Looking Inward America in transition - twelve

As I headed west in mid-December, the United States was facing three crises at home.

The pandemic, the resulting economic downturn, and a new understanding of the racial divides that have haunted us since before the country became an independent nation. By the time I returned, in early January, we were facing a fourth crisis that is directly connected to the other three and resulted in a violent attack by Americans on their own U.S. Capitol on January 6.

Starting in President Biden's original home state, through the midwest, to the Mexican border and back.

The seed for this trip was planted in the summer of last year when former President Trump decided to hold the first major rally of his re-election campaign in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Anticipating a historic event, I considered driving to Tulsa from the east coast and using the stops in between to take the country's temperature. Concerns about COVID-19 kept me from going, but by the end of the year, I decided I could do the trip safely if I self-isolated along the way.

What I found may seem unsurprising to anyone who follows the news, but the depth of our current national crises is a surprise. The major cities I stopped in have been largely quieted by the pandemic. On the road, in local media, on the car radio; it is evident that the political divide between Democrats and Republicans, or more specifically between supporters of former President Trump and those who voted against him persists. In many places, it feels like the campaign is still underway, or that half the country simply feels the election produced the wrong - perhaps an even illegimitate - result.

The route. Seventeen states and Washington, D.C.

I never came upon an instance of protest and counter-protest. I never over-heard an argument about politics anywhere I stopped. I did experience a sense of unease between strangers that began with how people chose to wear, or not wear, a face covering, and continued to thread its way through interactions in the form of a difficult subject not broached.

Former President Obama rose to power on the phrase, "There is no red America and no blue America. There is the United States of America." In contrast to that rhetoric, the America I experienced, on this trip, is one with two sides and two different realities.

Columbus, Ohio.

This is the most troubling aspect of the legacy of the Trump administration and where the country stands. It really hit home for me on January 6. Not because of the riot taking place that day at the U.S. Capitol, but because of what I witnessed first hand in Nashville, Tennessee.

I pulled into town that day, around noon, and happened upon a pro-Trump rally on a public plaza next to the state Capitol. There were only about 100 people on hand, but they were carrying signs and listening to speakers that ran counter to the real facts about the 2020 election.

Many held signs that read "Stop the Steal" and "Trump Is My President." The speakers, including ministers who offered a prayer at the end of the gathering, urged everyone to keep fighting, to never give up, and assured the crowd they could reverse the results of the election if they stayed true to their cause. These claims were not true and later that day the Congress would certify the results of Joe Biden's victory.

Above: Illinois, Texas and Oklahoma.

The scene was chilling nonetheless, because it was so clear the entire crowd believed the presidential election had been stolen and no one there could be convinced otherwise no matter how hard you tried. The combination of a president willing to spread falsehoods, a Republican Party willing to go along, and a right wing news media machine narrowcasting to a disaffected audience, has created an information bubble, in which almost half the voting public of the United States, accepts and believes information that is demonstrably false.

Top: East Texas panhandle. Bottom: Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The problem pre-dates the Trump presidency. Trump was attractive as a candidate, because for a long time, a growing number of Americans have felt left behind and left out by their government. Long before 2016, they had given up hope on government being there to help them. Trump's anti-establishment message was just what they wanted to hear.

A successful politician once told me there are two general themes in political campaigns: Stay the course vs. it's time for a change. Trump was the ultimate time for a change, throw the bums out, candidate. In fact, he was the ultimate, topple the whole system, candidate. For many he still is.

Above: The wall at the Mexican border near El Paso(top) and Fort Hancock(below).

Out in the country, away from the east coast, away from the hourly news coverage on cable TV, and the continuous feed of information coming across social media and the internet, the disconnect between what's happening in Washington and the lives of real people is evident.

As the wall is built along the border - part policy, part symbol of the America first brand - people go about their daily lives as if it doesn't matter to them at all. The wall is something people somewhere else care about. On the border, the bigger questions revolve around when we can return to pre-pandemic life, how to pay the bills, how to put food on the table.

Nashville, Tennessee. January 6, 2021. LL: Pro-Trump rally. LR: Christmas bombing aftermath.

As vast as our country is; driving from state to state and city to city reinforces how interconnected we are in culture and history. A few blocks from the Nashville Trump rally, police were still investigating a Christmas Day bombing to determine whether it was politically motivated. This, as the state of Tennessee was experiencing one of the highest COVID infection rates in the nation. To the north, at the same time, West Virginia was leading the country in COVID vaccinations.

The day I passed through Columbus, Ohio there was a police shooting of an un-armed man that would lead to the arrest of a police officer in February. In Louisville, Kentucky there were still regular protests taking place over the police shooting of Breonna Taylor. And I arrived in Washington, D.C. two days after the attack on the U.S. Capitol to see barricades being put up to lock things down before Inauguration Day.

Nearly every stop offers a history lesson and a reminder we are fighting over many of the same issues we have been fighting over for more than 200 years.

Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky all make claims on Abraham Lincoln. The 1921 race riot scars Tulsa. Segregation and Jim Crow laws come into focus in New Orleans, the hometown of Homer Plessy. In Memphis, the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, is now a civil rights museum. There is a memorial in Indianapolis where Bobby Kennedy delivered the news of King's death. Austin, Texas debates homelessness. In the center of that city is the University of Texas tower that was the scene of one of the country's first and most deadly mass shootings. Pennsylvania and West Virginia struggle in an economy that has left many behind. Racial and economic justice are always at the surface no matter where you go.

Upper: West Texas and Austin, Texas. Bottom: Galveston.

The major lesson taken from the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol seems to be that democracy in America is more fragile than anyone realized. We must assume that there is always a receptive audience for demagoguery. As Americans, we are not immune.

As I traveled the country, in the month before the transition to a new president, the more hopeful lesson I learned is that there is a tendency for the truth to win. The truth will not be ignored. As Americans we are willing to acknowledge our disagreements and remember our past. If we can hold onto that trait as a defining characteristic then there is a limit to the damage that can be done by those who would exploit our differences for their own political gain. If we are vigilant against those forces, they will be left behind by history as we incrementally build a more perfect nation.

Marfa, Texas.


© Dean Pagani 2021