Why Americans must take threat of national divorce seriously

About two weeks ago, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia kicked off a conversation about a “national divorce,” and it hasn’t really stopped. Greene says she doesn’t mean a true national division, but rather an extreme form of federalism, in which red and blue states essentially lived under completely different economic and constitutional structures while maintaining a nominal national union.

The very idea is absurd. It’s incompatible with the Constitution. It’s dangerous. It’s unworkable. It would destroy the economy, dislocate millions of Americans and destabilize the globe. Even in the absence of a civil war — it’s beyond unlikely that vast American armies would clash the way they did from 1861 to 1865 — national separation would almost certainly be a violent mess. There is only one way to describe an actual American divorce: an unmitigated disaster, for America and the world.

It could also happen. It’s not likely, but it’s possible, and we should take that possibility seriously.

To be clear, it’s not because secession makes sense. As my colleague Jamelle Bouie noted in an eloquent column last month, the very idea that red states or blue states represent ideologically coherent communities is completely wrong. Every red state has bright blue counties or cities, and every blue state has red precincts as well. How do you split up a nation when red and blue are so thoroughly intertwined?

No reasonable person would believe it’s the proper way to handle our national divisions.

But why should we think that reason will win the day? I’m haunted by James McPherson’s account of the prewar period in his seminal work, “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era.” Describing the South in the run-up to secession and war, he says it was possessed by an “unreasoning fury.” The immediate cause was Northern celebration of John Brown, the abolitionist who attempted to provoke a slave rebellion by seizing the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry.

The South separated from the North and started a ruinous and futile war not because of calm deliberation, but rather because of hysteria and fear — including hysteria and fear whipped up by the partisan press.

So my question is not “Is divorce reasonable?” but rather, “Are we susceptible to the unreason that triggered war once before?”

America’s recent history makes me worry, and if we doubt that concern one need only point back to Jan. 6, 2021, and indulge in a single, simple thought experiment: What if Mike Pence had said yes?

What if Pence as vice president had done exactly what Trump demanded, and the Trump lawyer John Eastman said he had the power to do: block the certification of the 2020 election or even overturn the result entirely and purport to award the presidency to Trump?

In that moment, American peace and unity depended on the force of will of one single person, a man who stood up to a president, to the lawmakers in his own party who challenged the election, and to the howling mob that was crying out for his head.

Even worse, in the immediate aftermath of the attack on the Capitol, Pence’s approval rating with Republicans collapsed, not Trump’s. The GOP’s “unreasoning fury” turned on a man who was loyal to Trump every moment of his presidency, right until the moment when Trump demanded a coup.

And where are we now? Has the fever passed? Not by a long shot.

Animosity is the enemy of American liberty. It is hard to muster the will to defend the rights of people you despise. But it’s also the ultimate enemy of American unity. Hatred and fear are the foundation of “unreasoning fury,” and the fury that divided us once before may well do so again.

David French is a New York Times columnist.

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