By Tom Robotham

Last month, I saw Alex Garland’s much-discussed film Civil War. Since then, I’ve not been able to stop thinking about it. I don’t mean to imply that I think it’s a great movie. I continue to have mixed feelings about it. Nevertheless, the specter it raises cannot—and should not—be ignored. 

As you’ve likely heard, even if you’ve not yet seen it, the film revolves around four journalists who are trying to document the final days of the American experiment. Nineteen states, we learn at the outset, have already seceded from the Union and have declared war on the federal government, and the president—now in his third term—is trying to put down the rebellion with fragments of the military that remain loyal to him. Meanwhile, as the movie unfolds, the journalists encounter some militia members whose allegiance is unclear.

The depiction of one such encounter is arguably the most chilling scene in the entire movie. In the scene, the journalists are approached by a camo-clad man, armed with an assault rifle, who is immediately threatening.

“There must be some kind of misunderstanding,” one of the journalists says. “We’re American.”

“Okay,” the militia man says. “What kind of American are you?”

In that single line lies the crux, not only of the film, but also of the actual state of our union—if, indeed, we can still call it that. As Stephen Marche writes in his new nonfiction book, The Next Civil War, “The crisis has already arrived. Only the inciting incidents are pending.”

The nature of the crisis at hand is in many ways stranger than fiction. Who, after all, could have imagined just a decade ago that the frontrunner in the 2024 presidential election would be a candidate who four years earlier pressured election officials to “find” ballots for him and, when that failed, unleashed a violent mob on the Capitol—a mob that threatened to lynch the vice president, viciously attacked police officers and trashed the temple of democracy? Moreover, as if that wasn’t horrific enough, the candidate continues to lie about the 2020 election and celebrate the violent mob as a group of “patriots.” Worse still, millions of Americans continue to believe him.

In light of this, it’s not just conceivable that there could be another civil war. It seems more and more likely with each passing day. 

If Trump wins, he will immediately begin laying the groundwork for a dictatorship, and there is no way that he will leave peacefully at the end of his second term. In his effort to hold onto power, moreover, he’ll have the support of most Republicans, as he does now, in spite of his attempted 2021 coup. He’ll also likely have the backing of a majority of the Supreme Court. 

If Biden wins, the MAGA uprising spurred by Trump will make January 6 look like a Sunday picnic. The rebellion won’t be coordinated in the way that the establishment of the Confederacy was, but there will be outbreaks of political violence across the land. 

Aggravating the problem, is growing extremism on the left, as the recent Pro-Palestinian protests exemplify. While the majority of the protestors have been peaceful, as far as I can tell, it’s been well documented that some are yelling, “Death to America,” “We are Hamas,” and “Go back to Poland,” in the faces of Jews who are counter-protesting—or just walking by, minding their own business. In doing so, they’re not only making many Jews feel unsafe. They’re fueling the narrative of the far-right. 

The whole mess reminds me of another line in the movie Civil War: “As soon as Washington falls,” someone says, “they’ll turn on each other”—the left not only against the right but against other leftists with whom they were once aligned. 

Given all this, it seems like a good time to reflect on that central question of the film—

What kind of American are you?—and furthermore, to ask each other that question,  not as a threat or litmus test, but as a prompt for dialogue. 

At any rate, that’s what I’ve been pondering.

I regard myself, first of all, as a patriotic American. I realize that’s not a fashionable thing to say anymore—not on the left, anyway. But at the risk of sounding like Biden, I’m serious. 

In spite of all its flaws and the atrocities we Americans have committed at home and abroad, I love this country. I love its founding ideals and its rich history, which is filled with stories of beauty as well as ugliness. On balance, in fact, it seems to confirm Martin Luther King Jr.’s assertion that the arc of history is long but bends toward justice. That confirmation is there for all to see. Consider, for example, the enormous strides we’ve made toward racial justice, just in my lifetime. Consider, as well, that when I was born, homosexuality was both illegal and regarded by the medical establishment as a mental illness—and that today, gay people publicly celebrate their legal marriages and hold family-friendly Pride festivals all over the land. The environmental movement is yet another example. When I was a kid, the Hudson River was an open sewer—quite literally. Today, it’s a relatively clean waterway. 

Alas, in response to such observations, the extremist voices rise again. The far-right retorts, yes, these things happened, so shut up and stop complaining. Racism is a thing of the past, and so on. The far-left, meanwhile, tends to regard any mention of enormous progress as a white-washing of problems that remain.

In this, I’m more sympathetic to the left. But I don’t see why we can’t do both: why we can’t celebrate the greatness of this nation while also acknowledging our many weaknesses and working together to address them.

A prerequisite for this, of course, is honoring our First Freedom, not only in letter but in spirit. Unfortunately, while nearly all Americans say they value freedom of speech, many clearly do not. The far-right wants to muzzle teachers who talk about racism and other issues, while the far-left—especially campus protestors—seem more interested in shouting down people with whom they disagree than they do in engaging in intellectual discourse. This leads many more moderate students into self-censorship, as some of my students told me this semester when I asked whether they felt free to speak their minds. 

For my part, I’m the kind of American who’s still grateful for the expanse of freedom that we have—grateful that no one, to date, has ever told me what I can and cannot say in the classroom, and that I don’t (yet) need to fear that I’ll be arrested and jailed for something I say in my columns. 

As I contemplate this gratitude, I realize I have our government to thank—a government that is still based on the rule of law, rather than the whims of dictators. Indeed, I’m a pro-government American in many respects, as F.D.R. was and Biden is—a firm believer that a strong federal government is a good thing, not only as a counterweight to the excesses of the private sector but as a symbol. We are, after all, supposed to be the United States.

How much longer we can still call ourselves by that name remains to be seen. The right-wing extremists, which Trump mainstreamed, pose an existential threat to the great American experiment, and the radical left isn’t helping. The death to America crowd is probably more ignorant than evil. But in the end, ignorance can be just as dangerous.

In spite of all this, I haven’t given up hope. Yes, the outlook is grim. But I cannot believe that the extremists represent the nation as a whole. In my heart of hearts, I believe that most Americans are good people. And in my brighter moments, I believe that the better angels of our nature—to use Lincoln’s ringing phrase—will somehow prevail.