How the America in Civil War Might Happen

Given Civil War's deliberate lack of context, we examine the clues left by Alex Garland and history to understand how the film's America came to this.

Jesse Plemons in Civil War
Photo: A24

This article contains massive spoilers for Civil War.

Barely in cinemas for 24 hours, the already most debated aspect of Alex Garland’s Civil War has been its ambiguity. Despite being a picture centered around journalists, Garland’s vision of social collapse in the United States remains curiously spartan when it comes to background details. It suggests polarization has become so extreme that Americans are dying by the tens of thousands (if not more). Yet by design, Garland does not explain the root cause of that polarization or much else of what led to the last bedraggled days of an unnamed president (Nick Offerman) on the verge of being overthrown in a hail of gunfire.

Some have criticized this creative decision—to which Garland himself gave us his counterpoint—while others have struggled to make sense of it. Does the film have a political point-of-view, and if so does it offer a justification for its prophecy of doom and despair from sea to shining sea—including by way of a united California and Texas?

American Strongman: Code Orange

In spite of Civil War’s deliberate opaqueness, the choice of where to begin a story of modern American self-immolation is no accident. Before we witness billows of smoke rising above a burning Manhattan, we are introduced to Offerman’s President of the United States as he prepares for a televised national address.

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The strain on the fictional politician appears to be immense as he searches for the right words regarding a military engagement against the Western Forces (the strange alliance of Texas and California). Eventually he throws away the script and starts audibly improvising, growing evermore braggadocious. By the time he is on actual television screens, he claims, “We are now closer than we have ever been to victory. Some are already calling it the greatest victory in the history of mankind.”

In a few seconds, Garland has given viewers plenty of dots and asks the audience to connect them in their own time. While Offerman shrewdly avoids any attempts at mimicry or physical resemblance to the disgraced former president Donald Trump, the similarities between the 45th commander-in-chief (who may yet sit in the Oval Office again) and Offerman’s character are instantly recognizable. The desperate boastfulness, the obvious mendacity, and the familiar inability to stay on message. It’s there in an instant.

Later scenes fill out further details. When imagining an interview with this American dictator, Stephen McKinley Henderson’s war weary journalist, Sammy, muses about asking the president whether it was a good idea to shred the Constitution and run (demand?) a third term in office. The correspondent also teases the uselessness of asking a strongman if he regrets such acts of authoritarianism like abolishing the FBI and firing airstrikes on American citizens.

While Civil War is not strictly a movie about Trump, the former president still casts a deep shadow over the proceedings. Trump has had an infamously strained relationship with the FBI and any other group of public servants that would not swear absolute loyalty to his power. Former FBI Director James Comey claimed Trump demanded exactly that in a private dinner held within the first week of his presidency. A little over three months later, and as the FBI continued to investigate Russian interference into the 2016 presidential election, Comey was fired. Following multiple indictments last year by special prosecutor Jack Smith, Trump has begun urging Republicans to defund the Department of Justice and FBI “UNTIL THEY COME TO THEIR SENSES” (capitalization his).

Trump has similarly had an antagonistic relationship with much of the press. His presidency began with him stating he’d like to “open up the libel laws” and make it easier to sue news organizations, and now that his tenure is over, his vitriol has only grown more intense. Last year he suggested the government should “jail whoever” runs political stories he finds disadvantageous, including at one rally where he happily dreamt of a reporter being raped in prison. According to former Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, Trump asked if the military could “just shoot” Black Lives Matter protestors in 2020; and even before he lost the 2020 presidential election, Trump was already conditioning the American public with the idea he deserved a third term.

Civil War does not belabor how its dystopian fiction came to pass, but then it doesn’t need to. The film asks viewers to extrapolate what might happen if a president playing from the same or similar playbook actually attempted to run for a third term. What might happen if this same imaginary politician was not talked out of using military force against protestors? In the aftermath of the Trump years, we already have seen polls suggest more than a third of Americans would like to see their state secede from the union; and just last year a YouGov poll showed 43 percent of Americans think it’s at least somewhat likely a civil war will breakout in the next 10 years.

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It’s unnerving how straight the lines between the dots become.

Western Forces and the Florida Alliance: How?

If the “how’s” of Civil War are no obscure mystery, the “why’s,” especially in regard to the secessionist states, are. This is most true in regard to the Western Forces, which we’re told is composed of at least California and Texas. We are also informed that there is a “Florida Alliance” in the Southeast, which Offerman’s president claims has attempted and failed to assimilate North and South Carolina (but given who said it, we cannot know for sure). And as per a promotional image released by A24, it also appears that the American Northwest has broken off into something called “the New People’s Army.” Meanwhile we are left to believe the Midwest and Northeast remain as “Loyalist States.”

When we asked Garland about the scenario earlier this week, he hinted at a surprisingly optimistic explanation.

“In the case of Texas and California, I suppose there was a sort of provocation in a nice way within that,” Garland says. “Not provoking to make people angry but provoking to trigger a question or a thought process, which is what would make Texas and California agree with each other? Would they agree to fight against someone who is dismantling the things that are strongest and most admirable about America?”

It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine the Texas and California of 2024 sharing the same ideological values, even in regard to what is most admirable about America. Although it is worth noting both states have a (distant) history of beginning as independent republics in the 19th century, and each has a vocal minority to this day which claims to want independence. Under the right circumstances, a shared desire to break away might make for unlikely common ground.

To understand that common ground, we might suggest looking toward another scene in Civil War that hints at a context far different from our current national moment. In the same scene where Henderson’s Sammy imagines needling Offerman’s dictator with the kind of questions that will get “the piano wire” around your throat, he also tellingly makes comparisons between Offerman’s failing strongman and three dictators who were violently overthrown by their own people in the last 80 years: Benito Mussolini, Muammar Gaddafi, and Nicolae Ceausescu.

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All three at early stages in their reigns had some degree of public support. Mussolini in particular is interesting because his rise to power was linked to his popularity with vast swaths of the Italian public who embraced his new “Third Way” fascism, in part due to a fear of communism during the uncertain chaos that followed the First World War. Mussolini technically won a fair election in 1921 to the Italian Parliament, but his full takeover began the following year when 30,000 self-described blackshirts marched on Rome. The show of force intimidated Italy’s king into seeking the current prime minister’s resignation and for the monarch to ask Mussolini to form a new fascist government.

Mussolini ruled with various titles for more than 20 years, but when the end came and his leadership had led Italy to ruin—including by allying with Nazi Germany and thereby becoming the Allied Forces first point of invasion on the continent in 1943—his own people turned on him. The Grand Council of Fascism (which for all intents and purposes replaced an elected government) called a vote of no confidence in Mussolini in 1943 after American and British forces landed in Sicily. He was removed from power by a vote of 19 to eight. He regained power over parts of northern Italy later that year and had some of his fairweather friends tried and executed, but he never controlled all of Italy again. And in 1945, after all was lost, Mussolini would be shot to death, along with his retinue, by Italian partisans after attempting to flee to Switzerland.

While the line mentioning Mussolini in Civil War is to remind viewers of what often happens when dictators are overthrown by their own people—and how they ultimately “disappoint” the historians with their reportedly anticlimactic final words or moments—it is worth acknowledging that cults of personality in ascendency are very different than when they are in decline, and Civil War focuses on a U.S. that has endured a dictatorship for an unknown amount of years, and which was followed by yet more years of bloody conflict.

In other words, when the times get bad, former friends become enemies, and enemies of enemies become friends. Marriages of convenience due to suddenly aligned interests can occur. Indeed, the ever-prescient Sammy also predicts that the Western Forces will turn on each other almost as soon as they take Washington D.C., which is certainly in line with what occurs in other states following a long sectarian war and an overthrown government. It also hints, however, that this is not a civil war of North versus South, or even two competing federation of states. It is a descent into the chaotic abyss where vying interests keep the grinder churning.

Consider that last year a Politico Magazine article written by Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson noted that while the threat of a full fledged civil war is remote, the possibility of scattered, intermittent civil breakdown remains salient and arguably growing. 

“Far-right Americans are highly unlikely to coalesce into a cohesive force that could wage war,” Simon and Stevenson write, “but an army is not required to wreak sustained havoc or destabilize the country. In a deeply polarized environment, smaller pockets of armed unrest could easily ignite and spread disorder.”

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We have already seen the corrosive effects of what occurred when a mob of insurrectionists, emboldened by months of lies about an election being stolen, stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6. And that was one, if staggering, act of political violence that some leaders are now attempting to normalize and justify less than four years later (including you know who).

If such acts of political violence proliferate, “civil breakdown,” if not traditional civil war, becomes a genuine concern. Civil War offers not a vision of “good guys versus bad guys,” but of a temporary coalition of aligned interests overthrowing a failed authoritarian. It also suggests that the Union, as we’ve known it for the last several centuries, has already collapsed into various, fractious nation states across North America. Indeed, the cryptically titled “New People’s Army” over a region that includes Washington and Oregon seems to intentionally allude to centrist fears of a far-left lurch, with the new nation state’s name echoing Mao’s “People’s Republic of China.”

Of course at the end of the day, Civil War does not intend to offer any concrete answers or firm solutions. It wants to be as steely in its detachment as its lead war photographer Lee (Kirsten Dunst). It is Lee who claims a journalist’s job is not to decide what to do, but rather to show the world what is being done, and let others decide how to react.

Some would view this traditional view of journalism as antiquated; those folks probably would say the same about Civil War’s politics. However, the film is not attempting to explain its dystopia to the viewer. Like the Ghost of Christmas Future standing above a horrified Ebenezer Scrooge, it wishes to show viewers a glimpse of things that yet could be, and lets you decide if you like what you see.