We’re so close to civil war, ‘everyone can smell the smoke’

Police supporters and members of the Black Lives Matter movement demonstrated in front of Topeka's city hall in August 2020. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Jay Steinmetz kept using the word “reckoning.”

I was talking to Steinmetz, a political science professor at Fort Hays State University and host of “The Kansas Legislature” on Smoky Hills PBS, because I’d been looking for someone who might be able to put our angry moment into historical context.

As a summer that started with the Black Lives Matter movement’s basic plea to “stop killing us” descended into a deluge of demonstrations ranging from the selfish (“Let them play!“) to the absurd (a seven-hour public hearing against Wichita’s mask mandate), I kept remembering the Tea Party demonstrations of more than a decade ago, which were ostensibly against health care reform but were really against power in the hands of a Black president. Steinmetz added Occupy Wall Street to this summer’s precursors.

“We have been on a long march toward a kind of populist reckoning, and that reckoning is on both the right and the left,” he said. “There’s a connection between the Tea Party and then the rise of Trump, also with Occupy and Bernie Sanders. I think history is going to see the connection between those two things as much more interlinked than we do in our time.”

Basically, Steinmetz said, we’re all angry about the same thing.

“That grievance is about the ways in which we have all been left behind,” he said. “The left anger and grievance comes from the same location as the right anger and grievance. They’re just going in two different directions with their populism.”

When it comes to the current president and his supporters, Steinmetz said, “I think that Donald Trump was being honest about how he was going to lead: ‘I’m not a unifier. I’m a fighter.’ And fighters don’t unify, they win.”

Steinmetz said the social scientists and political scientists who keep trying to figure out what might cause Trump’s base to abandon him are missing this fundamental point.

“Winning is more important than unifying the country, or compromise, or whatever it might be,” he said. “It’s not so hard to understand. He was very clearly expressing those things, and that’s why they voted for him. They didn’t ignore it. They’re not like the Obama voters in 2008, who were like, ‘Yeah, you’re saying you’re moderate, but I don’t want to believe it.’ They knew what he was saying and that’s what they want. And so in that respect, what they’re looking for is a reckoning.”

What that reckoning really consists of, Steinmetz hadn’t quite figured out.

“I do think that the Trump movement has gotten what they want in the sense that the fissures of American political life are now exacerbated and blown open,” he said. “And that conflict is now open-warfare conflict to some degree. I mean, we’re still not in the full throes of a civil war, but we’re close enough now that, I think, everyone can smell the smoke.”

Jay Steinmetz is an Assistant Professor at Fort Hays specializing in political theory, American politics, and public law. (Submitted by Jay Steinmetz)

Kansas has been a bellwether, Steinmetz said.

“I think it fully hit home with the Brownback tax experiment in Kansas,” he said. “They went about bringing about the economic conservatives’ policy dream, they really got everything done that they wanted to do. And Brownback himself called an experiment. And they basically said, ‘Well, let’s do this. And then let’s sit back watch what happens.’ ”

Not enough people know how that went.

“I think that was a definitive moment that, unfortunately, because it’s Kansas, a lot of people nationwide weren’t paying attention the way that they should,” Steinmetz said.

“This is the funny thing about politics,” he said, before describing a phenomenon that’s not funny at all.

“If you’re conscious, like, ‘This policy doesn’t work,’ then it’s like, ‘We need a new policy,’ ” he said. But if people can sense that there’s a threat to their well-being and don’t connect that feeling to a concrete policy, “then it just becomes emotion. It just becomes anger. And then the anger becomes populism.”

Which is back where we started. Steinmetz sees a solution in the brand of conservatism that embraces what’s best for communities. The kind of conservatism, for example, that favors Medicaid expansion and investment in small towns.

When conservatives are focused solely on limited government, he said, “then no government dollars go to rural America, unless it’s agricultural policy.” Small towns don’t see the same investment as big urban areas, he said, which is part of what drives anger toward people who “are going to come and take your jobs and don’t look like you.”

So, he concluded, “The real war ahead is for the hearts and minds of social conservatives. Do they want to be full-on Trumpian nativist xenophobes? There’s not much left of their policy, other than some fear, some anger and ‘troll the libs.’ And that’s not good for conservativism. I want to see conservativism that’s good for America.”

The conservatism he’s describing is essentially the moderate wing of the Kansas Republican Party, which is exactly what primary voters rejected just a few weeks ago.

Sometimes it’s a comfort, being able to recognize one’s place in the context of history and trying to take the long view. But if Kansas is the bellwether, this was not one of those conversations.