At present, America feels like a broken country. Democrats and Republicans do not live in the same neighborhoods or communities. Nor do Democrats and Republicans communicate with each other in meaningful and personal ways.
Liberals and conservatives have little overlap in their fundamental beliefs about the common good and what it means to live in a just and democratic society. Even the ability to find common ground on the basic nature of empirical reality and the facts seems impossible across divides of party and political belief.
In total, Donald Trump did not create these deep fissures in American society. He and his movement put dynamite in them, lit the fuse, walked away, and laughed at the destruction and chaos which resulted — destruction which they would in turn use to advance their goals.
America is in a moment when prominent voices on both the left and the right — and often motivated by very different concerns — have begun to publicly sound the alarm about the possibility of a second civil war in the United States.
On Sunday, far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones claimed on his "Infowars" show that "Democrats plan to launch civil war on July 4." This is a nonsense claim. But could such an outcome actually take place? What would be the social divisions which would encourage Americans to turn against one another? How does American Exceptionalism blind and complicate how the country's citizens and elites think about conflict? In what ways has the rise of Donald Trump increased the possibility of a second civil war?
In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with award-winning journalist and war correspondent Omar El Akkad. He is the author of the recent bestselling novel "American War."
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
How did America go so far off the rails as to elect someone like Donald Trump president? The country is very broken and the idea of a second Civil War actually feels increasingly plausible.
I come from a part of the world where the United States is for better or worse, a very bright beacon. It’s the loudest voice in the world. It’s the brightest light in the world. There is a tendency to think of the Middle East as a place where America and Americans are universally reviled. But in reality there is a kind of necessary hope, I think, among many people from my part of the world that America — or at least the mythology of America — worked out in the end because there is a sense that at the core of this country, there is the promise that you can come here and you can be left alone. You can think what you want, you can say what you want, you can do what you want. After moving here a few years ago, I came to realize that the mythology is very far from the reality. The promise has been largely unattainable for a vast parts of this country’s population — particularly racial and other types of minorities.
The very idea that the mythology could be true makes this country worth caring about and worth having a sense of hopefulness for. But that doesn’t really address our question, right? The question of how we got here has to do with the idea that this is a country with no floor and no ceiling. There are very few limits on how high you can rise in America and certainly the billionaire class is pretty evident proof of that, and also no limits on how far you can fall. I’m a citizen of Canada. I consider that my home. Canada has a very real floor. It has a social safety net. It has universal healthcare and so on. These things in large parts do not exist in the United States. That translates in practical political ways in America. There is no floor and no ceiling on ideological extremism in this country.
For decades now conservatives and the Republican Party have veered in a direction where even things that a decade or two ago would’ve been considered completely beyond the pale are now the norm. That’s one of the things you sort of have to live with when you’re in a country that has very few boundaries on how far you can go in any direction.
Eliminationist rhetoric and other appeals to violence are common language among the right-wing in America. But when they are called to account for encouraging violence — especially when said violence actually occurs — most conservatives deny responsibility for their own words and deeds. You have covered war zones in your travels as a journalist. What do you think American conservatives don't understand about the dangers of their language and behavior?
For eight years an entire part of the political spectrum in the United States was in a state of absolute opposition towards Barack Obama. Obviously a big part of that opposition was based on the skin color of the man who was president. This is a situation that was literally the subject of a "Simpsons" episode. We would not be in this position with Donald Trump if a significant number of Republican leaders had stood up, for example, a few years ago and said, “No, the president was not born in Kenya. He’s not a secret Muslim. These are racist conspiracy theories.”
But they did not. For eight years, there was a party in this country whose entire policy position was "no." Their entire policy position was if it came from the Obama administration, we hate it. We hate this. We hate that. It’s not that far step to move from being the party that hates things to being the party of hatred.
I don’t think that this is something fundamentally different from what’s been going on in the United States for the past few years. I think now the only difference is that the people doing it feel far more empowered than they might have done even a decade ago.
What was the research process like for "American War"?
I started writing the book in the summer of 2014 and I finished it almost exactly a year later, about two or three weeks before Donald Trump announced he was running for president. I’ve been thinking about it for years but the actual writing took almost exactly a year. In my mind, and I still think this way, it was never a book about America. It was a book about the universal language of revenge. The idea that anybody subjected to enough damage can become damaging themselves. That the way that somebody on the other end of the planet responds to being on the receiving end of injustice if a drone flattened their home or killed their family is not especially different from how you and I or anyone in this relatively peaceful part of the world would respond to the same injustice. Those of us in the United States for examples have the privilege of assuming exotic motivations on the part of those people all the way over there. That is a privilege of living in a part of the world that hasn’t been losing a war for 30 years.
But the era in which the book has come out, with Donald Trump, has been dominated by a moment in which America is staring in the mirror and confused and horrified by what it sees. But in terms of researching this book, there’s very little in the book that hasn’t happened. It just happened to somebody far away, somebody who doesn’t have much of a voice. If you live in Yemen or if you live in Afghanistan, that’s not science fiction. A situation with drones killing people exists. I didn’t invent drones. I didn’t invent waterboarding. I didn’t invent the state of refugee camps around the world. All of these things I simply stole from real life and recast in a setting that was much closer to home.
The myth of American Exceptionalism encourages people in this country to be willfully ignorant about the rest of the world. Is this largely a function of how the American corporate news media has failed to properly inform the public?
First of all I’m not sure that it’s possible for me to lump all of American media into a single group. The New York Times, generally, does good reporting. Every now and then they will have an op-ed that makes me immensely frustrated. But generally speaking their foreign correspondents do very good work. The Associated Press has reporters who many times are the only source of information from some very dangerous parts of the world.
I think the difference is that America of all country, and especially in this moment, it’s very easy to get lost in the sense that this is a very loud country. Everything it does is very, very loud. It’s very easy when you live here to begin to think that this is all there is. I can’t remember the last time that I saw significant coverage of important news events in most of the world being the center of an American news broadcast. America is the center of America. That’s fine. Most countries are like that. Most countries are the centers of themselves, except that America is much louder.
Part of solving a lot of these political problems has to do first and foremost with empathy, with the idea of understanding why somebody does something. But it’s very difficult to do that when you only see the most extreme examples. When we talk about radicalization, for example, we tend to see radicalization as the finish line when somebody has strapped a bomb to themselves or somebody has killed a bunch of people. We very rarely get any kind of insight into everything that happens before that moment — for example, how somebody becomes that way. I think that’s the failure.
The empathy gap is reflected along the global color line. Both abroad and in the United States, white folks as a group have shown remarkably little empathy for the suffering and life challenges of nonwhites caused by racism and other types of structural violence.
The United States has two founding sins. Genocide against Native Americans and the enslavement of black people. Those are two foundational sins of immense magnitude. A magnitude so great that hundreds of years later we see the repercussion still — and they’re not minor. They impact every aspect of life in this country. A lot of countries are founded in blood. A lot of countries have foundational sins and it’s not impossible to find some sort of reconciliation. But it requires that the acknowledgement of those sins be of equal magnitude to the magnitude of the original sin. It requires that the acknowledgement not be a small declaration by the government saying, “Hey, we’re sorry. That was pretty bad." This is still a country where there are more monuments to slaveholders than there are to the freeing of slaves. And this is still a country when city workers in New Orleans go to take a Confederate monument down, they have to cover their faces because they’re worried about getting killed.
I think that it’s just incredibly difficult to imagine the magnitude of the event that would acknowledge the particular horrors of American history. I think that’s the stopping point for a lot of people’s empathy. They have trouble wrapping their heads around the sheer magnitude of the wrongs that were done, let alone how to address them properly.
How did your perspective as someone who has lived in another country most of their life influence your perspective on American society and politics?
The book is largely concerned with the idea of symmetry and echoes. The example I bring up often is that I was a journalist for 10 years. During that time, I was tear gassed twice. Once when I was in Cairo covering the Arab Spring. Another time when I was in Ferguson covering the Black Lives Matter Movement. I saw echoes, the visual language for example was very similar. This heavily militarized police presence where it’s the police only in name. In reality the police are a lot more like the military. They use weapons which are supposed to be facing outwards and they’re suddenly turned inwards and that’s never a good place to be as a society.
Many of those police are military veterans who have now been trained to see black and brown Americans and their communities as targets to be "pacified" and where the people who live there are almost like "insurgents."
The other echo was the language. This ridiculous false equivalency between the destruction of lives and the destruction of property, those were two equal and offsetting events. You start to see similarities in the ways that people respond to injustice. That influenced the book in a big way.
The other thing that influenced the book was my experience as the U.S. correspondent for a Canadian newspaper. I would have to explain in detail things that Americans take for granted. You’d write a story about literally any topic and you’d have about four or five paragraphs of background information explaining, for example, any story I did on healthcare in this country. I would have to explain, "This is really how it works here." America's ridiculous healthcare system is not the norm. Ridiculous maternity leave policies are not the norm elsewhere. Lack of gun control policies are not the norm. When you’re an outsider coming to America there are so many things that you can explain as not being the norm anywhere else and then put some context to it.
How did you find your calling as a journalist? What was it like to cover the Arab Spring or the war in Afghanistan?
I am obsessed with telling stories that had I not reported them they likely would not be more widely known about. For example, I was a technology reporter for a while. That was the exact opposite of what I wanted to do because if I didn’t tell you about the new iPhone launch, you’d get it from a thousand other media outlets. But being concerned with stories that otherwise wouldn’t be told naturally led to places like warzones because fewer people go there and fewer people want to know about it. That was what drew me to it.
Of course, when I was younger, there was also that Hemingway element and I wanted to go where the action was. Once I got there of course all of that faded away very quickly. The stereotype of the heroic war correspondent is nonsense. The best war correspondents are afraid a lot of the time and their names aren’t particularly well-known.
The worst war correspondents I ever met were the ones who believed in the fantasy of being the hero of the story. In reality, a lot of war reporting and a lot of conflict reporting is not done by reporters themselves. It’s done by the fixers. It’s done by the local guy in Kandahar who used to be a surgeon but now makes more money setting up interviews and getting information for the Western reporter and who puts his life in danger to do so. The fixer then tries to get that reporter to write him a reference letter so he can apply for a visa and maybe come to this part of the world and have a safer life.
That is the bulk of a lot of foreign reporting. It is just local fixers doing the work and then foreign reporter getting the byline at the end.
The idea of this innate heroism associated with war reporting has not meant anything to me for a long time. What matters to me is the idea that your obligation as a journalist is to put the true picture in front of the reader, the listener or the viewer. What they choose to do with that information afterwards is between them and their conscience. But your job is to say, “This is what it really is.” In my opinion anything beyond that is self-aggrandizement.
If you were to explain how America could be torn apart by a second civil war what would you focus on? Specifically, how would you brief military professionals about the scenario in your book "American War"?
I would spend very little time talking about America. I would take as a case study any of a number of people who we only really learn about when they’ve done something horrible, when they’ve committed a terrorist act for example. I would spend my time talking about their background. Where were they born? How did they grow up? What was done to them? Much of this boils down to agency. I think we all as human beings have a very basic desire to have some say over the things we do and the things that are done to us. Once you start taking away people’s agency, either slowly through systemic discrimination or very quickly, which is what happens in warfare, you start to see people become damaged. Once they’ve become damaged, they want to inflict that damage on other people. That’s what I would talk about. I would spend very little time talking about particularly American issues. This country knows itself whether it wants to or not. This country knows itself very, very well.
I would also talk about how suffering is a universal language. Moreover, the need for revenge once you’ve been wronged is also a kind of universal language. If we have any desire to stop the worst consequences of these things, we need to understand how they’re formed.
It is really easy to write a hacky cliché-filled speculative fiction dystopia novel. What were the rules for the universe you created to keep the book grounded and believable?
The rule set was pretty simple. I was going to take these conflicts that have defined the world in my lifetime. These are conflicts in which U.S. involvement has either been indirect or from a great distance. I was going to recast them as elements of something very close to home. I could think of nothing closer to home than a civil war. Once I established that founding rule, all I did was take these things that have happened to other people and recast them. For example, there’s a refugee camp in the book called Camp Patience. A lot of what happens in Camp Patience is based on things that have happened in Middle East or in refugee camps. I didn’t invent them. I took them and I renamed them and I dressed them up in different clothes. But I didn’t make them up.
There’s a chapter in the book that takes place in a detention camp called Sugarloaf, which is very clearly influenced by Guantanamo Bay. The things that happened in that camp are based on things that I either learned about while covering Guantanamo or while researching what the United States has done to many captives during the War on Terror years. The foundational rule of the book was not to veer too far from things that have actually happened. Once I had that in place, everything else fell in the place afterwards.
I get a lot of flack about the book being depressing and very bleak. Of course it’s very bleak. But I couldn’t write it any other way. I couldn’t write it in a more hopeful way or in a less bleak way and still stay true to that fundamental requirement that I mirror things have actually happened. That’s the way I want about writing.
I can also imagine critics and some readers saying that, “Oh, you’re just hyperbolic! That stuff happens over there. America, a declining power, global warming, resource wars, that’s impossible."
I get a lot of that. But that was part of the book that I cared least about because again I was writing this book when the idea of the United States engaging in a cold or hot civil war was much more far-fetched than it feels right now under Donald Trump. What I was trying to do was explore an idea, and I was very much unconcerned with whether, “Is the next Civil War actually going to be about climate change?” or “Is this actually how drones would go haywire?” Now I get questions about that sort of stuff all of the time. For example, I have received numerous comments about how the second American Civil War would never ever be fought over climate change; it is going to be fought over racial issues.
That’s a valid comment. My response is that the first civil war doesn’t ever feel to have truly ended. The reality is that many of those old issues and conflicts never went fully away.