A CENTURY AND A HALF of distance has worn away the rough edges, and the Civil War, for most of us, is now understood as Lincoln’s heroic battle to free the slaves. But make no mistake: the Civil War is far and away the worst crisis in the history of the United States. Some 620,000 Americans perished during the four years of the conflict, some two percent of the population—more casualties than were seen in every American war from the Revolution through Korea. The bloody savagery on the battlefields of Shiloh, Antietam, Stones River, and Gettysburg had never been witnessed before, anywhere, in the long annals of human warfare. And while the Northern aims of the war were accomplished—the slaves were technically freed and the Union was technically preserved—the Reconstruction period was so badly bungled that the scars have never fully healed.
Slavery may have been the engine that fueled the Civil War, but it began not with an executive order by Lincoln to free the slaves—that would come later—but with the Southern states seceding from the Union to form the Confederacy. A secession crisis led to 620,000 people dying. This is important to bear in mind, because there has been talk of California taking a page from the South Carolina playbook, seceding from the Union, and forming its own country. A group called Yes California is working to secure enough signatures to put secession on the state ballot there, and propositions on ballots in California have a way of being unpredictable.
Abraham Lincoln was resolute in his belief that the Union, above all, must be preserved. Was he right? One could make the argument, certainly in hindsight, that a fracture into two countries was less horrible than what took place, that slavery would have died out on its own, that allowing the South to come to its own conclusions about that odious practice would have erased 150 years of Dixie resentment toward the Yankees, and so on. But Lincoln did not entertain this view, and was willing to make enormous sacrifices, including his own life, to keep one nation indivisible.
Fast forward to 2017: What happens if California votes to secede? Would President Trump cling to his as-yet-undiscovered principles and force the Golden State to remain, risking a second Civil War in the process? Or would he take the easier route and allow it to leave, knowing that, as he’s mentioned before, he would have easily won the popular vote, too, if not for all the Hillary voters on the Left Coast? As appealing as a nation of California might be—or, be still my heart, a “Blue-topia” nation of California, Oregon, Washington, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, Delaware, and Maryland—neither of these options makes democracy stronger, not with an increasingly autocratic Trumplandia occupying the bulk of the country’s real estate. A splintered United States is, in fact, Vladimir Putin’s wildest dream (and likely Steve Bannon’s as well).
Indeed, a closer look at the Yes California movement reveals plenty of Russian fingerprints. Both of its founders, Marcus Ruiz Evans and Louis Martinelli, are conservatives and have registered as Republicans. Evans lives in Fresno; Martinelli, in—wait for it—Yekaterinburg, Russia, site of the Bolshevik massacre of the Romanov royal family. And while the latter’s choice of residence may be perfectly benign, I’m not the first to raise an eyebrow at the coincidence. As Katie Zezima reports in the Washington Post:
But Yes California has had to fend off a torrent of questions about Russian influence. In September, Marinelli represented the group at a Moscow conference hosted by the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia; 30 percent of conference funding came from the Russian government, but none went to Yes California, according to its organizer. Yes California opened a “cultural center” at the movement’s Moscow headquarters in December. Marinelli has compared California independence to the annexation of Crimea, and Yes California has received a flurry of news coverage from the government-funded RT.
Zezima goes on to quote Martinelli’s denial of official Russian involvement: “We don’t have any communication with or contact with or receive any support of any kind from the Russian government or any Russian government officials.” This may be perfectly true, but it sounds a lot like denials of Russian influence made by Carter Page, Paul Manafort, and Donald Trump himself. And I’m quite certain that Trump is lying.
An independent California would be akin to the collapse of the Soviet Union: a huge win for Moscow. Think about the chaos CALEXIT would cause. It would make BREXIT look like a flawless Argentine tango on Dancing with the Stars. What would California do for currency? For a military? How would the government function? What about immigration? Could the rest of us move there? And what would the response be from President Trump? Would it be an excuse to impose martial law on the rest of the country? WOuld he have to build a wall in Nevada, too?
Why would Putin not want that outcome?
In a speech two years before the Civil War, Lincoln famously remarked that a house divided against itself cannot stand. He went on: “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States.”
We are at a similar moment of seemingly irreconcilable division. Lincoln might just as well have been speaking of Trump and the rise of the crony capitalist autocracy. Honest Abe, our greatest leader, foretelling our worst president and most egregious liar. American carnage, indeed.
If part of your house is infested with rats, you don’t move, and you certainly don’t stop using that part of the house. What you do is get rid of the rats.