To: The office of the President
Cc: The office of the Sec. of State; the office of the Sec. of Defense; the office of the Chief of Staff
Bcc: The office of the Sec. of the Interior; the office of the Sec. of Homeland Security
Re: The present discontents
Dear Mr. President:
It is a great disappointment to me that no one in your administration could have foreseen the development upon which you’ve called me to advise. But far be it from me to accuse anyone of being willfully misinformed of the present state of the country they are tasked with running, and far be it from me to set a distinguishing line between relevance of and distraction with expansion-friendly policies outside of its borders. They always tell us we never stop learning, I guess they just left it to us to find out just how hard the lessons get.
On the other hand, the striking subtlety of the development of the crisis is rather unique. It seems even residents of the states in question did not take notice when display of the stars and stripes was re-raised under or replaced with state flags on all public buildings, or that some of those state flags had been markedly redesigned. Nor, it seems, did they bat an eye at the third party waves that swelled in their midterm elections. And they practically shrugged off decrees “nationalizing” the pharmacies, flouting drug laws, FDA regulations, and any vestige of education reform in equal measure. I suppose it was when the tire road blocks went up on their sections of the interstate highways that things started to look off. Or perhaps it was that YouTube video of that cardboard cutout of you being dragged by a pickup truck, being shot at with crossbows, and then roasted on a spit. No one was taking over the post offices so no alarm bells—literally or figuratively—went off. If this is a phase, as some pundits are suggesting, it is looking to be a drawn out and expensive one.
But these things you already know. You ask for advice on dealing with them and you shall have it.
First let me dispel any anxiety you may have that I or anyone else question your confidence or abilities. Clearly this is not the case. Yes, I didn’t actually vote for you myself, but clearly many others did. Every four years American voters go into the ballot booths, their minds alight with fires consuming every corner of the nation, and look to determine which of the two most credible candidates will extinguish them most ably. A clear majority left it to you to be the extinguisher. And no doubt for your part were you imagining yourself extinguishing those very same fires, perhaps even practicing Rooseveltian turns on your iPhone on the campaign bus. This is natural for every American, whether candidate or voter. The overlap here is very rare and would be precious if it didn’t feed into this particular problem.
America’s history is chain-linked with destruction-redemption narratives. If it is not a trait unique to us it is certainly a habit. This puts pressure on a chief executive to distinguish him or herself in the pantheon of his or her predecessors. It sends Presidents off on hunting expeditions for the next great nation-defining existential crisis, or worse it attracts singularly obsessive sociopaths to the office. These Presidents, however, are a few and privileged sort. For the rest of them, crises come with the timing of their stays. There is a reason, for instance, why James Madison is chiefly remembered for fathering the Constitution and why James Buchanan is barely remembered for anything at all. Your administration is being defined on this line as I am writing. Since subversion of the union is your crisis, I suspect people have been directing you to look to Lincoln. I would advise that you look carefully.
Seeing as how you—and several other candidates you defeated—announced your candidacy on April 2015, amid the 150th anniversaries of the Confederate surrender and Lincoln’s assassination, that legacy could not have been far from your or any other hopeful’s mind. But in your position you’ll need to search within yourself to see if you’re able, and not just willing, to meet the demands of a Lincolnian situation. Lincoln was a remarkably self-aware dictator, but he was a dictator all the same. He stretched the role of the executive beyond previously accepted confines. Under his leadership, the side being rebelled against was more radical than the side rebelling. The self-inflicted cosmetic surgery of that war was almost Ballardian really. Beneath his soothing, merciful rhetoric lays the longstanding trauma of his victory. The federalized republic is no less fictive than Westeros compared to the centralized superstate that has since emerged. To modern Americans, the indivisibility of the country is fact; its continental contours are granted; executive power is enshrined; they themselves are willingly chained to its ground in binds of satin.
Lincoln’s America has been one with a ferocious hunger for changes social, cultural, ancestral, and material, held together by his sentiment and his war’s trauma. If those seem like unworkable contradictions for a country as vast as ours that’s because they are. Congratulations, Mr. President, the trauma has been overcome, and the darkness has fallen on your watch. At least you have some choice in whether it shall be followed by dawn or by pitch blackness.
The situation, then, calls for a solution of Lincolnian magnitude, and here you can be the first President to actually not make the error of confusing Lincolnianism for simply repeating what Lincoln did but on a larger scale. The Civil War was a transgressive act; your policy for wringing order out of disorder must be also.
Allowing for secession is out of the question. Forget the Supreme Court; the American people will not tolerate any state or region to leave the Union. There would surely be a new name for the panic to be felt by those Americans who still believe in the enforced neighborliness between the states. The armed forces will be stretched to their limits containing both your own citizens and the rebelling citizens.
Unilateral expulsion, on the other hand, is an untried but far worthier alternative. If there is nothing in American history on which to found its logic we, like some of our federal judges, can look to other nations for precedent. Many forget that Singapore came into existence by being expelled from Malaysia. The Czech Republic and Slovakia are the results of a bitter but amicable “divorce.” Even if the partition of Northern Ireland was almost entirely out of Ireland’s hands, lifting it through consent alone seems ever more remote. It can, and in this case, must be implemented here. You would do well not to expel all the conflicted states, perhaps one or two at first, maybe those with the least to be gained from you resource-wise if you’re not feeling too risky. This will send the message to the rest of them of your seriousness, and also prevent them from confederating. They will own their resources, they will own their social and economic conditions, they will own all the military equipment we gave their police departments that they would surely use against us if we came to blows.
Your authority grants this, and your resolve in doing so will decide how easily it can be questioned. The object of your conflict, if one has not yet been determined, is preservation of individual life and property. You yourself once tweeted that “America is the first power in history motivated by a desire to expand freedom rather than its own territory.”
A great President distinguishes him or herself from a caretaker President by being less concerned with reelection prospects and more concerned with being the last President, period. If this policy makes you just that, there’s little that can be done besides owning up to it. Encouraging and preserving harmony between current and former Americans is the task left to you, whether you want it or not. They will, in all likelihood, stand athwart you, and vanquish you, hopefully in just the polls. They will demonize you and try to erase your very being from its history. They will call you “America’s butcher,” though that is still a notch up from “American butcher”. If dealt with properly, with mercy and self-awareness, this will subside. Lincoln will have been overcome by a new New Birth of Freedom. And after a long line of American Churchill aspirants, an American Gorbachev is preferable to, say, an American Humungus.
[Author’s note: this piece was adapted from an entry of my newsletter, Black Ribbon Award, which you can subscribe to here, if you’re so inclined.]