Civil wars happen to other countries.
They don’t happen in the United States, with one notable exception.
Wednesday night I was fortunate enough to have been at the Thomas & Mack Center for the third and final debate between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. I have had similar opportunities in past election cycles, but none compared with the feeling of foreboding and elation that consumed me this past week as I left the debate site at UNLV.
I was happy because I believed that my friend, Secretary Clinton, had been clear and convincing with her deep knowledge and critical-thinking skills as well as her looking and sounding so, well, presidential. The feeling of some impending doom came from the other side. Specifically, from the mouth and mind of Trump.
Like most Americans who have managed to survive this election cycle to the point where it is almost over, I was rocked by The Donald’s answer to moderator Chris Wallace’s softball question about election results.
Given Trump’s claims in recent weeks that the election was “rigged” against him and that fraud abounded unabated across this nation, Wallace asked if the GOP candidate would accept the results of the election, win or lose.
It was a home-run ball waiting to be hit out of the park. Instead, Trump fouled it straight back into the umpire’s facemask. And every sane and thinking American hit the ground, writhing in the kind of pain that only a knowledge of American history could confer.
I suppose I don’t blame Trump for once again not thinking about the consequences of his words and actions. After all, he is just a “businessman” who is not a politician and, therefore, unbounded by the norms of political and polite society. (Read that to mean “not required to act in a presidential manner.”) It is not easy, but sanity demands that we dismiss the narcissism that compels him. He just can’t help himself.
As old as I am, I still can’t remember the kind of pain the United States experienced in 1860 after the election of Abraham Lincoln for the presidency, so I have to rely on the history books. That election was the first, last and only time in our nation’s history when a substantial number of Americans refused to accept the results of a national election.
We all know what happened. The South, unhappy about President Lincoln’s position against slavery, formed the Confederate States of America and brothers went to war against brothers, families and neighbors against each other, and our country was torn apart. Even today, more than 150 years later, some places in our country are still fighting.
To be charitable, perhaps Trump doesn’t realize what his words mean or what his ridiculous charges of massive voter fraud mean. But to be less charitable and probably more accurate, perhaps he knows exactly what he is doing. Either way, the result can be the same. All you need to do is listen to some of his supporters who are convinced — in spite of all facts to the contrary — that Trump is right and this election is being stolen.
It is those people who constitute what could be a clear and present danger to the republic. The most recent poll I heard found that a majority of Trump supporters, of course, would accept the will of the voters, just as everyone else would, no matter what side of the issues they are on. It is the patriotic and responsible thing to do. It is, after all, what separates us from most other countries on Earth — the peaceful transfer of power every few years. It also makes us the envy of the rest of the world.
I am convinced that the 40-plus percent of Trump voters who say they would not accept a Trump loss because it would be the result of fraud would not, in the end, clutch to what is an overemotional paranoid position. Most Americans, however emotional we may be, let common sense and love of country overcome our difficult political losses.
There are some people, however, for whom sense and civility have no place and can confer no balm to salve their political wounds. They are not unlike those in the South in the time of Lincoln who hated the thought of losing their slaves. Those are the folks we should be concerned about. And those are the folks to whom Trump owes his greatest abilities of leadership.
When this election is over, if Trump loses, he must lead those folks away from anarchy, away from anger and away from a misguided belief that he has sown, that our elections are rigged and fraudulent.
We have come a long way in our country since the Civil War, and I really don’t believe most people are willing to go back there again. But this is a different kind of election cycle and these are difficult times in which we are trying to navigate a way forward. Even a few people hell-bent on their own brand of justice are too many in a society as open and diverse as ours.
Donald wants to be a leader? He should start by leading his followers away from the edge of incivility.
Brian Greenspun is owner, editor and publisher of the Sun.