Leonard Pitts

Leonard Pitts

”If Democrats are successful in removing the president from office (which they never will be), it will cause a Civil War like fracture in this Nation from which our Country will never heal.”

Donald Trump, roughly quoting Robert Jeffress, a conservative Dallas preacher

What if he’s right?

Granted, no militias are massing. No declarations of separation have been read.

So one is tempted to dismiss Donald Trump’s recent evocation of America’s great 19th-century rupture as just more bushwa from a human bushwa machine. No echo of Sumter, nor ghost of Gettysburg. Just a panicked president staring down the barrel of impeachment, trying to rally his troops. But one need not believe a shooting war imminent to think he may have inadvertently tweeted an important truth.

The conflagration that consumed America between 1861 and 1865 began when 11 states declared themselves no longer subject to federal authority. They cited as their reason a desire to protect slavery in a nation grown hostile to the institution. In a sense, the states suffered “irreconcilable differences.” As in a bad marriage, one side no longer saw the world in the same way as the other, no longer felt itself bound by common values and common cause.

And isn’t that a familiar refrain? In 2019, we find ourselves broken along lines of politics (the eternal red and blue grudge match) and human rights — a county clerk denying a marriage license to same-sex couples in Kentucky, Muslims denied entry to a land of religious freedom because of their faith, brown people with Spanish accents held in cages.

But we are also broken along lines of perception — the ability to distinguish what is from what is not. We live in a nation where a barrage of lies from government and conservative media hammers at reality on an hourly basis. And the people doing the lying — the Giulianis, the Conways, the Hannitys — do so with the shameless conviction of the true believer, having swallowed their own hogwash. Especially Trump.

Consider that the memorandum of a telephone conversation between him and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the one that ignited an impeachment inquiry because it showed Trump, that third-rate Queens mobster, pressuring Zelensky for dirt on a political rival, was released by Trump because he thought it would exonerate him. It bears repeating: He handed over the smoking gun because he had convinced himself it was a bouquet of flowers.

One is reminded of a saying among drug dealers: Don’t get high on your own supply.

It’s advice Trump and company could profit from.

As to a “Civil War type fracture,” it can be argued that we’re already there, some of us having seceded not simply from common values and common cause, but also from common reality. Now Trump implicitly promises to save us — but at the high cost of the Constitution, of turning a blind eye to his crimes.

It is, in effect, a threat: “Nice little democracy you got yourself here. Be a shame if something happened to it.” But to bow to the threat is to diminish the democracy.

Besides, we’ve been here before. Near the end of the first Civil War, the one with all the shooting, Abraham Lincoln recalled the ultimatum 11 states had given him. “Both parties deprecated war,” he said, “but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish.”

That time, the “fracture” exacted a ruinous cost in property and lives. This time, it will be paid “only” in political calamity. But Lincoln always felt the damage to America was worth the promise of America. It was.

And it still is.

Pitts is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Miami Herald. Email him at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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