Never Mind Marjorie Taylor Greene’s ‘National Divorce’

According to the author Richard Kreitner, the United States has always been in a troubled marriage.

Picture of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green of Georgia
Atlantic; Getty

Is it news that people are angry with Marjorie Taylor Greene?

This week, the Georgia Republican took advantage of Twitter’s newly liberalized character restrictions to do what she does best: suggest something unhinged, and sit back while her political opponents’ heads explode in white-hot rage.

“We need a national divorce,” she tweeted. “We need to separate by red states and blue states and shrink the federal government. Everyone I talk to says this.” The next day, she followed up by elaborating that she would like to see “a legal agreement” that would separate states to resolve ideological and political disagreements “while maintaining our legal union.” Rearranged this way, Americans can decide where and how to live, Greene concluded, and “we don’t have to argue with one another anymore.”

The Republican representative’s words prompted the outcry you’d expect from Democrats and columnists who questioned both her loyalty to the country and Republican leaders’ cowardice in refusing to rein her in. But Greene’s ideas are not as radical as some might be inclined to think. First, because what she’s calling for sounds not unlike Ronald Reagan’s idea of federalism. Second, because Greene is hardly the first person to suggest that the political party in power is making the United States wholly unlivable. I’m old enough to remember all the liberals who swore they’d move to Canada if Donald Trump won in 2016. (They didn’t!)

What’s interesting about Greene’s call for a “national divorce” is how it fits into a much longer history of similar calls for secession or disunion in American history—and what the growing frequency of such calls tells us about this particular modern political moment. “That it keeps coming up suggests there is something to it, and waving it away with reminders of Appomattox or quotes from Texas v. White probably isn’t going to cut it,” Richard Kreitner, the author of the 2020 book Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union, told me. This persistent theme in our politics, he added, “represents an impulse that cannot be simply wished away or ignored.”

This week, I talked with Kreitner about that constant theme—and whether it’s time for the people of the United States to reassess their 250-year union.

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Elaine Godfrey: So Marjorie Taylor Greene suggested that there should be a “national divorce” between red and blue states. Obviously, this is what Greene is good at—saying something wild, getting a reaction. What was yours?

Richard Kreitner: Calls for secession have been becoming more common, louder, and have come from more prominent figures in the 21st century. So it’s not too surprising to find somebody in House Republican leadership embracing the idea.

She’s calling for a legal agreement to separate our ideological and political disagreements by states while maintaining our legal union. That’s federalism. We can have arguments about what exactly that means, what the Founders thought it should mean, but she’s just arguing that the states should have more powers over things than the federal government. That’s the debate we’ve been having in American politics for decades.

So, to wrap it in this banner of “national divorce” seems to me to be taking advantage of all the talk of a second civil war, the boogaloo bois, and the secession talk that is growing in prominence. But each side has been talking about secession for many years—when they’re out of power. When they’re in power, they say, “Oh no, you can’t do that. That’s treasonous.”

Godfrey: When I think of secession, I think of the Civil War, and then I think of Texas. But you’ve written about how it goes back to the very beginning—how the United States has never been all that united.

Kreitner: My book starts by pointing out that the colonial period lasted 150 years—a very long time, about the same amount of time since our Civil War. And during that time, America was disunited. The colonies were, as Marjorie Taylor Greene would have them now, totally independent of one another. Their only relationship, their only political relationship, was with England itself, and that was a fairly loose relationship.

So this was the original state of things in America, one that the colonists themselves liked very much. They had control over their own affairs; there was very little meddling.

Occasionally, somebody—William Penn, Benjamin Franklin—would have the idea that it would be better to organize some kind of federation of the colonies, with Britain’s approval, to organize trade, land disputes, border issues, relationships with the Indians, and mutual defense. Every time somebody proposed that idea, they were laughed out of the room, because people considered the very idea of union to be antithetical to their cherished liberties.

Forming a union was kind of the last thing on their mind. Then we get to the Revolution. A lot of us are taught in school that the Revolution was fought to create a union, to create a nation. And it’s the exact opposite of that. The Union was created as a means to the end of securing independence from England. It was a last resort.

John Adams, when he goes to Philadelphia, is talking about how different Americans are from one another, how much they hate each other. George Washington in the Continental Army camp outside Boston in 1775 is talking about how much the New Englanders smell. Anytime these politicians meet in the Continental Congress, they’re described as a conclave of ambassadors from different nations. Many of them think a union will not survive after the war.

No golden age of American unity exists that you can point to and say, “That’s when we were united.” Even back then, people were issuing threats of secession when they were out of power, and then defending the Union as perpetual and inviolable once they had the power. Thomas Jefferson does this famous turnaround. In 1798, he mulls whether to threaten secession because he doesn’t like Adams’s administration. Then he wins the election of 1800, and says, “We must hold the Union together at any cost!” The people backing Adams now proposed secession.

Godfrey: Because of the Civil War, we think of secessionist calls as primarily reactionary. Are we right about that?

Kreitner: When I was researching, I was especially interested in whether there were any people whose values and ideals I shared—who had espoused the idea of secession not for white-supremacist reasons or to preserve slavery. I quickly landed on the abolitionists.

Many were in favor of northern secession from the Union in the years right before the Civil War. Their argument was gaining traction in the 1850s because they thought that participation in the Union was an important pillar in maintaining the institution of slavery. They thought that without the guarantee of the federal government’s aid to suppress an insurrection among the enslaved, slavery would be a much more insecure institution, the price of slaves would plummet, and the institution would die out.

John Quincy Adams, back in Congress after his presidency, introduced a petition from a group of citizens from a small town in Massachusetts demanding the dissolution of the United States, because they didn’t want their tax dollars to go toward the support of slavery anymore. These were ordinary American heroes, far from traitors.

Godfrey: Obviously the secession of the southern states was the big culmination of many years of those sentiments. When did we start hearing them again after the Civil War?

Kreitner: The Civil War was a national trauma; nearly a million people died. The fear of disunion persisted in American politics. The idea went underground for years.

In the 1890s, the populist movement and the rise of socialism in the United States were both opposed on the grounds that they were disunionist movements. Populism in the 1930s also dabbles in secessionism. That’s when a bill is introduced in a state legislature calling for secession for the first time since the Civil War, in North Dakota. Then in the ’60s, it starts to become an ethnic thing. There was the Republic of New Afrika, a movement of Black Americans in northern cities that called for the surrender of five southern states as a form of reparations for slavery. Then Hispanic Americans demanded the return of the Southwest that was lost in the Mexican-American War as a sovereign homeland. From a hippie newspaper published on the Lower East Side came a call for the creation of what was called the Underground States of America, which would be a kind of hippie confederacy. Lesbian separatist communes also envisioned themselves as secessionists.

Obviously, these were not order-shattering movements, but the idea lingered. Secession has always been available to malcontents of one kind or another. It defines American history.

Godfrey: So Marjorie Taylor Greene’s tweets are not representative of some new treasonous trend?

Kreitner: The trend is old in the sense that American politics is starting to look rather similar to the way it was in the beginning, which was extremely fractured, totally dysfunctional, with foreign enemies prowling around the perimeter to see what kind of discord they could scare up, and real questions about whether the Union could survive.

We didn’t get through because of some predestined outcome; there’s no guarantee that we’re going to stay together. In many cases, our staying together had to do with mere chance and fear of the unknown—particularly fear of the economic consequences of disunion.

Godfrey: You’re saying that the frequency of these calls is not surprising, but that we should pay attention to them.

Kreitner: We’re totally undecided on this fundamental question of “Do we want to be a multiracial democracy or not?” While we persist in having that fundamental argument, we’re going to see political tensions. And when you see that in American history, you see secessionist movements.

So the course of growing hatred, rancor, and constitutional paralysis continues. I charted quite exactly from 2004, when there were memes going around showing maps separating “Jesusland” from the United States of Canada, to 2012, when you saw all these petitions from every state in the country arguing for secession. Then, of course, in 2016, you have Calexit.

California Representative Zoe Lofgren talked about secession after the 2016 election. She said: “Rational people, not the fringe, are now talking about whether states could be separated from the U.S.” I don’t know if anybody’s quoted her in relation to Marjorie Taylor Greene, but I can’t imagine her response today would be: “Oh boy, I guess we both have this idea! Maybe let’s have a substantive conversation about the merits and the drawbacks of being in one country together.”

In the coming years, especially with the Supreme Court so heavily stacked in favor of the right, the left is going to have a lot more cause for talking about secession than the right. And I think that Marjorie Taylor Greene’s screed—insane and stupid as it is—is an invitation that should be accepted: to talk concretely about whether this thing is working or not.

Godfrey: What would the result of that conversation be?

Kreitner: I don’t know what the end of it is. But the beginning is—instead of piling on and saying, “This is treason. You can’t talk about that; it’s un-American”—that we actually are capable of not only having conversations but also making decisions about what kind of country and what kind of government we want to have.

After all, we’re not seeing any positive arguments for the union. You look at all the commentary, and you don’t see any soaring odes to our shared nationality, why it’s important for us to remain together as a people. My response to Greene is not “I must remain united with this person at any cost,” but “Why would I want to be part of a government where this person is a leading figure? Why would I want to remain loyal to a Constitution so patently broken that somebody like this ascends to the highest ranks of power?”

I don’t have a programmatic view of what should happen, no firm sense of where to draw the new borders or what to do with people stuck behind enemy lines, only an understanding, based on my reading of American history, that this is a persistent theme in our politics and represents an impulse that cannot simply be wished away or ignored.