THE United States goes to the polls today with thoughts of a second American civil war in voters’ minds. These aren’t the paranoid fantasies of liberals driven mad by Donald Trump in the White House, these are the fears of conservative scholars like Victor Davis Hanson of Stanford University’s Hoover Institute – a man who voted twice for George W Bush. Writing in the conservative National Review, Professor Hanson said that the US had”‘arrived at the brink of a veritable civil war”.

“Whether we all take a deep breath, and understand our present dangerous trajectory, will determine whether 2019 becomes 1861,” he wrote. By 1865, after four years of fighting, the civil war had claimed more American lives than any other conflict before or since.

The echoes of the civil war are everywhere. As Mr Trump ordered American troops to the US-Mexico border to deal with a “caravan” of impoverished men, women and children from Honduras, seeking a new life in America, the President turned his ire on the 14th amendment of the constitution which guarantees citizenship to anyone born in the States. Written in the aftermath of the civil war, it was expressly conceived to give equal protection under the law to former slaves.

Mr Trump is putting a crowbar into a fault-line in American life, and wrenching it open – playing to those who see “citizenship” and “white” as the same thing. The dog whistle of the 14th amendment is as alluring to a white supremacist as the word “globalist” is to an anti-Semite.

Civil conflict, though, isn’t the only dread haunting American voters as they cast their ballot in today’s crucial midterm elections – there is talk in the US every week of a slow-moving coup, of the rise of fascism, of a country so sundered it can never be put back together again. Yesterday, the great American novelist Don DeLillo said he doubted his country could recover from the Trump presidency. The truth is: America is already in a state of cold war with itself.

What happens across the Atlantic tonight will very much determine not just the future of American democracy, but the future of western democracy. If a blue wave washes over the House of Representatives, the Senate, state legislatures and governors’ mansions, then Mr Trump will have been slapped down, and his imitators around the world will sit up and take notice.

The midterm elections are an effective referendum on the President. If he’s rejected by voters, then the last two years of ethno-nationalist, nativist, xenophobic, racist, minority-bashing, populist demagoguery may well be something America and the world can look back on and heave a sigh of relief over. The car crash will have been avoided, the life support machine will not have been switched of, the fire will not have broken out in the basement while we slept.

If he is not slapped down, though – if he wins – then make no mistake, Mr Trump will be emboldened. What we’ve seen so far will be a dull appetiser to a very bloody steak as the main course. A victorious president will rightly think that his divisive and hateful policies have won the day and he will double down on them. There will be no attempt to heal any divisions because the lesson will be that causing divisions and tearing them even wider apart is what wins.

It is very difficult to be optimistic. Liberals have had the hell kicked out of them these last few years: Brexit and Trump, the rise of the hard right in Europe, the authoritarian drift across the world from Brazil to the Philippines, the dominance of the alt-right online, the normalisation of views that only a few years ago would have been beyond the pale.

Little wonder then that the liberal’s liberal Stephen Fry has pronounced the death of liberalism, saying: “We are irrelevant and outdated bystanders.” On one side, is the extremist right – bearing down on women, minorities and freedoms – and on the other side the extremist left tearing people apart for thought crime and ideological impurity. Both are obsessed with identity politics. The liberal agenda – the philosophy that set the course of western democracy since the Age of Enlightenment – now appears to be on the wrong side of history.

However, while all this makes it hard to be optimistic, there are things happening in America which give some grounds for being cautiously positive. My friends and family in the US – all of whom are Democrats – are more politicised than at any time in their lives. They are registering people to vote, knocking on doors, leafleting … however, they are doing so because they are scared. Even in a nation where random violence is everyday, the escalation in hate and terror since Mr Trump took power – bombs sent in the post to liberals, murders at a synagogue, white power rallies in the streets – has galvanised them.

With Mr Trump it is not “morning in America”, it is midnight. He is a man of dark words, he is a politician of dystopia. Victory for him tonight will cast the west into a permanent midnight. Truth will have the final nail driven into its coffin, progress will be sent tumbling back through decades, women and minorities will be in the crosshairs, decency will be silenced.

But if the tide seems to turn against him, what then? Will his base suddenly give up and go home? Will the alt-right join the American Civil Liberties Union? Will white supremacists use their tiki torches to light garden parties rather than Nazi rallies?

Mr Trump on the ropes could, in fact, be as frightening as Trump ascendant. Of course, revivified Democrats could start impeachment proceedings, but might a wounded Trump not trammel up the worst excesses of his base? Many have wondered if he loses in 2020 whether he would actually accept the result and leave the White House – or how his base would react. Remember it’s Trump supporters with all the guns.

The spectre of civil unrest, and the unhealed wounds of more than 150 years of American history, hang over today’s elections in a way they have hung over no election since 1865. This is a day in which the ghosts of the civil war will be watching very closely from their one million graves.