Civil War Games
Michael Anton has the Confederate delusion of victory in an unwinnable conflict
Michael Anton is no ordinary crank. His 2016 essay “The Flight 93 Election” was singularly influential in solidifying right-wing support for Donald Trump. He was rewarded by being named Deputy Assistant to the President for Strategic Communications on the National Security Council.
Given his noteworthy influence on the hard right, I’m startled to see Anton now speculating on the possibility of a new Civil War. In a recent essay for the Claremont Review of Books, he positions California and Texas as the chief protagonists:
Miller cites the divisions of the Civil War but, in my judgment, gets the lesson backward. Americans are more divided, not less, than we were on the eve of that great conflict. As Abraham Lincoln put it, accurately, to Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, back then there was only one “substantial difference between us.” Today it’s hard to think of one substantial commonality. In 1861, the South feared—wrongly—that the North, despite protestations to the contrary, would impose its will come hell or high water. Today’s California makes no such protestations: it insists on its way or the highway. The bad news for Texas would seem to be that, in any such contest, the side that wants it more tends to win.
Then again, while both states have interesting and inspiring histories, only Texas seems to take its to heart. The spirit of the Alamo still burns in Texans, in a way that, one hopes, the Spirit of ’76 still burns in American hearts. There may come a point when Texans stop simply wishing California would buzz off and mind its own business. If the Lone Star way of life is to survive, Texans must fight for it. Then we shall see whether California’s long experiment with postmodern deracination and anti-masculinity can stand up to Texas’s more robust embrace of the old virtues.
I’m not a betting man, but were that conflict to erupt, my money would be on Texas.
There are all sorts of factual objections to this analogy. Such as the fact that many small conflicts – rather than one nonnegotiable issue like slavery – does not, contra Anton, make conflict more likely. Or that the stark geographical divide slavery created (emancipation in the north, slavery in the south) formed the literal battleground for the Civil War, whereas in contemporary America, geographical division is along rural/urban lines. Many rural folks in California voted Trump and city dwellers in Texas went for Biden. In Texas, Joe Biden got 46 per cent of the vote as against 52 per cent for Trump. That’s hardly a state in a position to unify and attack California.
The civil strife America has to worry about is persistent terrorism from so-called “lone wolves” radicalized by the extremist ideology that the Antons of the world promote. The return of conflicts modeled on the massed armies of the 19th century is virtually impossible.
But even more absurd is the presumption that Texas with its “more robust embrace of the old virtues” is likely to trounce California with its “long experiment with postmodern deracination and anti-masculinity.”
The term “deracination” should set off alarm bells, and they should stay ringing at the idea that Texans are tougher, more manly and thus likely to win a war. As it happens, that’s the very illusion southerners had on the eve of the Civil War. White southerners who supported secession knew they were at a numerical and economic disadvantage to the North (most importantly because they could not recruit the enslaved and in fact had to guard against uprisings).
To address this obvious objection to secession, the South developed an ideology of manliness, positioning war as a test of will power. Southern men were virile and chivalric. Northerners were weak and mercenary. The more macho side would win.
In his splendid history of the Civil War, The Battle Cry of Freedom (1988), the historian James McPherson delineated this thinking:
To explain this, southerners invented a genealogy that portrayed Yankees as descendants of the medieval Anglo-Saxons and southerners as descendants of their Norman conquerors. These divergent bloodlines had coursed through the veins of the Puritans who settled New England and the Cavaliers who colonized Virginia. “The Southern people,” concluded an article in the Southern Literary Messenger, “come of that race . . . recognized as Cavaliers . . . directly descended from the Norman Barons of William the Conqueror, a race distinguished in its earliest history for its warlike and fearless character, a race in all times since renowned for its gallantry, chivalry, honor, gentleness, and intellect.” If matters came to a fight, therefore, one Norman southerner could doubtless lick ten of those menial Saxon Yankees.
These ideas were tested on the killing fields of the Civil War. They did not fare well. If one were willing to break Godwin’s Law, it could be pointed out that the idea that willpower can overcome weakness in manpower and material was also upheld in Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan during World War II. Again, the theory failed.
Anton should consider himself lucky. The Civil War he dreams of will never happen, so he’ll be spared the ignominy experienced by his precursors.
(Edited by Emily M. Keeler)
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