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Our Civil War Pre-Enactment

The flare-ups in violence are starting to escalate. How do we tamp down the hate before it gets further out of hand?
September 1, 2020
Our Civil War Pre-Enactment
(Hannah Yoest / Shutterstock)

Living where I do, on the location of a minor skirmish in the Wilderness Campaign, I’ve been to my share of Civil War re-enactments. I’ve always found it a bit of an odd hobby, to want to play-act such a cataclysm of internecine hatred and killing. But perhaps the point was that we can play at it because it is so firmly in the past.

Now we’re starting to adopt a far stranger national hobby: the civil war pre-enactment.

Factions from the illiberal right and the illiberal left are so eager to begin beating and shooting each other that they just can’t wait, so they are seeking out opportunities to do it.

The city of Portland has become a permanent street fair of civil-war pre-enactment, a place for Antifa and the Proud Boys to regularly go at each other. That’s been going on for a while, and people have just grown to accept it as normal, as a crazy left-coast thing that bubbles along at a low simmer in the daily news but doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the country.

Yet now it is starting to escalate, to become deadlier, and to spread to the rest of the country.

That’s why the rioting and shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, is so significant. This is a small city in the heartland, and what happens there could happen pretty much anywhere.

What set off the riots in Kenosha was another questionable police shooting of a black man, Jacob Blake. That the incident would lead to mass protests was predictable—and it was also predictable that it would bring the crazies flooding into Kenosha for an orgy of arson and looting that left parts of the city looking “like a war zone.”

In response to the inability of police to control the rioting, a local self-declared “militia” put out a call for armed volunteers to protect the city; a group of well-armed but largely untrained civilians responded. This included a 17-year-old kid who came up from Illinois, not to protect his own town, but to join in the civil war pre-enactment. He ended up shooting three people, killing two of them.

This, by the way, is what “Defund the Police” looks like in practice. As we’ve already seen in Seattle, it means that we trade out a small number of police shootings for a larger number of shootings in street battles between rival criminals gangs or between rioters and vigilantes.

The running battles between Antifa and the Proud Boys in Portland tended to have a semi-comic aspect to them, like the melee at a badly run Renaissance Faire. The two sides have been trying to overcome their civilized inhibitions and start doing really vicious harm to one another, and they have been growing increasingly ready to do it.

Now the civil war pre-enactment is spreading out to every town, and with both protesters and “militias” coming armed, it is getting a lot more realistic.

That brings us to Saturday night. A group of Trump supporters from the surrounding counties mounted themselves in pickup trucks adorned with “Trump 2020” flags and decided to go for a thunder run through downtown Portland, shooting paintballs and pepper balls and releasing clouds of pepper spray as they went. It looks some kind of self-created Disney park ride, an Antifa Safari in which you amuse yourself by shooting fake guns at the local fauna. In reality, it’s an attempt to provoke a violent response and play at amateur riot control—all with the president’s blessing.

They got the violence they were seeking to provoke, though the circumstances aren’t clear. A man who seems to have been with the “Patriot Prayer” group—a right-leaning opponent of Antifa—was shot, though it’s not clear by whom. An Antifa mob was later recording cheering his death.

This is matched by the chortling on the right about the prospect of more guys like the Kenosha shooter killing more protesters.

Why are so many of our fellow citizens so eager to start killing each other?

A lot of the blame goes to local and state elected officials, particularly in Portland. By allowing rioting to persist for months—for years, off and on, in Portland—they have emboldened rioters on the left to think they can act with impunity, while creating a vacuum of law and order that vigilantes and self-appointed “militias” on the right are eager to fill, or at least play at filling.

It’s time to rein this in before it spins farther out of control, and that burden will have to fall on mostly Democratic mayors and governors.

However, this has merely provided the pretext that allowed people to express a virulent hatred they already harbored toward their fellow Americans. It’s fashionable to blame this on “polarization,” but that’s just an effect, not a cause. The more salient fact is that, increasingly, we’re not even arguing about policies. The Civil War was fought over a large and intractable issue: at root, the North’s moral repugnance for a “peculiar institution” central to the South’s way of life. But in this pre-enacted Civil War, can anybody even articulate a broad difference in specific government policy? What is the appropriate policy for policing in cities? What reforms need to be implemented to address legitimate grievances? Neither side in this battle has any clue, nor are they working with any clear or realistic strategy to promote any particular solution. All they have is loudly shouted slogans and mantras like “Defund the Police” or “Blue Lives Matter”—pipe dreams or platitudes, not policies.

In this intellectual vacuum, they aren’t fighting for anything, they’re fighting against someone. As a result, the mere act of fighting, rather than the achievement of any result, becomes the goal.

Hence the eagerness to play at civil war, to toy with the fantasy of crushing your political opponents by force. In the absence of actual political principles, specific policy ideas, and the commitment to persuade others of those ideas, there is nothing else to do—and no end in sight.

This is the attitude that sane and rational people urgently need to shut down, so we can keep these civil war fantasies from becoming reality.

Robert Tracinski

Robert Tracinski is editor of Symposium, a journal of liberalism, and writes additional commentary at The Tracinski Letter.