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I grew up in the archetypal swing county of a swing state that Republicans and Democrats are fighting over. Canvassing for Biden, it was sobering to see what its two solitudes say and believe

Both Biden and Trump campaign signs are seen on a home in Freemansburg, Pa., on Oct. 26, 2020.Photography by Hannah Yoon/The Globe and Mail

Johanna Schneller writes the Bigger Picture column for Globe Arts.

Separate realities. That phrase gets tossed around a lot. I’d always thought it was an exaggeration, an overdramatic way to describe opposing points of view. But I’ve been in Pennsylvania for the past three weeks, talking to voters in the run-up to the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 3, and I have heard both Republicans and Democrats defend “our” side and attack “their” side using the exact same examples – even the exact same words. And their alternate convictions are so absolute, I feel like the ground has dropped away beneath my feet. I came here to try to understand the “separate” part. What has knocked me sideways is how completely the “reality” part has been dismantled.

I’m in Northampton County, where I grew up. It’s an unassuming, 980-square-kilometre node smack in the centre of Pennsylvania’s eastern border, with 300,000-plus inhabitants, three universities, three small cities (Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton), plus hard-luck towns, country-club suburbs and tracts of farmland. Bethlehem Steel, once one of the largest mills in the world, is now a rusting ruin – except for the section that’s a Sands casino.

Yet at the beginning of this week, both Donald Trump and Joe Biden were stumping here. For good reason: Northampton is an archetypal swing county in this highly swingy state. Since 1952, it has almost always voted for the winning president. It is the definition of “in play.” Mr. Trump won the state in 2016 by only 44,292 votes.

Ms. Schneller gets ready to knock on doors in Hellertown.

Lawns, porches and vehicles here bristle with campaign signs – “Keep America Great” across the street from “Dump Trump”; “Make Liberals Cry Again” on one half of a semi-detached house, “Make Lying Wrong Again” on the other. Trump signs are generally much larger, more numerous and more florid – my favourite is a banner featuring Mr. Trump as Rambo, hefting an automatic rifle, under the words, “Trump No Man No Woman No Commie Can Stump Him.” Biden signs, on the other hand, sport earnest sayings: “Hate Has No Home Here,” “We Believe in Science.” New Jersey, just across the river, is what Democratic politicians call a “safe state” – reliably blue – and friends who visited here last weekend could not get over the volume of our signage. They described it as an assault.

Full disclosure: I’ve been canvassing for Mr. Biden, but I’ve also been reporting across the county. I’ve climbed cracked concrete stairs on the hilly streets of Easton, visited a trailer park in thumbnail-sized Tatamy, walked up long sidewalks to stone manses in Bethlehem. I’ve smelled fall in the air in Wind Gap, on the edge of the Pocono Mountains; traversed the length of Main Street in Hellertown; admired front-porch pumpkin tableaux in Nazareth. I attended a women’s rally in Doylestown (in neighbouring Bucks County), which was interrupted by a Trump truck caravan, a line of horn-blaring, flag-draped vehicles two hours long. I talked for 90 minutes to Jim Worthington, the organizer of that caravan. And I interviewed the owners of two gun shops. Both assured me that gun sales are way, way up – for Democrats and Republicans alike.

Rachel Heiber of Hellertown says she's voting for Trump.

In Hellertown, Rachel Heiber, 48, who sells insurance, has decorated her front yard for Halloween with scarecrows, hay bales and cornstalks, punctuated by Trump/Pence signs. She’s this close to buying a gun because she believes that Democrats, “who portray themselves as bleeding hearts, but are actually violent,” will riot if Mr. Trump wins. She’s pro-Trump because “he’s a businessman who looks out for our country.” She’s married to a woman, but has “no concerns about losing my rights” under Mr. Trump. She says even Fox is becoming biased against Mr. Trump; she gets her news from Reuters and international outlets. But she still chats, every day, with her neighbours across the street, whose lawn sports a Biden sign. “The media exaggerates the divide,” she said. “It pits us against one another.”

Liz Rivera-Diaz, 44, is a floor manager at a casino. She’s voting for Mr. Biden. She says she’s suffered more racial insults during Mr. Trump’s presidency than she had in all the years before. She says she believes Mr. Trump encouraged that – “He made Black and Hispanic people scary.” Her husband is white, and his friends tell him that they “hate” Latinos. “‘Not your your wife, but the rest of them.’” Her father-in-law had been an open-minded guy, “gay marriage, abortion, he didn’t care,” she said. “Now he’s dating a Trump woman, and he asked us if he could borrow our gun because he’s afraid of Black protesters.” She has six doctors and nurses in her family, and she calls Mr. Trump’s response to the COVID-19 crisis a disaster. “Trump is a narcissist. He gaslights people. He appeals to people who still think America is the greatest country in the world,” she said. “We’re not.”

At a rural post office, a bouncy clerk named Bree told me that Mr. Trump’s disrespect for postal workers “really hurts us. We’re all proud of the work we do. We keep our work separate from politics.”

“I mean, we’re the post office!” she went on. “It’s your postman! Now you don’t trust him?” She told me she handles incoming ballots “with special care” – they go into their own bin, which is driven to the local elections office. “But even the political leaflets, we’re super careful with them. We don’t want either side to have a reason to say they’ve been tampered with.” The volume of mail is higher than a typical October, yes, “but nothing we can’t handle,” she said. “It’s been up for months now. Since COVID.”

Ms. Schneller walks down from an apartment after leaving Biden campaign materials there.

In Doylestown, during the Trump truck rally, I spoke to a group of six people – four men, two women – who were cheering on the caravan from the sidewalk. We had a heated 10-minute conversation, but here’s the exchange I can’t stop thinking about: I asked if they were concerned that Mr. Trump had alienated U.S. allies such as Canada. They all spoke at once, but the gist was this: “How do you know that he has? Do you know one person in the Canadian government who has told you that personally? Because unless you do, we don’t believe it.”

Back in Northampton County, a barefoot guy in a baseball cap, who looked to be in his 30s, stepped out onto his front stoop to tell me he was voting for Mr. Trump to combat the “moral degradation” of the United States. The man, who declined to give his name, says he believes an invasion from China is a serious possibility that Mr. Biden couldn’t handle and claimed Democrats are “blind to what’s going on.” He gets his news from The Epoch Times (a far-right, pro-Trump newspaper), the OAN (Mr. Trump’s new favourite network) and Instagram.

A few doors down, Pepe Garcia, 61, bounded out his door to chat. “I trust Biden. He doesn’t lie,” he said. “Trump lies every day. Don’t get my wife started! How can you believe in someone you can’t trust? Trump bad-mouths the media because they call out his lies.” Mr. Garcia’s not partisan; he voted for George H.W. Bush. “But Trump pits us against each other,” he said. “Even with corona – he made it red vs. blue.” Yet Mr. Garcia won’t hold a grudge, no matter which way things go Nov. 3. “You can believe what you want to believe,” he said. “That’s America.”

Judy Johnson is in her 60s. She told me she benefited from Mr. Trump’s tax cuts. She likes his pro-Israel position, the opportunities he’s created for people of colour and that he’s “a person of action.” She used to get her news from the big American networks, but they’re too negative about Mr. Trump for her liking. “Trump certainly isn’t eloquent,” she said. “But no one is right all the time.”

Michelle Velas, 42, is a Republican, but she’s voting for Mr. Biden. She says she believes Mr. Trump is eroding women’s rights, blurring the separation of church and state, and may be mentally unstable. She’s insulin-dependent, “so the protection of pre-existing conditions” in the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans have gone to court to abolish, “is a big deal for me.” She wants Mr. Biden to be president of “the United States, not the divided states.” She’s “appalled at how complacent people are” about what Mr. Trump has done to immigrants at the southern U.S. border. She thinks everything is corrupted, including the media, “so it’s my responsibility to find out what is true.” She cross-checks France 24, PBS, BBC, YouTube, online searches and Fox. She’s not worried about life after the election, because “after a few months people will see that things are getting better.”

Michelle Velas, Judy Johnson and Pepe Garcia were three of the Pennsylvanians Ms. Schneller spoke to about their election plans.

The longest conversation I had was with Jim Worthington, a hale 63-year-old who founded People for Trump, a large grassroots organization, and is a member of Mr. Trump’s fitness council (Mr. Worthington owns the Newtown Athletic Club). He organized the Doylestown Trump road rally because Trump supporters were tired of being labelled racists and scorned in supermarkets for wearing MAGA hats; they wanted to be loud and proud.

“I read that over 1,600 cars took part,” I said.

He snorted: They had 6,700 cars, he said, “but the media downplayed it. They said 400 cars.”

No, I said – 1,600. The conversation continued that way: Mr. Worthington would assert something, I’d question it, we’d move on. He claimed that Philadelphia’s 17 new satellite offices, where voters can hand-deliver mail-in ballots, were Democrat-only, unsupervised places in private homes; in fact, they’re in schools and public buildings, and run by state employees.

“Hey, I know a certain percentage of my employees are stealing from me, so what’s to stop someone there from saying, ‘Here’s $20, vote for Joe’?”

“What’s to stop someone from doing the same for Trump?” I countered.

“Republicans don’t cheat,” he replied.

Though I disputed many of Mr. Worthington’s claims, I never doubted that he believed what he was saying – that Trump signs are vandalized and Biden signs aren’t; Trump supporters are harassed and Biden supporters aren’t; Democrats are violent and Republicans aren’t. “You know why?” he asked me. “Because Republicans believe in law and order. They would never – well, does the odd Biden sign get stolen or defaced? Absolutely. Some guy gets so frustrated. But we believe in a safe country, and the Democrats don’t. Democrats are fearless, in that they will do whatever it takes to gain their position.”

Mr. Worthington knows – he knows – that the Black Lives Matter protests were riots, in all 50 states, because his friends were in Philadelphia during its protest, and they saw the looting and the fires with their own eyes. I kept hearing what the Trump rally-goers in Doylestown had asked me: Did you hear it from someone you knew? Mr. Worthington has given up on CNN, on the network news, even on Fox, “because the Murdoch sons are flaming liberals.” He gets his information “from the common person, who can tell you the real stories. I get my news online, from people I know, from Facebook, from talking to people in my industry.”

The people Mr. Worthington talks to may be successful, he continued, but they’ve felt marginalized for years. “In the mainstream media, 90 per cent of everything Trump does is negative. One hundred per cent of Obama was positive. Now, how can that be?” Barack Obama did a terrible job, in Mr. Worthington’s opinion. But he wasn’t out there trying to drum up impeachment. “The Democrats wanted Trump to fail from day one,” he said. “They cheer against their country, even if it hurts them.

“The only thing they hate more than America is themselves," he continued. "They have a chip on their shoulder. They feel they’ve been ostracized. They’re self-loathing, violent, mean, aggressive. Who has time for that kind of hate?” That’s Mr. Worthington, talking about Democrats – the exact thing I’ve heard many Democrats say, almost word for word, about Republicans.

Ryan McCloskey carries a table for volunteers in Easton.

One final story. In mid-October, a man wearing a cowboy hat arrived at the Biden/Harris office in Easton and began to berate Ryan McCloskey, the lead staffer: Someone was vandalizing his Trump signs. He knew “you people” had put them up to it. If he caught the vandals in the act, he was going to shoot them. In fact, he might come down and shoot this office, too. Mr. McCloskey, a smart, eager guy in his 20s, picked up his phone and dialled 911.

“What are you doing?” Cowboy Hat asked.

“I’m calling the police,” Mr. McCloskey answered. “You threatened me and my staff.”

“I didn’t,” Cowboy Hat said, walking away. “I didn’t say that. I didn’t do anything.”

The longer I’m here, the more doorbells I ring, the more I realize that this embrace of alternate facts, separate realities, wasn’t born with Mr. Trump’s presidency. He just capitalized on it. He showed people they didn’t have to believe their own eyes, unless they wanted to; they could say whatever they wanted and then deny they had. The land of the free now means that everyone is free to insist their opinion is the truth.

When Mr. Garcia said it, he meant it positively. But on the eve of this election, I’m hearing it differently. You believe what you want to believe. That’s America.


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