by Akim Reinhardt
Is there anything more clichéd than some spoiled, petulant celebrity publicly threatening to move to Canada if the candidate they most despise wins an election? These tantrums have at least four problems:
1. As if Canada wants you. Please.
2. Mexico has way better weather and food than Canada. Why didn’t you threaten to move there? Is it because of all the brown people? No, you insist. Is it the language? Well then if you do make it to Canada, here’s hoping they stick you in Quebec.
3. New Zealand seems to be the hip new Canada. I’ve recently heard several people threaten to move there. News flash, Americans: New Zealand wants you even less than Canada does.
4. Fuck right off then if you don’t want to be here.
As we stare down the possible re-election of Donald Trump, I’ve got a much better alternative: Stay put and begin a serious, adult conversation about disuniting the states.
If, through the vagaries of the Electoral College, 45% of U.S. voters really do run this nation into an authoritarian kleptocratic, dystopian ditch, then instead of fleeing with your gilded tail between your legs, stay and help us reconfigure the nation. It might be the sanest alternative to living in Trump’s tyranny of the minority, in which racism and sexism are overtly embraced, the economy is in shambles, the pandemic rages unabated, and abortion may soon be illegal in most states as an ever more conservative Supreme Court genuflects to corporate interests and religious extremists.
And of course it cuts both ways. Should current polls hold and Joe Biden manage to win the election with just over half the popular vote, those on the losing side will be every bit as upset. So upset that they too would likely open to a conversation about remaking an America.
Indeed, no matter how this turns out, about half the nation will feel like they can no longer live with what America is becoming, even as they live in it. The losing side, whichever it may be, will want to wrest this country back from those who seem increasingly alien to them. So perhaps national salvation comes when the winning side remains open to a discussion the losers will launch about radically redesigning the United States.
I’m not indulging in intellectually bankrupt both-sidesism. To be clear, the United States faces a very real constitutional crisis because of only one party: the Republicans. Their quarter-century of naked power grabs and bad faith politics has intensified as they’ve rallied behind a petty, hateful, sexist, racist authoritarian whose actions now undermine our republic.
Trump is not an actual fascist; he’s far too stupid to understand, much less espouse, a coherent political ideology. But at this point, that’s merely a technicality. Perhaps driven entirely by his psychological disorders and not at all by any cogent political doctrine, his attitudes and actions are nonetheless resolutely dictatorial and profoundly corrupt.
Donald Trump is a threat to the republic. Not in the way that paranoid Conservatives imagined Barack Obama was because of his dark skin, funny name, and tan suit, but in real and fundamental ways. And so Trump’s current re-election bid is fundamentally different from the re-election of any prior president. Win or lose, he poses a major threat to the republic.
Should he win, Trump will almost certainly continue to attack constitutional mechanisms and erode democratic norms for the sake solidifying and expanding his power. But even if he should lose the election, unlike all other prior presidents, he may very well initiate a constitutional crisis by refusing to voluntarily vacate the office, pretending that he has not actually lost. Even the stuffed shirts at The Financial Times have recently published a piece questioning what happens if Trump loses and refuses to step down. Only the most naive would fail to recognize the possibility of him destroying the constitution. Only the most devout would excuse it.
Together, the naive and the devout are perhaps a majority of the populace. The nation has never faced such a moment.
In 1779, George Washington declined to run for a third presidential term. Why? Because he knew he would win, and that he had the capacity to become a king. Instead, he very much wanted to set the precedent that no president should ever strive to be a king.
In 1800, four years after Washington stepped down, the United States marked its first peaceful transition of contested power when incumbent John Adams ceded the presidency to his bitter rival, Thomas Jefferson. Ever since, former incumbent losers, from John Quincy Adams to George H.W. Bush, might have been very upset about losing (the infamous photo of Herbert Hoover and FDR sharing a car on the latter’s inauguration day come to mind), but none of them made any move to subvert the constitution or nullify the election. Even lifelong political criminal Richard Nixon refused to contest his razor thin 1960 loss to John Kennedy, even though he likely had cause to do so, for fear how it would damage our republic (Of course by the 1970s Nixon cared less about such matters.).
But Trump is open about it. He eagerly fabricates pre-emptive excuses for remaining in power even if he loses. He peddles fantasies of voter fraud, floats a new round of birtherism about vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris, and openly questions the mental fitness of Joe Biden.
Donald Trump is a chronic liar, congenital charlatan, and relentless bully of the highest order. If it seems at all plausible, he will eagerly destroy every constitutional mechanism and erode every democratic norm to maintain his position. And the fact that over 40% of Americans would stare blankly and sacrifice their first born into his dull orange fire if he merely asked them to only raises the stakes on next month’s election.
As Trump works to undermine the American republic through underhanded means, it is time for the rest of us to begin a serious discussion about national disincorporation. About disuniting the states. Because no matter who wins, about half the nation will not want to live with it. Tens of millions of Americans on the losing side will not trust the winner to govern fairly, competently, or with the nation’s best interests at heart.
It’s a recipe for disaster. We need to get ahead of this discussion.
However, the key to making this happen is not that the losers will be royally pissed. That is merely the impetus. Real changes can only come about peacefully if the winners are open to that discussion. And the only winners who will be open to that discussion are the Democrats (or anti-Trumpistis more broadly conceived, including independents and third parties such as the Greens).
The Republicans, should they win, honestly or otherwise, will never agree to a radical remaking of the Untied States. One reason is that victory only feeds their power-grab agenda. But there’s also an ideological barrier. Republicans are far too wrapped up in identity politics to allow to consider radically changing the United States from a position of power. They will only do so as sore losers.
Central to today’s GOP is the sense that Republicans are more “American” than non-Republicans. Racism is part of it; many Republicans refuse to acknowledge dark-skinned people being as fully American as “white” people. But much of it, perhaps even more of it, is about non-racial identity markers such as flag-waving, Christianity, and xenophobia. Modern Republicans are caught up in endless displays of “Americanness” as a way of asserting that they are more American than others Americans.
Thus, if Republicans win, they will resolutely see themselves as fulfilling dated, 19th century romantic nationalist notions of manifest destiny. They won because it’s what God wants. They won because it’s what’s right for America. Their victory will signal America’s salvation.
However, if they lose, they will believe the nation has been stolen from them, and be open to alternatives. Anti-Trumpists will feel the same way if they lose. The important difference is that most anti-Trumpists, even religious ones, tend to have a secular understanding of the United States instead of a religious one. They may be Christians (and tens of millions of them are), but they embrace a mutli-ethnic, multi-creedal understanding of America. Their identity politics are grounded in a rainbow instead Republicans identity politics that are weighted heavily towards whitness, orthodox Christianity, Heteronormativity. And so, generally speaking anti-Trumpists much more so than Republicans, embrace a political vision that makes room for them to see an alternate vision, even in victory.
Let me be clear. I am not advocating a unilateral declaration of secession and military assault on federal installations like the treasonous, Confederate slave-owners did in 1861. Rather, I am advocating serious discussions about untangling this fractured nation. For finding a peaceful, constitutional solution that either dissolves or drastically reconfigures the United States.
I believe it may be the most sensible and mature approach to dealing with a deeply riven partisan divide that has done nothing but worsen these last forty years, and increasingly breeds mutual frustration and resentment among tens of millions of Americans. The U.S. constitutional system is predicated on compromise, and the Republican Party has spent the last quarter-century working against compromise with increasing fervency. That’s not a smear, it’s a statement of fact. It’s a central tenet of their politics. Republicans are openly dismiss compromise and try to get everything they want and accept nothing they don’t.
It has become dysfunctional. And it’s not going to change anytime soon.
And So if Joe Biden wins this election, let the Republicans have theirs so that we can have ours. Both sides will be happier.
Though perhaps unfathomable at first glance, we may actually be nearing the point where a majority of Americans are ready to call it quits on our current national incarnation. A new incarnation will become viable if half of those open to it are anti-Trumpists who do not cling to 19th century notions of a providential United States. Who recognize that the U.S. is just another nation-state is a world full of them. Who understand that while the United States is either the world’s oldest or second-oldest modern nation state (depending on how you count Great Britain’s governing system), nation states themselves are not sacred. That the people they govern might be, but the particular political system around which nation organize themselves are not Those things come and go. Those things get reorganized all the time.
And if the other half are a deeply embittered Republican coalition of religious extremists and frothing Trumpists who think abortions are a Holocaust and Trump is a political golden idol. Then the pieces might be in place to initiate a serious overhaul.
After all, in the world of national governments, 231 years is a really long time. And it wouldn’t even be our first rodeo.
We have done this before. The Constitution, drafted in 1787 and ratified in 1789, peacefully replaced an earlier form of United States national government organized under the Articles of Confederation. Yes, drafting the Constitution and getting the nation to adopt it over the Articles were difficult processes, hardly perfect, and engendered a fair bit of acrimony at the time. But it came about, peacefully (for the most part), and led to something that’s lasted well over two centuries.
Is it so impossible then to imagine the United States reconfiguring itself once again?
Of course a new United States could take many shapes.
• Maybe it’s the creation of new nations through the voluntary separation of current states into two or three nations that maintain very close ties.
• Maybe the nation remains together in altered form through an amended Constitution that greatly expands individual states’ autonomy and lessens their commitments to federal government; a newer, more functional confederacy than the one the Constitution replaced.
• Maybe we strengthen local governments at the expense of state and/or federal powers, allowing for urban and rural areas to largely go their own way, while remaining in the same nation.
• Maybe we add a provincial layer that allows states (or even counties) to voluntarily join mutual alliances, so that the red and the blue states (or counties) can go about their business with less interference from each other.
• Maybe it’s some combination of all these ideas. Or something different that I’ve not touched upon. There are many options.
But regardless of what shape it might take, perhaps the most important thing is to have the conversation. Like adults. To talk about what it means to share national governance; how it’s working to our satisfaction, and how it’s not; and what we might do to improve it.
We can never find a new system that makes everyone happy, because nothing will make everyone happy. However, we can admit we’ve reached the point where about half of Americans are very, very unhappy with the current system depending on who’s in power, and that it might be time to negotiate a new or modified system that most of us would prefer to the increasingly rancorous status quo.
Those discussions can begin once we overcome the feeling that they the subject is taboo. And once those discussions become real, it will force Americans of all political stripes to recognize their joint membership in a collective nation and stop pretending they can simply enforce their particular vision on everyone else.
Or perhaps, irony wins the day. Maybe serious discussion about disunion actually help decrease partisan tensions. Simply broaching the topic in a serious manner may force many Americans to recognize how close we are to losing we’ve always known.
Or perhaps such discussions really do leads many Americans to decide that it’s time to replace We the People, with You and Us the People.
But either way, it’s time to get to the bottom of it.
Akim Reinhardt’s website is ThePublicProfessor.com