Gallons of ink and an even greater amount of words have been spent on whether or not indicting former president Donald Trump will help or hinder his return to the Oval Office. It appears likely to bolster his odds of getting the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, but that’s not the interesting question, nor the important one. 

The indictment of Donal Trump needs to be understood within the larger context of what is currently happening in the country. America is experiencing what author and researcher of Christian nationalism, Jeff Sharlet calls a “slow civil war”. A phrase important enough to make up the subtitle of his latest book, The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War, in which Sharlet shares a collection of stories detailing the combatants in that war. He routinely asked Trump’s “believers” if they thought there would be a civil war. He reports they all said “yes” with many believing “it was already here.”

This civil war is not as locationally bound as the last one. Although, it may not be entirely accurate to distinguish the two since in many ways, the current fight is merely a continuation of the one that “ended” at Appomattox over 150 years ago. When Reconstruction was defeated by a combination of Republican apathy and concerted Democrat aggression, even the mirage of justice became a rarity in the South. Southern whites rallied against “government overreach” and launched a barely concealed war on the large black population. The weapons in this war included lynching, political violence, false arrests, convict labor, Jim Crow, voter intimidation, ballot burning, and more. The federal government, abandoning its promises of protection, land redistribution, and reparations, managed to step in just enough to ensure a culture of white grievance was cemented in the South. 

One man made it his mission to spread that culture of grievance to the rest of the country. That man was famous segregationist George Corley Wallace. 

…his shrewd capacity to redirect overt racism toward safer terrain: hostility toward the federal government that threatened white freedom. Being against the feds rather than directly against African Americans gave him more latitude, more deniability, more appeal, and more electoral power—while still capturing the vote of the most diehard racist. 

Historian Jefferson Cowie was writing about Wallace, but one can’t help but imagine it equally describing Donald Trump. Cowie’s book, Freedom’s Dominion, pinpoints George Wallace’s ability to channel various forms of bigotry into a unified form of white grievance. Another excerpt from Cowie’s book could also be about either figure.

“Moderation,” he claimed, “was political suicide.” Wallace based his tactics, he explained later in life, on giving “the people something to dislike and hate.” He mobilized voters by creating “a straw man for them to fight.” He believed enemies were inherent in all politics. “They’d rather be against something than for something,”

Trump is regularly hailed as some sort of political anomaly, his pending arraignment seemingly adding to his unique position in history. However, George Wallace, who was also indicted, provides a close historical analog with parallels that elucidate the dangers ahead. Some have noted these close connections before. The New York Times ran an article 3 years ago highlighting similarities in their presidential campaigns, speeches, politics, and constituency. Wallace, like Trump, started relatively progressive but did an about-face when he caught the scent of something more politically pungent. Neither stuck to any foundational beliefs or ideology, being more than happy to float along whatever current kept them in favor, each an expert at turning lost battles into wars won. 

For Wallace, one such lost battle was his 1959 defiance of a federal court order to turn over voter registration records to the US Commission on Civil Rights. Afraid of actually serving time, Wallace cleverly concocted a way of relieving himself of the records while still appearing to stand up to the federal government. He used his day in federal court as political pageantry. Pitching himself as a defender of freedom and protector of the common man with statements like, “I will stand up and defend the rights of the people of Alabama, regardless of the personal sacrifices. That is the motto on which this great state was built: We dare defend our rights.” He was acquitted. 

Trump has his own battles, which although lost, have propelled him higher and higher. Mexico never paid for the wall, Hillary is not locked up, and the swamp is as swampy as ever. These lost battles only demonstrate to his base that the war is real and in need of warriors. 

Wallace and Trump present themselves as defenders of freedom, but only a specific type of freedom. The freedom to dominate; whites to dominate blacks, Christians to dominate everyone. The freedom to dominate is regularly cloaked in the “state rights” mantra. But that white sheet is quickly yanked away by simply asking, “A state’s right to do what exactly?”

“State rights vs federal power” has always been a winning controversy, and Trump has capitalized upon it by packing his own struggles against law enforcement into pre-existing far-right tropes. But what if there was something even sexier? Something like an invisible super-government. One that is controlled by shadowy figures, possibly lizards, who can be counted on for any number of dastardly deeds and who have last names like Soros and Rothschild? Trump didn’t even have to do the hard work of creating this alternative reality, he only needed to throw a few “OK” hand gestures and a couple cryptic tweets and his position in it was secure. A constituency that has suffered decades of austerity and broad deindustrialization and has been fed a toxic brine of Christian nationalist conspiracy theories is more than ready to buy into Trump’s MCU “deep state” warrior persona, adding their own favorite fan fiction along the way. 

Without mentioning him by name, Jeff Sharlet delineates the connections between Wallace’s old-school racism and Trump’s new bizarro world.

In 2016, the Trump faith was Make America Great Again, the prospect of the restoration of a mythic (read: White) past. By the second campaign the new religion was a secret one, its enemy invisible and everywhere: the deep state, the pedos and the FBI, Democrat-ruled sanctuary cities and the “illegals” they sent forth to pillage the heartland. 

Since 2016, Christian nationalists have forced analogies between Trump and Biblical figures who, although flawed, progressed God’s will. They started with King Cyrus (a pagan king “moved by God” to allow the Israelites to return to Jerusalem) and then slowly evolved to King David. Now with his arraignment landing on Holy Week, even Jesus can’t escape comparison to the reality TV star. These comparisons help to cement Trump and “God’s will” into an indistinguishable mass.

So, what effect will the government coming down hard on a pseudo-religious figurehead have on a movement? Especially a movement with increasingly violent tendencies? 

Like Wallace, Trump will use his indictment as theater, and it will be successful theater. Fresh in the minds of rightwingers everywhere are the martyrs of Ruby Ridge, Waco, Jan 6, and if the “elites” get their way, Donald J. Trump. They see Trump as having a target on his back because he stands up for the little guy by protecting a besieged Christianity against the literal forces of evil. It will matter little whether or not he is found guilty. Not to the movement he represents. 

The validity of the 34 charges is already moot. His base does not care if he legally or illegally paid a pornstar. His base is primarily made up of Christian nationalists ready to ignore any transgression as long as their chosen one advances their particular form of Christian fascism.

If he is found guilty, Trump’s voters will see it as a political ploy by baby-eating Democrats and it will mobilize the troops, likely to violence. If he is found not guilty, Christian nationalists will see the verdict as a failed political ploy that God’s anointed has overcome. The violence may be postponed, but the readiness for it will have already been made. 

Wallace bottled and sold the ire of a resentful South and used his indictment as a catalyst for a new political movement that swept the entire country. Trump is picking up where Wallace left off and he has already shown a willingness to condone, even encourage violence. With or without Donald Trump in prison, the “slow civil war” will likely speed up. 

This conclusion puts the potential trial in perspective, and as Sharlet’s The Undertow makes quite clear, Trump is only the most visible general in a war being fought by millions of foot soldiers. As the legal battle consumes every minute of cable news airtime, important battles are being waged across the country. In the time since the news of Trump’s indictment broke, multiple states including Texas, North Carolina, Kansas, Florida, Idaho, and Tennessee have all passed, or are in the process of passing, severe Christian Fascist legislation. Trump’s indictment is simply the brightest match being put to an already smoldering fire.  

Lance Aksamit is the Associate Editor at Flux and the author of Youth Group, coming of age in the church of Christian nationalism.