The worst-case scenario for America's immediate future

Then there are those who say that a civil war couldn’t possibly break out today because, unlike in 1861, when one entire region of the country went to war against another, our battle lines are too scrambled in the real world to make combat viable. Where would the front lines be? What territory would be fought over and conquered?

Until quite recently, I was largely persuaded by the first point. Ross Douthat’s recent book on decadence, which I favorably reviewed last February, helped to persuade me that nearly everyone waging digital warfare online is indulging in a fantasy, immersed in virtual-reality combat, and maybe even blowing off steam that might make a real-world conflagration less likely than it would otherwise be. But last week shattered this assumption, showing that it’s far more likely that this analysis is itself a fantasy. Thousands of people traveled to the nation’s capital to participate in a physical assault on Congress. This shows that there absolutely are Americans in 2021 with the means and motivation to fight for a cause.

As for the second objection, I think it’s an error to assume that any civil war that might arise would need to resemble the one that tore the country apart from 1861 to 1865. Or that it would look like the West’s most prominent recent civil war, the one that turned the former Yugoslavia into a charnel house during the 1990s. Both of those civil wars had a strong territorial component. The first was of course a conflict between the northern and southern regions of the country over the institution of slavery. The second was sparked by the reassertion of ethnonationalist and religious attachments in a country that had suppressed or blended them for decades.