On June 1, President Trump announced that the United States was withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement. His action drew predictable condemnation from our allies in the developed world. Less predictable was the fierce criticism that came from cities and states in the United States, including California, New York, Washington, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, Virginia, Oregon and Hawaii. These states have decided to sign onto the agreement despite the president’s decision. Within days of Mr. Trump’s announcement, Gov. Jerry Brown of California visited China to discuss cooperation on combating climate change. That a state would take this initiative is rare if not unprecedented, a prime example of states acting independently of the federal government.
Mr. Trump’s action regarding the Paris accord has breathed new life into Calexit, the California secession movement. But secession sentiment has been building in various states for some time now. In spring 2016, 22 local Republican conventions in Texas expressed their support for a statewide referendum on whether or not Texas should leave the union. The powers-that-be in the party struck the resolution from the convention agenda, but it was still an impressive showing, and perhaps a harbinger of things to come. After all, Texas seceded from Mexico in 1835 and formed an independent republic. It was poorly governed and had a struggling economy, and was annexed by the United States in 1845. But the precedent was set and secession sentiment in Texas seems to be alive and well nearly 175 years later.
And then, of course, there’s the small matter of the Civil War, which was started by the North after 11 pro-slavery Southern states seceded and formed the Confederate States of America. The North may have won the war, but its consequences continue to play out in our national politics, with the South being the most conservative region on the country, a hotbed of secessionist sentiment.
Indeed, threats to secede from the United States are woven into our country’s history. Partisans have long argued that secession should be a constitutional right. The courts have disagreed and in 1869, in Texas v. White, the Supreme Court ruled unilateral secession unconstitutional. But that hasn’t stopped anyone.
During the Obama presidency, secession movements thrived from New Hampshire to Alaska — hatred of the federal government being their prime driver. Many millions of Americans believed the lie that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States and was therefore ineligible to serve as a president. Think about it: In spite of irrefutable evidence — including his birth certificate and a birth notice that ran in a Honolulu paper — these Americans refused to accept President Obama’s legitimacy. And there were many voices on the right who, at least tacitly, encouraged the lie. The sad truth is much of this rabid response was based on race. During the Obama years, there were literally thousands of dismaying social-media posts featuring the Obamas as apes. And Mr. Trump’s election has unleashed a similar — if not quite as stomach-turning as the racism directed at Mr. Obama — onslaught of venom from his opponents.
Not surprisingly, the secession fervor in the nation has moved from the right to the left. Cascadia, a wished-for nation made up of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, has many thousands of supporters. These are just the tip of the iceberg. Mr. Trump’s ongoing political and legal challenges regarding his campaign’s contacts with Russia are providing fuel for the fire.
Our nation is dangerously divided these days. Each side sits in its own echo chamber, listening to its own views parroted back. We seem to have lost the ability to listen to each other, to understand that in politics, as indeed in most spheres of human endeavor, no one gets everything he or she wants. Compromise has become a dirty word — and that’s a very dangerous development.
It seems to me the desire to secede is the logical next step in a country as deeply at odds with itself as today’s America. What would happen if secessionist extremists (perhaps with Russia’s help — they seem awfully committed to destroying our democracy) took the next step and militarized their efforts? The premise is an intriguing, and perhaps not as far-fetched as it might seem. As red gets redder and blue bluer, are we headed toward the Divided States of America?
• Lis Wiehl is the author of “The Separatists” (Thomas Nelson / HarperCollins, 2017).