Following the publication of my recent review of his excellent, penetrating, but preoccupying book The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future (Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster), Canadian essayist and novelist Stephen Marche kindly accepted to answer a few questions for this blog. It is therefore with tremendous pleasure that I share the content of our exchange.
BookMarc: Mr. Marche, you present a gloomy portrait of the threats that America might well be confronted to in a near future. Between the 5 scenarios you envision, which one is the most likely in your opinion and why?
Stephen Marche: Well, I would say that a version of the first scenario—about a united right that rallies over a bridge—has sort of already happened. I don’t really think that one is more likely than another. I prided myself in the book about being very specific about the limits of the models I used to write the pieces. Some, like the environmental models, are incredibly strong. Others, like the economic models, aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. But I give the best available models in each case.
The DOJ task force that deals with domestic terrorism can’t use watch lists because so many police departments have been infiltrated that they would essentially be warning the people they’re trying to catch by telling the police.
BookMarc: You evoke the infiltration of the US law enforcement agencies and the Army by right-wing extremists. And this is worrisome. At what degree have these sectors been infected?
Stephen Marche: Quite large. I think the January 6 hearings showed that it’s all the way up to the US Presidency on some level. But the most telling fact is that the DOJ task force that deals with domestic terrorism can’t use watch lists because so many police departments have been infiltrated that they would essentially be warning the people they’re trying to catch by telling the police.
BookMarc: I couldn’t help but sympathize with the figure of the General you portray in Dispatch #1, a West Point grad who “reads Julius Caesar in the original Latin” at night? In Bob Woodward’s latest book Peril, General Mark Milley came out as a bulwark against potential tyranny. Could the military prove instrumental in saving the United States from an existential threat?
Stephen Marche: The point of the first chapter is this: If you’re using the military, you’re already lost. Counterinsurgency, as America has learned over the past seventy years, can at most provide a space for politics to operate. But the attempt to provide the space for politics to happen, the attempt to impose order, mostly just leads to more chaos.
BookMarc: Is the General in your book inspired by a real-life figure and, if so, would you agree to tell us who it is? (My personal guess was General James Mattis).
Stephen Marche: Well, there are plenty of excellent generals that I used as models. The senior commanders I spoke to were all enormously educated and physically fit. Models of humanism in their way.
The American right wants violence. The American right is now dominated by anti-government patriotism. They believe that destroying the government helps America.
BookMarc: You depict a somber picture of the Republican Party as being the political arm of a movement which also regroups an armed wing. From what you see now, is there a chance the moderates (like Liz Cheney and Mitt Romney) within the GOP can turn the ship around?
Stephen Marche: Not really. It’s not the leadership that’s the problem. The American right wants violence. The American right is now dominated by anti-government patriotism. They believe that destroying the government helps America. Almost everyone in the Republican party takes that position; the question is how extreme they believe it is appropriate to be enforcing it.
A woman is a different legal entity in Missouri than a woman in Chicago.
BookMarc: The Supreme Court plays a crucial role in the life of the United States (like in any country for instance). Where would you rank the impact of the recent Roe v. Wade decision in your dispatches and what will be the impact of this development?
Stephen Marche: Hugely destructive. Already you have essentially two legal systems in the United States. A woman is a different legal entity in Missouri than a woman in Chicago. That can’t stand. Plus that decision, widely unpopular, has tanked the Supreme Court’s legitimacy. Nobody in America believes that it represents the will of the people, because it doesn’t. Five of the nine supreme court justices were selected by Presidents who didn’t win the popular vote.
BookMarc: Your five dispatches are focused on domestic threats. But the United States also faces important foreign challenges, like the rise of China. Do you foresee that this confrontation could also contribute to America’s demise? What’s your reading on that situation?
Stephen Marche: As Lincoln said: “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
BookMarc: What should Americans do concretely to move away from the doomsday scenario?
Stephen Marche: Open primaries. Term limits on justices. Third parties. But the truth is that they need a new Constitution. Their Constitution simply no longer applies to the reality of the world as it is.
The Convoy was an American phenomenon. It’s infecting our politics, on left and right.
BookMarc: As Canadians and with almost 9000 km, we share the longest border in the world with the United States. How would the occurrence of one of your dispatches affect us and how should we prepare for that?
Stephen Marche: Well, I think we’re already seeing the effects of American collapse. The Convoy was an American phenomenon. It’s infecting our politics, on left and right. And we have to do whatever it takes, from all sides, to keep their garbage anti-politics out of our system. But how much can we really prepare? If they fall, we are all in trouble.
Every time–every last time–Conservatives have tried to play at identity politics (that scare phone line, etc.), the Canadian people have shown them the door aggressively.
BookMarc: what is your impression of the trajectory of the Canadian conservatives in the current context and as compared with the Republican Party?
Stephen Marche: As for the Canadian Conservatives, even Poilievre, they are very, very far away from being like Republicans. I mean, not really even close. And every time–every last time–Conservatives have tried to play at identity politics (that scare phone line, etc.), the Canadian people have shown them the door aggressively. Doug Ford, who has played the role of quiet bureaucrat who doesn’t want to upset anybody but does what he does without anybody noticing, is a much more likely candidate for next Canadian Conservative Prime Minister in my humble opinion.
BookMarc: Do you have another book project on your writing table and, if so, would you agree to tell us what it will be about?
Stephen Marche: I have a book about writing and failure coming out in the near future.
BookMarc: thank you very much for the generosity of your time Mr. Marche.
Stephen Marche, The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future, New York, Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster, 2022, 256 pages.