The nominal candidate (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

January 24, 2024   3 mins

New Hampshire, then, was far from Donald Trump’s difficult second album. If anything, it was another performance of his Greatest Hits. His path to the White House is firmly in sight; Nikki Haley’s primary challenge, by contrast, has been rendered all but nominal.

After Trump scored his first thumping victory in the Iowa caucuses, widespread concern about his looming presidency resurrected the idea of a “national divorce”, if not full-on civil war. Yesterday’s triumph will have only aggravated this anxiety. The problem, however, is that it’s largely being expressed in a misguided manner.

There are certainly ominous parallels with the original US Civil War, as the historian Michael Auslin has recently noted. Much as the march towards the conflict between the Union and the Confederacy took decades to build up to actual military conflict, this year’s election represents the culmination of a protracted process, characterised by delegitimising national elections, demonising political opponents, and an unprecedented use of legal tactics to subvert voter preferences.

But the original Civil War had clear geographic boundaries, the issue of slavery largely determining the two opposing sides. And, as horrific and destructive as the military conflict was, it ultimately did achieve resolution. Ultimately, one side emerged victorious, and there were tentative Reconstruction-era campaigns to rebuild the nation in a more just fashion. The post-Lincoln Republicans, for instance, used state capitalism and tariffs to build up the national market for Northeastern manufacturing. The South had a bumpier ride, suffering from the regional disparity produced by Jim Crow, but even this was eventually alleviated by the New Deal.

Today, by contrast, there is little in the way of policy designed to heal America’s considerable political fractures. And with the probable repeat of a divisive Biden-Trump contest, the likely outcome, regardless of who wins, will be a festering, social civil war that will further fracture unity and perpetuate political dysfunction. The common denominator in today’s “Civil War Redux” is not geography — it is a battle that transcends the idea of a north-south divide. After all, some of the most odious and dangerous militias, hate groups and far-Right instigators have been found in northern states, such as New York, rust belt states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, or further north in Montana or Idaho. Likewise, one sees vestiges of incipient progressivism in various parts of the old Confederacy.

Today’s divide is also marked by the presence of resentment-filled (largely) white working-class men with few prospects in predominantly white rural areas, who have been told that something has been taken away from them, and that they are less valuable than other citizens. Typical of this view was Hillary Clinton, who complained that she shouldn’t have lost the 2016 election because she won the counties that constitute two-thirds of the nation’s GDP, as if these “deplorables” didn’t merit the same kind of voting privileges by virtue of their substandard economic status. This was not just Clinton’s view, but reflected a prevailing disdain of much of the Democratic Party, a disdain which in turn exacerbated the sense of grievance of the Trump supporters.

We can see its manifestation in the MAGA Republicans who truly believe that America’s increasingly diverse and multicultural society is a personal attack on them. Trump and his allies, such as Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Green and Senators Josh Hawley and J.D. Vance, have given these voters permission to express a resentment that had been stifled for too long This becomes painfully obvious as one listens to the remarks of Trump’s supporters, characterised by their ability to always find new reasons to love him and to handwave away his glaring flaws, to say nothing of his mounting indictments. Trump, in turn, feeds on these grievances by invoking outsiders (especially illegal immigrants) whom he blames for their economic and social marginalisation.

Recasting the debate in these terms has conveniently enabled Trump to avoid committing to social expenditures, from job creation to public investment, which could bridge this increasing divide. The low intensity “civil war”, in other words, is the genius of his 2024 campaign. His travails, legal or otherwise, have become his supporters’ travails. The ex-president has managed to frame himself as the MAGA movement’s “retribution”, which explains why the seemingly endless array of indictments have only enhanced his political appeal.

In fairness, the Democrats have helped to facilitate the Trump narrative — and therefore his victories in Iowa and New Hampshire. His political rise should have initiated a genuine soul-searching among a humiliated establishment. But rather than consider their failures toward the American people, who continue to turn to a carnival barker for relief, the policymaking elite have concluded that it is they who have been failed — by the people. The result, as we are starting to see, is the exacerbation of America’s prevailing divisions. In this, New Hampshire serves as both a symptom and an inflammatory — not for a civil war between North and South, but a clash within each city and state.

Marshall Auerback is a market commentator and a research associate for the Levy Institute at Bard College.