“There won’t be a secession push right now—it’s not the second secession winter,” Richard Kreitner, author of Break It Up, a recent book on the history of American disunionism, told me. The political fractures, as extreme as they are, don’t match state borders, but instead pop up in every state along a rural-urban axis.
“When Allan West fantasizes about ‘Texas values’ and the like, he is summoning a nonexistent picture of a singular Texas identity,” University of Texas Law professor Sanford Levinson, noted for his writing on secession and the Constitution, told me. Not only is Texas now firmly in swing state territory, with all its major cities now Democratic, but the state that produced more Trump voters than any other was deep-blue California.
All of which is to say: Actual secession in the U.S. remains, for the moment, something outside the realm of feasibility. But that misses the point about what is really driving the threats. Whether they acknowledge it or not, the proponents of severing centuries-old bonds don’t necessarily want to break away. (Who wants the financial implosion and massive outflow of capital that would come with actual independence, anyway?) Instead, they are using secession as a kind of rhetorical cover for an opposition strategy that has erupted periodically throughout American history: rampant obstructionism and even outright nullification. This isn’t a replay of the rise of the Confederacy in 1861 as much as it is the birth of the Tea Party in 2009—a grinding war of attrition fought from inside the government, using the legislatively lethal weapon of “no.”
“Simply making the threat that you might pull the plug on the Union has often been enough to get you what you want,” Kreitner added. “Even if you don’t go through with it, it gets you what you want. It convinces those in power that pushing too hard risks a fatal rupture—or even a civil war.”
Everyone knows about the 1860s, which saw treasonous Confederates plunge the country directly into catastrophe. But dial back a few decades prior, before America’s passions had been strained to breaking in the crucible of Confederate secession. During the first years of his presidency, Andrew Jackson launched salvo after salvo in his broader efforts to remake the U.S. From kneecapping the country’s national bank to spearheading the largest ethnic cleansing operation the U.S. had seen to that point, Jackson’s efforts proved largely—and for nations like the Cherokee and Choctaw, horrifically—effective.
But during the early 1830s, one thing tripped him up more than any other: tariffs. Broadly, support or opposition to the tariff regime fell along sectional lines—with Northern protectionists, somewhat surprisingly, finding themselves more aligned with Jackson than they had ever thought.
Southern free traders, dedicated to cutting tariffs, knew they couldn’t overcome both Northern opposition and Jacksonian resistance through mere legislation. Instead, they had a card up their sleeve: nullification. Stretching back to Thomas Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolution, which argued for the propriety of states to simply ignore federal legislation they deemed unfit, those in South Carolina—led by John Calhoun, then Jackson’s vice president—realized they could threaten secession while simultaneously pushing nullification as their new policy. (“To the Union. Next to our liberty, most dear,” as Calhoun’s infamous, and infamously backhanded, toast from the era went.)
In response to South Carolina’s threats, Jackson blustered. “[I]f one drop of blood be shed there in defiance of the laws of the United States,” he vowed, “I will hang the first man of them I can get my hands on to the first tree I can find.” As proof of his intent, Jackson ordered reinforcements to forts in South Carolina, and asked Congress to pass a so-called “Force Bill” to allow him to smother the brewing rebellion. He had to “crush the monster [of nullification] in its cradle before it matures to manhood,” he told Secretary of War Lewis Cass.
Behind the scenes, though, Jackson’s threats appeared to wilt. Negotiations between the federal government and the nullificationists tilted heavily toward the South Carolinians, with one historian describing it as an outright “surrender” from the White House. “People think about the Nullification Crisis of the 1830s and Andrew Jackson flexing his muscles and getting South Carolina to back down, but that’s not at all what happened,” Kreitner, who detailed the negotiations in his book, told me. South Carolina even “nullified [the ‘Force Bill’] just for shits and giggles—just to show they could,” he added.
The lesson was clear: Threats of secession, married to a push for nullification and obstructionism, may tilt directly toward treason, anti-democratic illiberalism and state fracture. But those threats work.
“That success convinced Southerners, especially in South Carolina, that threatening to secede would convince the federal government to back down,” Kreitner said. “The use of the threat itself alters national politics and means the Union can only persist on the say-so, or on the sufferance, of its most extreme members.”
South Carolina rattled the threat of secession at the federal government and, even with a president like Jackson in the White House, still came out ahead. And it was a lesson that South Carolinians and other burgeoning Confederates confidently carried right up to 1861—right up until they ran directly into a president who called their bluff.
Of course, that was eons ago, in the broader arc of American history. Generations have passed since the end of the Civil War, which effectively outlawed secession. “If there was any constitutional issue resolved by the Civil War, it is that there is no right to secede,” Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in 2006.
But the shadow of nullification and all its discontents has never fully disappeared. During the Civil Rights movement, segregationists flirted with “interposition,” claiming the right to “interpose” between local governments and new federal civil rights protections. White supremacist governors railed against federal overreach in basic things like equal rights, rallying their pro-apartheid supporters with new claims of states’ rights—only to back down when federal officials arrived en masse to enforce basic democratic principles.
More recently, there was a far broader force that upended American politics, illustrating what future obstructionism, nullification and potential secession could look like: the Tea Party.
The Tea Party, especially in hindsight, was hardly as fixated on taxation and fiscal responsibility as its leaders might have claimed publicly. After all, the national debt has continued its metastatic rise under Trump, with little peep from the former Tea Partyers supposedly dedicated to its reduction.
As with Confederate claims about “states’ rights,” that rhetoric was mere cover for deeper, and far more rancid, views. Such motivations rested largely on their racial revanchism propelling much of the movement—including things like the Tea Party’s “embrace of birtherism,” as Geoffrey Kabaservice wrote, or the calls to lynch the country’s first Black president. “The Tea Party urge was always more deeply an ethnonationalist reaction, which is something that happens throughout U.S. history,” Theda Skocpol, a Harvard professor who co-authored a 2016 book on the Tea Party, told me. “They were never truly concerned about [fiscal responsibility and the debt].”
The Tea Party-inspired obstructionism immediately changed the tenor of Congress, with Sen. Mitch McConnell memorably announcing his intention to make Obama a one-term president. That goal obviously failed, as seen by Obama’s thumping win in 2012. But pull back a bit, and reframe the obstructionism, and you can spy the seeds of victory in McConnell’s and the Tea Party’s broader tactics. As Michael Grunwald concluded, save for the 2012 presidential election, the Tea Party-inspired obstructionism “was a remarkable success.”
The rise of Trump attested to as much. (“The Tea Party still exists—except now it’s called Make America Great Again,” Trump once said.) Which means that the likeliest manifestations of the kinds of obstructionism and neonullification we might see moving forward are those just in the rearview mirror.
This time around, though, there will likely be some qualitative differences. For one, there’s a clear figurehead: Trump, whether from his Twitter perch (assuming he gets to keep it) or from whatever television deal he will land post-presidency. And secondly, there’s the reality that an entire chunk of the original Tea Party has, remarkably, been even further radicalized over the past decade—and welcomed entire battalions of young, and often armed, males into its ranks.
“What you saw with the Tea Party was waves of national rallies, and you may see some of that again,” Skocpol said. “We already saw an echo of that in the reopen protests, with very similar kinds of people, but this time may be with a harder edge. They’re even more of a minority now, and they’re more likely to be toting guns, and to be tied into some militia types.”
Indeed, it’s that armed contingent—the camo-clad self-proclaimed “patriots” melding with the previous Tea Party iterations—that gives Skocpol pause. “What we’ve seen recently is something far more dangerous,” she said. “There are now armed people wandering around making threats, and we’re seeing this spreading on the internet. And this includes some very sensible people. These people are now saying some pretty extreme things.”
And as the GOP lurches ever further toward minoritarian rule—taking full advantage of advantages in the Senate and the Electoral College, increasingly unreflective of the U.S. as a whole—there’s little reason to expect it to jettison the kinds of nullificationist and obstructionist tactics this new Trumpist Tea Party will push. Nor does it take too much effort to imagine its contours.
“I think, ultimately, nullification requires a willingness to defy the federal government, not simply say, ‘We don’t like what you’re doing,’” Levinson said. “I wouldn’t be shocked, but surprised if people of stature say, well, John Calhoun really had a good idea on interposition, and that’s what we’re going to do, and we dare the feds to try to enforce it. All the feds would have to do is to file a lawsuit, so the next step really would be defiance of the federal courts.”
We’re already seeing early signs of this direction, with the recent push from the attorneys general and GOP House members seeking to overturn the 2020 election—all with little pushback from mainstream Republicans like McConnell. “It’s a very dangerous period we’re in right now,” Skocpol said. “Now, the GOP faces this dilemma. It can continue to ride this enthusiasm, but do they really want to be identified with nullification of U.S. democracy?”
All of which brings us back to the recent surge in secessionist rhetoric and how much this burgeoning, Trumpian Tea Party will continue to use secessionist threats in order to get its way. As we saw above, we’re already seeing the utility of secession as a potential threat starting to percolate among the GOP base. And researchers are taking note.
Dartmouth University’s John Carey, along with a number of colleagues, launched the Bright Line Watch initiative a few years ago, conducting regular surveys to monitor threats to American democracy. “What we’ve seen up to this point are really kind of shocking responses about confidence in the electoral process, the legitimacy of Biden’s victory, and so forth,” Carey said. “I’ve been wrong consistently in my predictions of the legs this movement has. I guess all I can expect moving forward is the utter failure to recognize the legitimacy of the Biden presidency from a significant chunk of Americans.”
Nor does Carey expect any of the trends of the past few years to abate anytime soon. “This just has that Venezuelan feel to me, where neither side is willing to recognize the legitimacy, the citizenship, the rights of their adversaries,” he added.
There is one change for Carey and his colleagues as the Biden administration opens: treating support for secession as a serious policy consideration. “We’re talking about adding questions about secession [to the surveys], which would be the first time for that,” he said. “I frankly didn’t expect to be wordsmithing questions about secession.” Much of the impetus ties directly to what we’ve seen over just the past few weeks, with the GOP’s broader assault on America’s republican underpinnings. “I’m not saying we’re at that  moment, but there just aren’t that many examples where we’ve had really sustained discussions with people who are central actors talking about not recognizing the results of a national election.”
It’s unclear what Carey and his colleagues will find—one study from Hofstra University before the election found nearly half of Republicans in favor of state-level secession if Biden won the election—or what final forms their questions will take. But it’s safe to say that, at this point, there’s a genie of secession poking its head out of the bottle and taking stock of a new world around us. As Time magazine said when awarding Biden (and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris) with its Person of the Year accolades, “While Biden will be the 46th man to serve as President, he may be the first since Lincoln to inherit a Republic that is questioning the viability of its union.”