For the past few months, a long-buried idea has been creeping from the fringe into mainstream Republican discourse: secession. Following President Joe Biden’s victory in November, GOP officials from Wyoming to Florida to Mississippi have floated the idea, claiming that the time for a national fracturing may be near. While there’s something of a seasonal flavor to this injection of rhetoric — Republican honchos like former Texas Gov. Rick Perry openly discussed secession following Barack Obama’s rise to the presidency, for instance — the recent rounds feel qualitatively different. As journalist and author Richard Kreitner, an expert on American secessionism, recently wrote, it’s time to “take secessionist talk seriously.”
While there’s something of a seasonal flavor to this injection of secessionist rhetoric the recent rounds feel qualitatively different.
And it’s not difficult to see why. In the wake of the failed pro-Trump insurrection in Washington, far-right American militias, buoyed by former President Donald Trump’s empty claims that the election was “stolen,” have increasingly agitated for the break-up of the U.S. As the head of one paramilitary group that has worked closely with conspiratorial Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., recently revealed, they’d “formed alliances with other far-right groups to advocate for Georgia’s secession.” One of the primary Facebook pages promoting the rally-turned-riot was also called “Red-State Secession.” Meanwhile, mainstream outlets like Fox News joke approvingly about secessionist movements in places like northern California — despite the movement’s clear comfort with political violence — while a range of employees at Glenn Beck’s outlet continue to call for the break-up of the U.S.
And it’s not just a tiny fringe that’s thinking about these concepts anymore. As the Bright Line Watch, a group of researchers from places like Dartmouth University, the University of Rochester, and University of Chicago, noted in a study released earlier in February, one-third of Republicans said they support secession. Disturbingly, half of Republicans across the former Confederacy (plus Kentucky and Oklahoma) are now willing to break off to form a newly independent country.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Texas is leading this charge. As The Daily Beast reported, a Texas state lawmaker — one who attended the Capitol rally on Jan. 6 and claimed it was “the most amazing day” — recently filed the first serious secession bill the country has seen since the Civil War. The Texas Republican Party promptly endorsed the bill, which would give Texans the right to vote in a secession referendum later this year, with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott refusing to denounce the legislation.
Of course, state-level secession remains illegal in the U.S.; as the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in 2006, “If there was any constitutional issue resolved by the Civil War, it is that there is no right to secede.” But that hasn’t stopped conservatives from defending the bill, claiming that it’s simply giving Texans a “voice.” (It’s unclear if these figures think Texans should be able to vote on other illegal acts in the interest of expressing their voice.)
While much of the secessionist rhetoric remains couched in claims about things like fiscal responsibility and burdensome federal regulations, it doesn’t take much to discern the ethno-nationalism driving the push. Just like so much of Trumpian America, secession in places like Texas is rooted in a combination of nativism, xenophobia and white racial grievance. Texas secession Facebook pages are saturated with fantasies of forcing Democrats to leave the state, seizing their property and forcing them to “convert” (to what is unclear). Just like the Confederates before them, this modern secessionist ethos is rooted at least in large part in maintaining white supremacy and authoritarian governance, regardless of the costs.
On their own, the increasing marriage of secessionist chatter and GOP ideology would be cause enough for concern. But this month’s disastrous winter storm in Texas also points to how idiotic such secessionist dreams truly are. Thanks to an electric grid carved out separately from the rest of the country, Texas remained effectively stranded while storms wrought rolling blackouts, boil-water advisories and dozens of deaths thus far. Scenes reminiscent of catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina illustrated what state-level collapse looks like in modern America.
Thanks to the devastating storms, Texas secessionists have gone quiet for now. Meanwhile, regular Texans have begun looking to the federal government for help, with Washington already announcing plans for federal disaster assistance. As it should.
Imagine, for instance, if Texas somehow managed to declare independence in the near future.
But imagine, for instance, if Texas somehow managed to declare independence in the near future. Rather than simply carrying on with the status quo ante, as many secessionists and increasing numbers of Republicans appear to assume, any independence push would presumably shut off the federal tap, which currently sends Texas tens of billions of dollars more than it receives from the state. A successful secession push would likewise (and presumably) send industry, spooked by political instability, scattering, gutting Texas’s vibrant economy.
Along the way, millions of patriotic Americans would promptly uproot, taking their skills elsewhere, exacerbating knock-on economic struggles. Washington would probably try to dissuade other states from joining Texas by placing punitive economic measures — blocking Social Security checks, imposing new tariffs and removing federal installations, perhaps even launching a naval blockade — on the breakaway region. Texas would be, in effect, stranded.
And this isn’t even touching on the political violence that could ensue. Given that Texas’s economic powerhouses remain the primarily Democratic cities of Houston, Austin, and Dallas — and that America’s primary political divides remain on an urban-rural axis — who knows how messy that could get. (In other words, blinkered liberals should stop trying to thoughtlessly encourage GOP secessionism.)
All of which is to say: The devastation in Texas highlights but a small sample of how awful an actual secession push would likely be. As University of Houston Professor Robert Zaretsky wrote this month, the “spirit of secessionism… carries terrible human costs.” And he’s exactly right. It’s a terrible proposal, with terrible consequences, of which Texas is getting but a taste right now.
Thankfully for Texans, the federal government and the rest of the U.S. can help the struggling state back to its feet, and back to its rightful place as one of America’s economic and cultural leaders. And hopefully, the state’s Republican Party — and Republicans elsewhere — will drop, once and for all, the kinds of seditious rhetoric that would spell disaster for the supposedly United States of America.