Dec. 13, 2020 | The United States
This will be my last letter.
Since I began writing you in January, our country has been turned upside down. The president, after being impeached by the House of Representatives, was acquitted by the Senate. A lethal pandemic has claimed the lives of nearly 300,000 Americans, and hundreds of thousands more have been hospitalized. The economy collapsed, forcing tens of millions of people into the unemployment line. Demonstrators took to the streets, some in the name of racial justice, others to protest the government closing their businesses and schools.
Throughout it all, I endeavored to keep you connected to the rest of the country—to attach names and faces to those ordinary Americans, your fellow citizens far removed from stations of influence and power, who actually hold in their hands the fate of this democratic experiment. I wanted you to know what was on their minds and in their hearts. From the mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania to the desert wilderness of New Mexico, while sitting in the backseats of Uber vehicles and standing outside of voting precincts and touring shuttered restaurants, I detected one common feeling that binds together this deeply fractured nation: fear.
Fear of violence. Fear for their livelihoods. Fear of far-left socialism or far-right authoritarianism. Fear that our best days are behind us. Fear that America is no longer capable of conquering its great challenges. Above all, fear that we are too alienated, too angry with each other, too fundamentally misunderstood by the other half of society to ever truly heal.
That was before the election in November. Before a winner was declared—and before the loser, instead of conceding defeat and participating in a peaceful transfer of power, raged baselessly about a conspiracy to overthrow him from office. Now, nearly six weeks after Election Day, we are still somehow mired in a partisan feud over the result—despite a screaming chorus of bipartisan elections officials and nonpartisan judges telling us that it’s not in question, that it’s over, that Joe Biden won and Donald Trump lost.
This is a tense juncture in our country’s history. To better understand it, I reached out to some friends I’ve made this year.
Since this series began, nearly 1,000 people wrote to me with suggestions of places I should visit, communities I should write about, movements I should cast light upon. But they also offered a window into their own American stories. They told me of suffering and brokenness, of warring families and wrecked relationships, of institutional abandonment and deep-seated distrust. The same fear that I heard in the voices of people I interviewed on the road leaped off the page in these notes from folks I’d never met.
So rather than take a final trip to a single location, I thought I would send you one letter from many places. I decided I should introduce you, Washington, to some of the people who have most affected me. After lengthy individual exchanges with a much larger group—probing each person with questions about their politics and their lives and their faith in this nation—I settled on this group. Think of them as 20 Americans who can help us understand 2020.
They are not a statistically perfect sample of the electorate. They will not check every box or speak to every possible viewpoint of the roughly 160 million Americans who voted this year. What they will do, both individually and collectively, is provide a depth of perspective that cannot be captured in infographic maps or exit polls or social media posts. With half of this country bewildered by the motivations and rationales of the other half, these 20 citizens can help us understand this moment in America—and maybe, just maybe, understand each other.
CHIP SKELTON wrote me back in January, after I’d visited a Michigan gun show for the debut piece in this series. “I don’t own a gun. They sorta make me nervous, actually. I’m an artist … I collect comics and love scifi. I smoke weed. I’m mostly socially liberal. Guess I’m a hippie,” Skelton wrote at the time. “But, I am a working-class conservative (politically and fiscally), lower-middle class, with the yawning chasm of poverty waking me and dogging me to sleep as we teeter on its edge. Just wanted to say Thank you … for being respectful, even if you thought the gun show people were crazy. It takes a wide swath of humanity to make this country great. It’s [a] pity we can’t be more kind to each other.”
When I checked in with Skelton after the election, he sounded defeated on this front. “To be honest, it’s all really begun to wear on me, the closed-minded tribalism that’s infected our nation,” he wrote. “My own daughter isn’t speaking to me because—in her mind—I’m part of the wrong tribe. I’m heartbroken. I don’t understand it all. And when you suffer from depression and other emotional issues that’s a shitty place to be.”
Ultimately, Skelton said, he voted for Trump despite the president’s “lack of empathy for the Covid issue and his nonstop penchant for idiotic rhetoric.” It all came down to the size and the role of government—an antiquated notion in this age of culture war politics—and Skelton felt Biden was “not a good fit” for his worldview. He has been pleasantly surprised that the post-election chaos hasn’t spilled over into violence. What hasn’t surprised him is the escalating hostility between partisans.
“The U.S. works because of that passionate tug-of-war, and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Skelton said. “[But] it strikes me as odd how we’ve come to believe those thinking different from us are somehow evil.”
After writing about my summer afternoon at a Black cookout near Detroit—technically, in the adjacent community of Grosse Pointe Woods—I received an email from ANDREA HARP. As it turned out, she had been at the cookout that day, and she disagreed with the disillusionment expressed by her friends and neighbors as it pertained to Joe Biden and the Democratic Party. “I would love to have the opportunity to chat with you just to provide some additional insight,” Harp wrote. “This upcoming presidential election is VERY important to me and many others around the country.”
Looking back on that summer email, Harp explained, “I believed strongly that [Biden] was the only candidate that could rally the Democratic Party enough to win. I was genuinely excited about him running and hoped he would pick a black woman as his VP. … After the year we’ve had, I know that many black people are hoping for radical change. I want that too, but I believe there is so much work to be done. For me, Joe Biden as president is the beginning of that work.”
But for all the promise brought by Biden’s victory, she said, “The days after the election were some of the most stressful days of 2020 for my family and me. Every day there was some new lie or misleading fact. I was surprised at how many people actually believed the nonsense.” It was a harsh reminder, Harp told me, of how shattered America is—and how hard it will be to piece back together.
“I want to believe in this country so badly it hurts. Unfortunately, I am not very confident about the state of our country,” Harp said. “This year has opened old wounds and exposed issues that many people thought were resolved. We as a country have to be honest about where we are in order to heal and move forward together.”
I hoped to make it to Utah in 2020—in part, because of what JESS CLARK told me. A lifelong Republican, Clark wrote earlier this year to discuss his “very religious and conservative state” that had rebelled against Trump in 2016 but warmed to him after he took office. “There are so many people here who cursed the moral lack-of-values of the Democratic Party for years,” Clark said. But with Trump, he noted, “It’s a lot of, ‘Yeah, he’s immoral but he’s getting stuff done.’ Sounds like selling your soul to the devil.”
When I checked in after the election, Clark clarified that he’d supported Evan McMullin, the third-party independent, in 2016. As for 2020: “I voted for Biden/Harris this round, as did multiple of my siblings (I’m from a large, Mormon family). I felt like Trump and his style actually led to much of the inflamed emotion we see across the board today. He made no attempt to work across the aisle. He made no attempt to be decent. He valued loyalty over ethics,” Clark wrote. “I’m hoping Biden/Harris can represent a cooling off period, restore faith in our elected leaders and the process, and get back to debating issues like adults.”
But Clark isn’t optimistic. What he and many of his like-minded Biden Republicans worry about, Clark said, is Democrats using their power to escalate tensions on matters such as “religious liberty, abortion, gun rights, federal judges, being force-fed liberal stances on LGBTQ issues, etc.” He explained how his brother, a reluctant Trump voter, only backs the president because he felt “beat down” by the “definite double standard” applied to conservatives in the workplace and across popular culture. Republicans, he said, are “sick and tired of conservative values always losing out to liberal ones.”
This sense of grievance—which is ruthlessly exploited by the “entertainment” wing of the media, Clark noted—threatens to lock the country into an inexorable cycle of polarization. Can anything be done to defuse it? “I’m not super confident,” he said.
Four years ago, when he woke to a message from his adult daughter about Trump defeating Hillary Clinton, KEN DAVIS was “very surprised.” This year, he was prepared for the outcome. “Although Trump was successful in accomplishing many of the things he set out to do (most notably a booming economy and record low unemployment, and appointment of judges who judge rather than legislate), he was vehemently opposed by the entire media establishment (and unfairly so in most respects in my opinion) and united the Democratic Party against himself,” Davis told me. “It would have been as amazing for him to win this time as it was when he won the first time.”
But there’s another reason Davis expected Trump to lose. “It seems a Republican for president always has to win by a large enough margin to overcome the widespread election fraud that Democrats seem so comfortable with and prone toward. He failed to do that,” David wrote. “I thought it remarkable that what I regard as credible-sounding fraud allegations are getting so little attention.” (By way of substantiation, he cited three articles in the American Spectator.)
Davis does not present as a political extremist. He is educated and professionally accomplished. He voted for Trump because of the GOP’s positions on “immigration, judges, taxes, and regulations,” but made clear that Trump is “not admirable as a person” and would have done a better job “by being a little less pugnacious and more presidential after he entered the office.” He says America needs “a leader on one side or the other who can reconcile the polarization and appeal to the constructive impulses of people on each side, red and blue.”
And yet, Davis is himself quite obviously a victim of that polarization. He warned that “many very bad things might happen” if Democrats achieve a one-vote Senate majority. He criticized Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s intelligence, calling it “sad that someone of such limited abilities can attain high office.” The bottom line, he said, is that “The Democrats have gone completely nuts, with ‘defund the police,’ open borders, tolerance of riots, 1619, men can become women/women can become men, socialism, etc.”
Davis added, “I’d have voted for any Republican in the face of that.”
Maine’s 2nd District flipped from Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016, and then from Republican control to Democratic control in 2018. Throw in this year’s marquee U.S. Senate race between incumbent Susan Collins and challenger Sara Gideon, and it’s easy to see why BRENDA POWER’s backyard was supposed to be the ultimate national bellwether of 2020.
Except that it wasn’t. Having studied up ahead of the election, crunching the numbers to assuage her concerns about another Trump upset, she felt betrayed by the final results. “Sara Gideon led in every single Senate poll for the entire campaign. Sue Collins easily beat her. In Wisconsin, Biden barely squeaked out a win after double digit polling leads. If a Green [Party] candidate had been on the ballot in Wisconsin, Arizona, and Georgia, Trump would likely have won his second term, even though the polls said that victory was near impossible,” Power told me. “Our political culture keeps investing its faith in numbers [and] there is a huge disconnect between those numbers and the reality on the ground.”
She continued, “I read my local newspaper (Bangor ME Daily News) as well as the New York Times and Washington Post every day, as well as many other publications like Politico. I don’t have a clue what the mood in the country is,” she told me. “We need a qualitative revolution in political reporting. The constant one-off trips of NYC and DC based reporters to Ohio diners to interview four random Trump voters once every six months has to end. Instead, we need reporters who live in or at least embed in purple communities all over the country for months so that they can get a real sense of what voters are thinking.”
Power hopes to bridge that gap within her own family. She voted for Biden because of Trump’s “immoral” behavior, which “goes against everything our parents taught us.” And yet, she said, the family is split “50/50” between parties. This has compelled Power to open a long, earnest dialogue with her sister, a Trump voter in western New York, with both women more determined than ever to better understand the other. “I know voters like her are truly offended that they are dismissed as racist, and I know she struggles sometimes with the behavior of Republican politicians (as I have struggled at times with Democrats),” Power said. “It makes me sad to see so many families torn apart by politics. I’m determined it won’t happen to mine.”
Much like Brenda Power, LI-HSIANG YI believes he was raised with a value system that prohibits a vote for Trump. The only problem? His parents both voted for the man. “My father pastors a conservative church here in indigo-blue Berkeley, where I attend college,” Yi wrote me earlier this year. “So when you talk about avoiding easy cliches in pursuit of a perhaps more difficult, but ultimately better view, that’s a goal I can appreciate, maybe more than a few others.”
When I followed up after the election, Yi offered an engrossing synopsis of the generational divide within American evangelicalism. “Both my parents voted for Donald Trump, along with so many of the older immigrant members of the congregation, while the younger members opted for Biden,” Yi said. “My father told me about a pastor-deacon board meeting they had the weekend after the election where they observed how [even] though so many of them voted for Trump, so many of their kids had voted for Biden. One of the deacons joked that when his adult child questioned how he could vote for Trump when Trump so viciously defied all the Christian characteristics the deacon had hammered into him growing up, he found himself at an absolute loss for words.”
Ultimately, Yi told me, he voted for Biden “because I think he’ll make things more stable. Also, he seems capable enough of carrying the nation’s grief in a way Trump can’t.” Hoping for an equally nuanced explanation from his father, Yi was disappointed. “My dad will freely admit his view that Trump bungled Covid and tens of thousands died because of it. He detests Trump’s behavior. He thinks Trump’s response to the George Floyd protests was completely inadequate,” Yi explained. “But he also believes he has to take the long view: that with Democrats in power, evangelicals will be unable to profess their beliefs and be driven from society.”
The worst thing about today’s political climate, Yi said, isn’t that he can’t convince his parents to think the way he does. It’s that oftentimes, he can’t get through to them at all. “I’ll leave it to your imagination how deep they are in the electoral fraud rabbit hole, and how little I feel like I can do to change their minds, except to say that nothing that comes from the mouth of the mainstream press passes muster with them,” Yi told me. “They think all the stuff I read (Politico, The Atlantic, The New York Times) is biased beyond redemption. You guys can’t reach these folks anymore.”
You never know who’s going to lecture you about being condescended to. Sometimes, it’s a camouflage-clad farmer at a gun show. Other times, it’s a white-collar type like LOU KNAPP, who was born in Washington, D.C., earned multiple college degrees, lived for 40 years inside the Beltway while running a large consulting firm… and wrote to me after reading about that very gun show. “Your brilliant article exquisitely captures what the coastal elites ‘just plain don’t get,’ or more properly ‘don’t want to get.’” Knapp said.
There’s an essential truth at work here. In my reporting these last five years, I’ve often found that the conservatives most offended by Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” line weren’t the tobacco-spitting, rifle-lugging, Bible-thumping caricatures from the left’s fever dreams. Instead, it was people like Knapp—affluent, well-educated, worldly—who took umbrage at the notion that they ought to know better than to vote the way they do. “There is a frightening, religious-like self-assurance among those on the Left (the ‘know it alls’) that they have the truth by the tail and are endowed by God with the obligation to stuff their wisdom down the unwilling throats of ‘non-believers,’” Knapp wrote me after Election Day.
Ironically, Knapp shared an insight that would make him a heretic—not to mention a RINO, an out-of-touch elitist—in conservative circles. “Even among those who voted for Trump, there is a keen disappointment in how poorly he has handled the [presidency]. It has proved to many observers that even if he had the right answers to American domestic and foreign policy, he was in the wrong job,” Knapp wrote. He called the president “arrogant and overbearing.” That he voted for Trump anyway—primarily due to “his emphasis on law and order” and support for the Second Amendment—should not diminish the point. Knapp himself was a suitable executive. He knows a suitable executive when he sees one. Trump, he told me, is not a suitable executive.
Based on Knapp’s own observations, it’s clear that not everyone who voted for Biden did so to advance a radical leftist agenda. Some thought Trump was overmatched; others simply couldn’t stand him. And yet, Knapp didn’t seem interested in deviating from a zero-sum outlook. Among Republicans, he said, “There is dire concern that—without Trump—their ‘backs are to the wall’ and no further compromise is tolerable.”
I asked whether he was confident that America might come together. “The tinder is very dry,” Knapp warned, “and one spark could set off raging fires far more difficult to control than to start.”
I’ve encountered some colorful characters in 2020, in person and over the internet, but none quite like CHARLIE WILSON. Here’s a snippet of the introductory email he sent me early this year: “I had two careers: professional journalist 1979-1990, finance 1990-2002. Have traveled to all 50 states. … Grew up in Milwaukee and have lived in Iowa (3 years); Kansas City (2 years); L.A. (only 8 months); Washington, D.C. (5 years); Boston (11 years); Seattle (16 years); Klickitat County (2-1/2 years). Have traveled to 26 countries. Same-sex married since the Supremes legalized it. Life member NRA, 15 guns and ‘enough’ ammo. Democrat for 40 years, now independent. Write-in vote last time. Changed my mind on gun control and global warming within the past 5 years. Drive an electric car and a 1-ton diesel pickup truck.”
It’s impossible to synopsize the entirety of our exchange, which touched on everything from “rampant” voter fraud to implicit media bias to the parallels between the pre-Civil War “Jacksonian period” and today. (He didn’t explain his vote for Kanye West, though given his disdain for both parties and his asymmetric beliefs, he didn’t need to.) The most provocative passages he sent me—after offering evidence that he’d donated considerable money to Democratic Party before leaving it after the 2012 election—detailed the failures of the modern left.
“What’s especially striking to me is the reversal of the long historical pattern of the Rs representing the well-off and the Ds representing the struggling working people. That has reversed here just as it has nationally: The wealthier someone is around here, the more likely they are to be D,” Wilson wrote. “There is a great deal of laughable moral smugness, unearned intellectual conceit, and offensive economic snobbery that goes with it. The Democratic Party that I knew and supported for 40 years was on the side of the working people, but that just isn’t true now, either legislatively or culturally.”
“There is more diversity of opinion and outlook along the five-mile road between us and the nearest town than there was in all of Seattle, Boston, or Washington, D.C., where I lived and worked for a combined total of 32 years,” he added. “The idea that people in rural areas think alike, and even worse, that they don’t think at all, is widely held on the coasts and especially in the media, and couldn’t possibly be more ignorant and obnoxious.”
Wilson concluded, “I cannot emphasize this strongly enough: If Democrats want to ‘unify’ the country—and I frankly don’t believe that they do—they’d get off their god damned high horses for once, and ditch their overweening, self-declared superiority, and join the human race.”
When I first heard from CYNTHIA BROWNING, her fury was reserved for the Detroit Democrats I’d quoted in June’s cookout letter. “I was somewhat sickened by the privileged black folks at the event lamenting over how bad life is for them and then praying for a white Democrat to save us, while they stay ‘secure in their suffering’ in the safe suburbs of Detroit,” Browning, who is Black, wrote. “In the meantime, our children are being MURDERED in the streets on a daily basis. The saddest part is that more than likely, our murdered children were murdered by someone who looks just like them. What has any one of those persons in that room done to address this issue?”
Fast forward to November. Browning was still fuming—but not over questions of racial politics. Instead, Browning, like so many Republicans I’ve communicated with, believed the election had been stolen. “When I went to sleep, Donald Trump was on a clear path to re-election. I woke up the next morning to see Joe Biden had surged ahead. From the information I have been reading since, it is obvious to me that a massive election fraud has occurred and I am frightened because it seems the media is gaslighting us about it,” she told me. “If this election fraud is not righted, I fear that we as a nation are done. … I think we could be headed to another Civil War and I am not an alarmist.”
When I pressed Browning, an attorney, on her claims of mass fraud, she responded by citing pro-Trump affidavits (many of which flopped in the courts), a video supposedly showing Atlanta poll workers secretly counting suitcases of ballots (which was debunked by Fox News, among other outlets), and said she did not trust Attorney General Bill Barr, a Trump loyalist, who had declared there was no evidence of fraud that would overturn the election result.
But my more pressing question for Browning was about “Civil War.” What would that look like?
“All this Covid nonsense has many Americans on edge. Add to that all the infringements on our civil liberties by overbearing politicians who frolic and dine without masks over the past year,” she replied. “If these fraud allegations are not thoroughly investigated by our legislatures and courts, to most of us, that will appear as though the ballot box, the judiciary, and the legislature has failed us. … The 74 million+ Americans who legally voted for DJT are working within the legal system to challenge the election and have every legal vote counted. If there is no transparency and no real attempt to get to the bottom of what looks like election fraud and the theft of the Presidency, these folks, mostly staunch believers in the 2A, may rise up. I would not be surprised if we had an armed conflict if they proceed with installing Biden after all this.”
BRADY JAMES was one of the people who emailed me on multiple occasions with ideas of places to visit and angles to pursue. The first suggestion was his hometown of Fairfield, Texas, where his ultra-conservative family was shunning him for becoming an outspoken progressive activist; the second was his adopted city of Dallas, where he had found diverse surroundings and was working for an LGBTQ advocacy group, Equality Texas.
When I reached out to James, it seemed obvious that these two pitches were interconnected. He was already struggling with a lack of acceptance because of his progressive beliefs; after coming out of the closet last year, James said, the political friction with his family became altogether unsustainable. “There have been times where I’ve tried to keep the peace and stay quiet, but then at some point I’ll lose my patience and feel the need to stick up for my beliefs,” James explained. “What generally happens from that point is that we end up getting into an argument, then a handful of family members will gang up on me, and when I defend myself or get angry because of that, it somehow always ends up being my fault, even though I never started talking politics to begin with. It’s exhausting, and the conflict feels endless, calcified, and immovable.”
James says he votes Democratic “for a multitude of reasons,” chief among them the party’s support for gay rights. His family members, on the other hand, “sincerely believe that Democrats and the left are purposefully trying to destroy the country.” To James, this creates a foundational impasse. He has tried to breach it. “I ended up getting into an email discussion with a conservative family member this past summer,” James said. “It started off really well, then at some point, it devolved into us talking at each other, instead of listening to each other. It got so heated and so polarized, and now we aren’t even speaking.”
These experiences have left James hopeless about the prospect of political reconciliation. “I guess I just think it’s always going to be like this,” he told me. “If I’m having this much trouble finding any common ground with my conservative family members whom I love and with whom I have a lifetime of shared experience (and shared values—or so I thought), then how are we supposed to find unity as a country?”
Whenever I mingle with a crowd of voters, or speak to some group about politics, there is always one person fixated on the evils of the two-party system. In this particular setting, that person was STEVEN ROSENTHAL.
“As with many if not most of our large institutions, these two parties are hollowed out,” Rosenthal wrote me early this year. “We saw in 2016, two outsiders, Sanders and Trump—not even historical members of the parties—were arguably the only candidates who brought any real dynamism to the race, whereas if these organizations were strong and highly functional, they wouldn’t even have permitted them to run under their party’s banners.”
In this regard, Rosenthal is a man after my own heart: I’m a firm believer that no conversation about institutional decline in America can he had without examining the deterioration of both major parties as gatekeepers to separate serious people from sideshows. “This duopoly is attached like a barnacle to the ship of state,” Rosenthal continued. “When we talk about voter suppression, that suppression is carried out in the interest of the political parties, not the government. As such, it is racketeering. … No parties? More parties? Reformed parties? Regulated parties? I don’t know, and we won’t without serious discourse, and we know we can’t count of the parties themselves to initiate it.”
As it pertained to this election, I asked Rosenthal how that view of a corrupted two-party “duopoly” informed his own vote for Biden. “Both in this year and in ‘16, I was struck by how unserious people are about the actual job of being the chief executive of the United States. Most people it seems are more discriminating in choosing a car mechanic than they are in electing the occupant of the Oval Office,” he replied. “All other things aside, Trump’s basic lack of competency disqualifies him. I’m pretty sure a lot of people who voted for him wouldn’t want him for a boss, co-worker, or subordinate, yet they vote for him the way they might vote for a contestant on a tv reality show.”
All of this returns to an evaluation of core competency—something Rosenthal, like many Americans I’ve met, believes is the responsibility of the parties themselves (“These are private organizations,” he said) when vetting their candidates. “One more thing that requires discussion,” Rosenthwal wrote me. “How is it that the entire chain of command of our nuclear arsenal must pass rigorous security clearances except the person with their finger on the trigger?”
After my July letter from Scranton, DIANA DOUGLAS reached out to applaud our “reporting on the heartbeat in America” and suggest I visit her slice of central Florida. But it was her personal outlook on the election that most intrigued me. “I’m 55 and was a lifelong Republican up until a few months ago when I switched to Independent. I voted for Trump and thoroughly regret my decision. He’s such a mean spirited and arrogant person,” Douglas wrote at the time. But, she added, “I will not vote for Biden.”
In my experience, people like Douglas—who swear off one candidate, while claiming they can’t vote for the alternative, either—usually wind up choosing the clichéd “lesser of two evils.” There’s a reason third-party voting remains an afterthought in presidential elections: As satisfying as it sounds to spurn both major tickets, once people step foot into the ballot booth, they decide they want their vote to be consequential. So, I reached out after the election, to ask Douglas what she ultimately decided to do.
“Trump is an asshole,” she began. “I voted for him because I believe in second chances and I believe he represented what people want in America. He represented change. There was supposedly a shortage of change, coinage, in America, but I feel that a shortage of change is also existing in politics. Biden represents over 40 years in U.S. government with not much to show for it. He plans to raise our taxes. What we are currently paying in taxes is not justified. In Biden’s over 40 years in public office, he should’ve achieved something significant in regards to fiscal responsibility and he did not. His VP, Harris, is purported to be more left leaning then Biden. This concerns me deeply. I am not willing to fund liberal agendas. We are nearing retirement and are not willing to jeopardize the decades we’ve worked to secure a comfortable existence because politicians think we should fund their political agendas.”
Douglas noted how split her family was: Her father and one brother voted for Trump, while her mother and other brother voted for Biden. While she and her husband both supported Trump, their daughters backed Biden—and pleaded with their folks to reconsider. Douglas said the girls “will understand better” her decision to support the president’s reelection once they’re older. For now, she told me, “They said they still love me for voting for Trump.”
DUANE COYLE had a lot to say about a lot of things.
He riffed on why he’d never want to live in New York City; how voters flocked to Trump as a “middle finger” to elites even though he didn’t improve their lives; what politics has done to his family; and how “pissed” he was that Kansas’s Senate nominee, Barbara Bollier, “pronounced her name in the French way, Boll-yay.”
On his own politics—why he left the Democratic Party after 2012, and left the top of the ticket blank in 2020—Coyle explained: “I have been a social-issue liberal since junior high… I don’t care about transgenderism, but I believe a cake maker should have the right not to make a cake for a coming-out-transgender party if he or she doesn’t want to. I am not a so-called ‘progressive’ when it comes to their demands to jack up taxes… quash free speech, make me march down the street self-flagellating in a new cultural revolution for being a white man born in the mid-50s and financially successful, forgive student debt (really, really???), try to take my guns (‘try’ being the key word there, in which case they will no doubt get my guns but only after they kill me), and dictate terms from ‘blue’ big cities as to how [we live] in the hinterland.”
But Coyle saved his most remarkable observations for the subject of Americans‘ tribalism.
“We in the U.S. treat politics the way Europeans regard soccer; we would just as soon kill our opponent’s fans were it not for the forces of law and order. I think by and large the right hates the left and vice versa, and enjoy it,” he told me. “I ascribe the ‘Americanness’ of the 50s, 60s and 70s to the fact the men of that generation all served in some branch of the military (up until Vietnam, at least), and as such respected each other because all had served. … It didn’t matter if you were a big businessman or a janitor, if you had served you recognized the other man. Now, Americans have little in common.”
Coyle added, “I think it is pretty obvious that America vis-à-vis its federal government does not have the ability to solve ‘big problems,’ if we are talking about social and economic inequality. In terms of making a laser that can shoot down an alien spaceship, I think we can do that. But … we have no common cause big enough to bring us together. Maybe if China declared war and we fought a conventional war with them? We would surely lose as we are not the people who went off to fight the Germans and the Japanese (or even the North Vietnamese), but we might get that warm, fuzzy feeling of togetherness again.”
If two of the other Black voters I communicated with were split on Biden and the Democratic Party—Andrea Harp embracing the nominee with real enthusiasm, Cynthia Browning leaving “the plantation” and voting for Trump—then KEVIN HENDERSON fell somewhere in the middle.
“I don’t love the Democratic party. I know few black people who do. I’m also a Christian and the lack of respect for Faith by some elements of the Democratic party is a turn off,” Henderson wrote me this summer. “I vote for Democrats as an act of self protection. A rear guard action.… Since staying home isn’t an option, I can only vote for the options on my ballot (voting for quixotic third party candidates is like staying at home). I don’t expect Democrats to make things better for Black people but I know things could be worse. I view the Republican Party as promoting policies that will harm Black people.”
I followed up with Henderson recently, asking for his feelings about the election and how it informed his view of race relations in America. He responded with a detailed, gripping history of his family’s multi-generational fight to overcome the obstacles placed in its way. It’s because of their determination, he said, that he cannot succumb to the pessimism he sometimes feels.
“The family members who raised me never gave up on America in spite of America, as Doc Rivers said, not always loving them back. They had no way of knowing the form of Jim Crow they grew up with would end until it did,” he said. “Generations of slaves had no reason to believe it would ever end. But then it did end. My family members loved God and didn’t abandon the church even when their denomination practiced Jim Crow. They were optimistic people. As my paternal grandmother used to say to me, life will get better.…For me to give up on this country would be to dishonor my ancestors and all of the sacrifices they made so I and the generations after me could have a better life. To honor them I must give hope to the next generation like they did for my generation.”
In conclusion, Henderson itemized the “big problems” facing the country—from racial inequality to climate change, old infrastructure to health care costs—and said, “Why am I confident? I think people want these problems solved. Because we’re America and getting stuff done is what we do. Even if sometimes it takes us longer than it should to get there.”
LUCY HORTON once hoped for a “blue wave” this November. A veteran Democratic activist in the Lehigh Valley, she devoted herself in 2018 to the cause of flipping Pennsylvania’s 7th District. With that accomplished, she entered 2020 with high hopes of pummeling Trump and his party in a landslide election. As the year went on, however, Horton’s confidence waned. During her regular “street protests,” she encountered an intensity among Trump supporters that took her aback. This was all the truer, she said, when the president came to town.
“Nobody ever threatened me, but I saw the passion of his devotees close up, very close up. It equaled and probably surpassed their passion for their football team (around here, mostly the Eagles). Among themselves they laughed and joked and were suffused with joy,” Horton told me. “Viewed from further back, Trumpism looks like a hatefest, but close up, it felt like a lovefest. Trump was feeding them something they needed.”
Horton was “vastly relieved” when Biden carried Pennsylvania, she said. But his narrow margin—and the GOP’s gains down ballot—suggest the gulf between the two parties has never been wider. “As to how Biden could reach out to these people, I do not know. I strongly suspect that guns are a much, much bigger issue than we would like to think with this demographic, along with ‘white pride,’” she said. “They are convinced Democrats will come for their guns.”
As for the country? “I am an optimist by nature, but I am very disturbed by what I am seeing. It seems that millions of people have no ability to determine what is a fact,” Horton said. “I particularly fear that the denialism about COVID-19 presages public reaction if we were to face an existential threat like a dramatic climate event, or something like an asteroid strike, not to mention an attack by our enemies. I used to think we would pull together in crisis, but now I am not so sure. It might be more a case of each one to his or her bunker. I do think Biden was our best choice, and people will warm to his Uncle Joe persona, but there is a large sector that may be beyond reach.”
There are some voters who say they want to see the country come together. There are some voters who say they are preparing for civil war. And there are some voters, like SEAN GAWNE, who say both.
“I know America has been through tough times before, we just need leaders with the courage to honestly listen to all sides and try to lead a unified country, rather than push an agenda supported by less than half the country,” he told in a recent email exchange. “I do have confidence that we can work it out. More and more people are recognizing how their addiction to divisive politics and things like Twitter or Facebook are tearing apart families and friendships, and they are moving away from those divisive things. The people are ready for a return to normalcy, and I think that was the message from the election results.”
In that same missive, however, Gawne, a Navy veteran who flew a MAGA flag on his house—“the only one on my street”—warned that the American right may have reached its breaking point. “Joe Biden can’t tell Republicans that it’s time to unite, he has to tell Democrats that it’s time to admit their role in tearing this country apart before they can hope anyone will listen to them,” he wrote. “As for the GOP, they have been showing great restraint while simultaneously stocking up ammo and getting target practice. If people keep pushing them there will come a time when they will stop bending and will push back. I sense that time is coming soon and I don’t look forward to it, although of course I have also stocked up on guns and ammo so I will be ready.”
What could light the fuse, Gawne said, is the perception that Trump was cheated from a second term in office. “This looks like the most brazen fraud ever attempted,” he wrote me, “and if they go through with installing Biden as fake President, the last four years of #Resist are going to look like a walk in the park. Now they are screwing around with the angry people who have guns, and it won’t turn out well.”
I asked Gawne, in a follow-up email, to substantiate “the most brazen fraud ever attempted.” The attorney general said there was no such proof; Trump’s legal arguments had been crushed in one courtroom after another; the outlandish claims and context-free viral clips peddled by the right had been universally debunked.
“You say that claims have been debunked, but the people ‘debunking’ those claims are the same people who spent most of the last five years claiming that Trump was a Russian plant and an illegitimate President,” he replied. “So I simply do not believe what those sources say any more.”
After reading my letter from Cedarburg, Wisconsin, which focused on the Trump-friendly, super-white suburbs of Milwaukee, I received a note from AIME WICHTENDAHL. She suggested I visit her own suburb, north of Cedar Rapids, and told me, “I enjoy reading the diverse opinions of so many different Americans… I think we probably agree more with each other than we realize but can’t let go of the fight.”
I never did get to eastern Iowa, but I thought her thesis worthy of discussion. Is there something so combative in the American DNA that keeps us perpetually at odds with ourselves? Or do our national schisms, in fact, run that deep?
“The God’s honest truth is that when Americans are looking toward authoritarianism or socialism to fix their problems, we have to admit the center has failed, [the] government has failed and that there is something seriously wrong with this country,” she said. “Ask Americans if they love the two party system, if they think there is too much money in politics, if they feel their [member of Congress] really care about people like them, or if the government is really even working for people like them. I bet you get wide agreement from both sides of the aisle. … Yet, these discussions never happen. Because fundamentally American politics is an arms race that fears that mutual disarmament means that [they] will hand their opponents a tool that will defeat them permanently.”
Raised by politically independent parents in caucus-crazy Iowa, Wichtendahl says she grew up idolizing Ronald Reagan and thinks George H. W. Bush was one of America’s great presidents. She is now a staunch Democrat, in large part because of the party’s support of her and others in the transgender community. That said, she pines for a new day in both major parties, believing an injection of youth and vision could break the partisan stalemate of recent years.
“Part of me thinks and hopes that when Trump is finally relegated to the sidelines it may just open politics on a whole new path,” she said. “[Are Republicans] really excited to have a president who keeps losing the popular vote by millions? When they have future stars like Marco Rubio, Nikki Haley, and even people like Dan Crenshaw who might offer something more than just baseless grievances and cable news headaches?”
Wichtendahl added, “If the Biden administration can get the economy back and fix some of these income inequality and quality of life issues, and neither Trump nor Biden run in 2024, I think it really puts America on the path for something better. The 2024 [campaign] would open up huge swaths of the electoral map as I think both parties’ coalitions are fragile.”
“I can’t stand Trump. I held my nose to vote for [him],” MICHAEL BINGHAM told me near the beginning of 2020. “But I will PROUDLY vote for him this year.”
The reason: Marxists and communists were taking over the Democratic Party, Bingham said, and there could be no negotiating with these people. A pastor with the Methodist Church, Bingham has come to live in anticipation of imminent violence from the far left, and he dresses with a sidearm each morning accordingly. (“I know a surprisingly large number of colleagues who also carry,” he said.) Telling me of friends who voted against Trump “because they just could not stomach [him], feeling he was ‘un-presidential,’ an embarrassment, and unworthy of holding the office,” Bingham told me, “While I empathize with their sentiment, I am too opposed to the Marxists to vote for ANY Democrat right now.”
With the election behind us, I asked Bingham what he made of the results.
“This election was a repudiation of overreach of two types,” he began. “The failure of the Democrats at every level below the presidential election is a direct result of people refusing to be told what to say (and NOT say) and how to think (and NOT think). Most people understand that they are NOT racist, homophobic, knuckle-dragging mouth breathers and they are damned tired of being treated as if that is precisely what and who they are. … [Some] may say that the reason Democrats did so poorly is because of racism etc. However, people within the Democratic Party who want to win elections will refuse to overlook the fact that Trump won a higher percentage of non-white voters than any Republican since 1960. That is huge.”
He added, “Secondly, this election was a repudiation of the excesses of the personal foibles of Pres. Donald J. Trump. If Trump had put on a mask in April and begun talking just a bit more like Churchill (this is tough, but we are gonna kick this pandemic’s ass) then he would’ve won this election in a landslide. But Trump is not capable of doing that, and people got tired of the schtick. Biden should have lost like Mondale or McGovern instead of winning a squeaker. Trump lost more than Biden won.”
In a follow-up email, Bingham said there was a third repudiation. “It is abundantly clear—blindingly obvious—that the MSM (Main Stream Media) has no meaningful understanding of ordinary Americans,” he told me. “In much the same way pollsters have no real idea how to conduct a poll of right-of-center Americans. Each has utterly failed to learn any meaningful lessons from the 2016 election and badly misunderestimated what is going on in the heartland.”
Having spent a lifetime in and around the conservative church, I recognized Michael Bingham as embodying one end of the evangelical spectrum: aggressive, paranoid, militant. At the other end of the spectrum is Pastor KEN BROWN.
“I’ve lived in SE Michigan my entire life, and have always been a Republican—part of the Evangelical-Republican alliance, back when it was, I believe, honorable. But Evangelicals as a whole lost their way many years ago when the alliance became a religious cause in itself, a cause larger than our former convictions,” Brown told me earlier this year. “We became so enamored with power, it should have been no surprise to me (though it was) that evangelicals were and are willing to sacrifice our moral reputations for the sake of ‘winning.’ … I’ve hated every moment of Trump’s presidency, because of what I fear it’s done to the Gospel, and the reputations of those who claim to believe it.”
He went on, “Here’s the conundrum: I voted for Trump in ‘16, simply because my conscience would not allow me to vote for Hillary and I believed I had a moral obligation to vote. BUT, now my conscience will not allow me to vote for Trump, so I may not vote at all this year for the first time in my adult life. … The congregation I pastor, though, is very much in Trump’s camp. I fear that I’m an extreme minority in my opposition to Trump as an evangelical. I pray he doesn’t get a second term, but I pray the Democrats don’t win either, and of course one of those is going to happen. I’m lost as a voter for the first time in my life.”
Checking in with Brown after the election, I fully expected him to say that he’d once again swallowed his objections and backed Trump. I was wrong. He voted for Don Blankenship, the Constitution Party nominee, because of his pro-life stance. It was the only acceptable compromise Brown could come up with. I asked how this election leaves someone like him feeling about America.
“I am surprised and disappointed that so many Americans, and especially Evangelicals (my tribe), would pull the lever for Trump after all of the lies and, possibly, even crimes. I have agonized over how so many can be so blind to those things, and have only recently come to realize what I think is the reason—a disinformation delivery system that is promoting conspiracies,” he said. “I knew that many imbibed FOX on a regular basis. … But there are other voices that I assumed were on the fringe—Newsmax, OANN, Breitbart, Bongino, even Alex Jones! I was hearing people say things like: ‘I think our country is headed for a civil war.’”
Next month, Brown told me, “I will begin preaching a series from the Book of Proverbs for this very reason, to help us develop the spiritual discipline of discernment. Without a more discerning electorate, I am pessimistic about the future.”
If I could give an award to my most prescient “Letter to Washington” reader, it would go to GRAZIE CHRISTIE. Identifying as a “Hispanic American who voted happily for Trump in 2016” with a “gringo husband who held his nose and voted and now he’s ALL IN,” she told me to expect a virtuoso performance from the president in south Florida’s heavily Hispanic precincts.
“Miami Hispanics are crazy about Trump. He makes us feel safe from the socialism and lawlessness that destroyed our home countries. He speaks patriotically about the great country that took us in, instead of with contempt like the Democrats do,” she wrote me in January. “Hispanics believe in family (the classic kind), country, God, order, and freedom to prosper. Democrats have alienated them with their identity politics, their anti-religious bias, their gender ideology, and yes their lack of respect for our country’s borders.”
It’s risky to make sweeping claims about any demographic group—something I’ve tried to avoid throughout this series—but Christie was obviously onto something. Trump won nearly 200,000 more votes in Miami-Dade County this year than he did in 2016, and Biden won the county by just 7 points after Clinton carried it by 30 points.
When I wrote her after the election, she was torn between celebrating Trump’s success in Miami and lamenting his defeat nationally. “Like millions of supporters, I feel that on a level playing field he would have swept the country. Having the media, big tech, academia, Hollywood and big music treating him like he was the devil incarnate does not make for a level playing field,” Christie told me. “My young adult children were BOMBARDED with shame if they even thought of considering Trump on instagram and their other platforms.”
She added, “I won’t even go into election fraud because what is the use?” (When I asked her to elaborate, she said there was “lots of room for low-level fraud” such as dead people voting and ballots being illegally harvested, concluding, “I don’t think it’s inconceivable that in tiny-margin states this put Biden over the edge.”)
What struck me about our exchange was how Christie bemoaned the stereotypes of the Trump voter—“our downgrading to idiots, racists, homophobes, etc.”—while actively promoting the sourest caricatures of the Biden voter. She dismissed her husband’s family as a bunch of “laptop liberals [who] have forgotten the lessons of their immigrant forbears.” She reduced the “the left” to “anger and violence” practiced by the likes of Antifa and Black Lives Matter.
“I do feel the country will be very disappointed with Biden,” Christie told me. She quickly corrected herself: “I mean the real country, where people work and live and raise families. Not the media or inside the beltway.”
This is the story of our country right now, Washington. We are at once offended by the judgments rendered by our fellow Americans and consumed with judging them in return.
I don’t know how we move past it.
Trust me: After traveling the country for a year, hearing the stories of so many ordinary Americans, witnessing the unraveling of their communities and the insecurity that grips their everyday lives, I would love to tell you that this is an aberration. I wish I could promise you that brighter days are just around the corner. But that wouldn’t be honest. If anything, I feel certain that things are getting darker in America.
It’s difficult enough to reconcile the differences of two sides that fundamentally disagree with one another. When both of those sides are convinced that the other does not respect them—does not like them, does not appreciate them, does not think them equal or worthy or even American—well, I’m not sure reconciliation is possible. Some bonds of affection can never be unbroken.
I’m sorry to leave you on such a somber note, Washington. My hope is that you—yes, you, the source of so much national frustration, the spring from which much of this dysfunction flows—can step up and meet this moment. That means you in the political class. You in the media. You in the K Street corridor. You’ve been inflaming the country’s passions and exploiting its grievances and profiting from its partisan divisions for so long that perhaps you figured there were no consequences for doing so. But there are consequences. They are real. And they are here.
With all of these letters, Washington, I’ve been trying to tell you something. Yes, the rest of this country is upset with you. They think you’re arrogant and out of touch. They don’t particularly like you. But they do listen to you. They pay attention to what you say. They look to you for guidance and take cues from your example. Perhaps that explains some of America’s bad behavior in recent years. If so, perhaps it also shows that with the right leadership from you, this country can find itself again.
I will be rooting for you from afar.
Your old friend,