova’s commentary on her show and agreed with him — although she placed the blame squarely on the president.
Trump, she said, “greenlit a war in this country around race. And if you think about the most dangerous thing he’s done, that might be it.”
With the investigative report from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III said to be nearly complete, and with impeachment talk in the air and the 2020 presidential election campaign ramping up, fears that once existed only in fiction or in the fevered dreams of conspiracy theorists have become a regular part of the political debate. These days, there is talk of violence, mayhem and, increasingly, civil war.
A tumultuous couple of weeks in American politics seem to have raised the rhetorical flourishes to a new level and also brought a troubling question to the surface: At what point does all the alarmist talk of civil war actually increase the prospect of violence, riots or domestic terrorism?
Speaking to conservative pundit Laura Ingraham, diGenova summed up his best advice to friends: “I vote, and I buy guns. And that’s what you should do.”
He was a bit more measured a few days later in an interview with The Washington Post, saying that the United States is in a “civil war of discourse . . . a civil war of conduct,” triggered mostly by liberals and the media’s coverage of the Trump presidency. The former U.S. attorney said he owns guns mostly to make a statement, and not because he fears political insurrection among his fellow Americans.
Many chalk up the hyperbolic talk of civil war to the country’s hyperpartisan atmosphere and a cable news arms race in which commentators feel compelled to amp up the rhetoric to be heard when everyone, including the president and Congress, seems to be shouting all the time. The talk has drawn particular derision from some military-veteran groups, whose members have experienced actual warfare. But the rhetoric also has origins in some real-world problems, such as a crumbling of confidence in the country’s democratic institutions and its paralyzed federal government. With Congress largely deadlocked, governance on the most controversial issues has been left to the Supreme Court or has come through executive or emergency actions, such as Trump’s border-wall effort.