I have important news for everyone: there is not going to be a second American Civil War. That may be hard for some people to grasp, as they seem almost fully committed to the idea that Civil War 2 is a pre-produced done deal just waiting for a wide release. But, as honorary American Gordon Ramsay might say, let me make one thing clear, young lady. The Second Civil War is a fear-based fantasy, mostly based on media-bubble abstractions. And our fantasy-making apparatus is in the midst of exploiting that fear.
Exhibit one is Alex Garland’s upcoming A24 movie, subtly titled Civil War, starring Kirsten Dunst as a blue state-looking photojournalist who is chronicling the drama as President Ron Swanson sends fighter jets to attack what used to be his citizens.
People have had much fun on Twitter making fun of Garland’s Civil War scenario. In his version of this alternate history, Jesse Plemons is a soldier and America has split into four factions: the “Florida Alliance,” otherwise known as the NFC South plus Oklahoma; the “Western Forces,” which somehow assumes that Minnesota is going to be on the same team as Montana; the “Loyalist States,” which would give those loyalists control over Las Vegas, Phoenix, the Midwest and most of the Eastern seaboard except for the Florida-Georgia line; and, most hilariously, a sinister alliance between Texas and California. This is how we know that Garland has written a fiction. Texas and California are about as likely to team up as cats and dogs, the Red Sox and Yankees, Superman and Lex Luthor or me and Jonathan Safran Foer. Some divisions are just too vast to bridge.
The fictive California/Texas alliance has been the subject to much fun on social media, but pop culture is in the process of hard-burning the idea of America’s Second Civil War into our imaginations. Much like Red Dawn exploited regular American Cold War fears by playing out the absurd scenario of Russian troops parachuting into an Idaho high school, Civil War is also tapping into a deep shiver in the zeitgeist, particularly among people who possess canvas public-radio tote bags. Many people actually think that America is going to enter into a shooting war with itself, not just random massacres perpetrated by ideologues and lunatics, but an actual armed conflict with defined geographic teams. But, as usual, many people are wrong.
Misha Green, the showrunner of HBO/Max’s cancelled Lovecraft Country, tweeted out, amid the Civil War discourse, that the show’s second season was going to depict a Civil War among the “Sovereign States of America,” divided into the “Jefferson Commonwealth” of New England, the “New Negro Republic” of the South, the “Tribal Nations” of the West and the “Whitelands,” which somehow include Ohio and Illinois but not Wisconsin. Alas, we’ll never get to see that Civil War 2, but there are many other options available.
Seven out of ten books published that are not by Colleen Hoover contain either a scenario of environmental apocalypse or some sort of Civil War 2, or both combined. In these books, our heroes are bounty hunters battling billionaire climate deniers in the dissident corners of a dark, unknown, heroin-strewn former United States. In reality most people’s biggest concerns are inflation, healthcare costs and maybe a chicken-wing shortage, problems to be sure, but not exactly a troop-quartering scenario.
Catherine Lacey’s novel, Biography of X, which made a bunch of best-of lists this year, is putatively a story about a woman trying to discover the true identity of her Lower East Side lesbian avant-garde art lover, but it also takes place in an alternate reality where a Civil War of sorts has established a Southern United States that has basically banned technology and non-whites. Many women live, not by choice, as tradwives under strict curfew. It’s Panem as imagined by the Strand Bookstore. This reality would be news to anyone who lives in, say, Atlanta, or Charlotte, or Houston or any of the other totally normal American cities that make up the majority of the modern South, which, news flash, is not at war with the North, or with anyone else.
America may be a deeply divided nation, but it is not a nation even close to a Civil War. Jamelle Bouie recently published an absurd editorial in the New York Times that posited that red states and blue states have actually become different countries. In his telling, Florida is suffering under an “intellectual reign of terror” because it’s trying to control what books go in middle-school libraries, and because Republicans in Arkansas and Alabama have “passed laws that ban gender-affirming care for young trans people.” He contrasts those to the people’s paradises that are Democrat-run Michigan and Minnesota, concluding that anyone who is fortunate enough to be in a Democrat-run state will live a much longer and happier life than people who are suffering terribly under the term-limited iron fascist hand of Ron DeSantis. Alternately, you see right-wing pundits who are quite ready to tell us that blue states have become fentanyl-strewn tent cities populated mostly by rapist immigrants and transgender abortionist librarians. Perhaps neither reality is quite accurate. Maybe the Second Civil War is about the friends we didn’t make along the way.
What, exactly, are we going to be Civil Warring about? As upsetting as the plight of Texas’s Kate Cox might be, her many defenders are not arming themselves with anything stronger than placards, petitions and Substack posts, the usual weapons of a free and mostly united country. No one is going to send fighter jets to strafe Austin because of draconian late-term abortion policies, or roll tanks into Sacramento over puberty blockers, or try a Massachusetts coastal invasion to prevent elite universities from going overboard with DEI initiatives. It is, simply not happening.
Maybe it seems like scenes from Alex Garland’s Civil War have been playing out in our actual lives. But Charlottesville, Kenosha and the burning of Minneapolis were not Civil War scenarios. They were civic disturbances, soon to be swallowed into history like the urban riots of the 1960s, the Bonus Army Conflict or a variety of other instances of the kinds of historical chaos that can sometimes envelop a society with problems. Even January 6, which certainly looked like Civil War from the outside, was really just a kind of absurd cosplay of Civil War, which led to one, possibly two deaths. It was disturbing to look at on TV, and scary in context, but not an actual war threat to the Republic.
For a Civil War to exist, there have to be two nations with relatively equal arsenals of weapons and a vast reservoir of people willing to fight and die for a cause. Journalist Jeff Sharlet recently published a nonfiction book intimating that there may just be such an avalanche in the making. He visited scary militias and right-wing rallies, and delved deep into the fractured, QAnon-scarred psyche of the late Ashli Babbitt, the lone victim of the January 6 “rebellion,” coming to the conclusion that Civil War 2 could, and probably will, happen here.
Millions of people apparently want to vote for Donald Trump, but are they really going to take arms for him against a sea of troubles? I suppose that is a vague possibility, which is why we’re seeing such a rise in Second Civil War content, but I suspect the reality will be a lot sillier, more like Four Seasons Total Landscaping than the Battle of Antietam. If I’m wrong, which I am not, we’ll have much bigger problems than saying “I told you so.”
Or maybe we all really do need to fear a California/Texas alliance. They would have all the natural resources, a vast arsenal of private weapons, Elon Musk, Joe Rogan, Clint Eastwood and Danny Trejo, and almost 90 percent of North America’s quality tacos. In that highly unlikely scenario, the rest of what used to be the United States wouldn’t stand a chance.