The war is not over

Published by The Mail on Sunday (8th November, 2020)

The mood outside the Philadelphia counting centre was ebullient, with balloons, banners and music blasting out and scores of young people dancing in the street. 

Joe Biden had just taken the lead in their state of Pennsylvania’s vote.

Beside me, two men were laughing at a small crowd of Trump supporters penned in behind a line of police. ‘I’m enjoying seeing them upset and sad,’ admitted Dontaa McGlone, a 32-year-old banker and Biden voter. ‘It’s been a rough four years, especially with all the racist stuff. Now they’ve been beaten in a fair fight.’

‘We can pull together again,’ added McGlone, before saying with a smile: ‘Tomorrow, we can start the healing – but today I’m really enjoying this.’

A small moment that symbolised the big question facing Biden and this bitterly divided country: can the disunited states of America come together when it seems riven down the middle by two warring tribes?

For the world’s greatest power, a nation shaped by optimism, is a darkly divided place. It is populated with angry partisans who see the world in starkly different terms, call each other evil, and portray their foes as either racists or communists. 

Now throw into this combustible mix Donald Trump’s fury about supposed fraud as his lawyers cry foul and attempt to reverse the result.

‘This election has definitely been stolen,’ said Edward X. Young, who was among those Trump supporters penned in. ‘We’ve been called the silent majority but we have been too gentle, too civil. We will never stop fighting against this treason.’

The horror-films actor, who boasted of attending 47 Trump rallies, told me he believes his hero was sent by God to save America. ‘We are in the middle of the second civil war,’ he said.

The land of the free has become the land of the febrile.

What is now clear is that the American people have elected a doddery political veteran – a Washington insider for more than half a century who, having suffered terrible personal tragedies, is admired mostly for his empathy – to put this troubled country back together again. 

As I travelled around Pennsylvania – one of the trio of key north-eastern states that switched to Trump in 2016 before returning to the Democrat fold this time – these lesions in the heart of America were frighteningly evident, even in Biden’s hometown.

Joseph Robinette Biden was born in Scranton in 1942 and lived in what was then a decaying coal town until he was ten. His great-great grandfather moved there from Ireland and Biden makes much of his Pennsylvanian roots, even visiting on election day.

‘No matter where I’ve gone in life, I’ve always been led by values Scranton instilled in me at a young age: hard work, faith and a commitment to the middle class,’ he said.

Some local folk are miffed by Biden’s portrayal of this rather prosperous place as ‘a blue-collar cartoon’. 

But the street where he played as a boy is festooned with Biden banners. ‘I am just happy we can finally wake up from our nightmare,’ said Liz McDonald, cooking dinner for her six-year-old son in a house with a big Biden sign on its porch.

Then, as I strolled along this smart road, filled with well-tended clapboard homes that cost up to £1 million, I met a man who gave me a chilling glimpse into the corrosion of US society.

Tom Moran’s house stood out with its defiant Trump flag. The 61-year-old, who works in insurance and is married to a psychology professor, believes the President has performed well. ‘He was unique because he has done what he said he’d do.’

Moran has had four Trump signs stolen, which he calls ‘disgusting’ in a democracy.  Yet far worse, he claims his three-year-old daughter has been ostracised by neighbours. ‘There are families here with little kids but she has been excluded, even though last summer she was playing with them. It’s a terrible thing.’ 

Later, I met a web developer leaving work at a nearby Catholic university. ‘I voted for Biden because Trump is absolutely evil,’ said Mark Pitely, who was especially angered by the President’s ‘cruel’ immigration policies.

He told me he could no longer discuss politics with his 81-year-old father, a Trump supporter and ‘dedicated Christian in the sweetest possible way’, since they could not agree on basic facts. ‘He gets all his stuff from the internet.’.

These are far from isolated cases. Three women from different areas told me that backing Trump had cost them friends. Valerie Firoina, 64, a Trump supporter from the east of Pennsylvania, says she has seen five friends sever ties.

Days before the election, I met a single mother and former Democratic Party worker who had stopped speaking to her parents and 12 siblings after shifting her allegiance to Trump over his opposition to abortion. She ended up moving to a different part of the country to avoid family friction.

Certainly, Trump’s inflammatory style has exacerbated tensions, fuelled by social media with the Left sometimes stung into stupidity. And now we witness the leader of the world’s most important democracy trying to thwart the full counting of votes.

Yet the truth is that Trump is a symptom as much as a cause of America’s profound problems – and it is deeply worrying for any nation when families, friendships and even children’s relationships are torn apart by tribal politics. 

Little wonder so many voters yearn for an end to the feuding. ‘I hope Biden can start to unite us,’ said Lori Grady, 55, a teacher in Scranton. ‘Everyone seems to be fighting and at each other’s jugulars. We’ve never seen this before in our lifetime.’

Make no mistake: this nation is looking nervously over the abyss. It is not in a civil war – but fear grows every day of an explosion of serious unrest.

Last month, 13 people were charged over plans to ignite civil war. They included those involved in an alleged plot to kidnap the Governor of Michigan. Seized videos showed members of the gang jumping out of cars and firing rifles on training jaunts.

On Thursday, two men from Virginia were arrested over weapons offences after allegedly planning to attack the Philadelphia hall where votes were being counted. Pro-Trump protesters with guns have turned up at Arizona’s count.

While talking to mostly-friendly Trump supporters outside the Philadelphia counting centre, an aggressive young activist with two sidekicks ordered me to move and demanded I show him a permit. ‘If you don’t go, we’ll push you out,’ he threatened.

I called over a police officer who said I could stay but suggested it might be wise to leave.

Yet for all Trump’s crass rants on Twitter, his savage attacks on political enemies and his depressing flirtations with the far-Right, many of his supporters demonstrate the subtle complexities of politics and the dangers of making casual assumptions.

Take, for example, that single mum I spoke to. A black woman in her mid-30s from California, she shattered all stereotypes of a Trump supporter.  And actor Edward X. Young, who was wearing Trump trainers, had voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

Valerie Firoina, who regards Trump as the best President of her lifetime and calls leading Democrats ‘communists’, supports statist ideas such as government help for struggling families and affirmative action to boost African-American employment. 

Note also how Republicans gained support among Latino voters, allowing them to hold battleground states such as Florida and Texas under a man who called Mexicans ‘rapists’ and was obsessed with building a border wall to keep them out.

Just like Labour in the North of England, the Democrats took struggling voters in their rust-belt heartland for granted – then were stung when, after industrial decline, financial meltdown and a lethal drug epidemic, many turned to a populist maverick.

The founder of one group promoting progressive politics called American Bridge said they spent $75 million (£57 million) during the campaign in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin seeking to understand why people moved from Obama to Trump – then bombarding them with adverts featuring local people who had made the switch back to Biden. 

They discovered such voters had more than two jobs, on average, and were so busy they spent only four minutes a week thinking about politics – and a majority were women.

‘We had told them Trump was despicable but these people had little faith in politics,’ said Bradley Beychok, American Bridge’s president. ‘Biden is a candidate of unity and compassion. People are tired of all the turbulence.’

Beychok said his group’s campaign shifted from relentless attacks on Trump to a focus on economic pressures – and believes the pandemic helped their cause by fuelling fears over jobs and healthcare while highlighting the President’s incompetence. 

Such messages succeeded in Scranton and its surrounding county. Yet next-door Luzerne County, portrayed as a symbol of Trump’s 2016 success in a book called The Forgotten, swung another 15 points in his favour this time. 

Luzerne was once a Democratic stronghold with coal mines and a powerful union tradition, where most residents are white and few have college degrees. There are $500,000 homes on the hills but poverty in the valleys, one resident told me.

As Biden celebrated victory last night, some watched with dismay as the final ballots were checked at the counting centre in Philadelphia. 

‘This is the biggest travesty in our history,’ said Michael Kowalski, 73, a retired software engineer in paint-splattered clothes I met outside a plant-hire shop. ‘I feel extremely, insanely angry.’

The store’s next customer was Rick Sarbaugh, 44, a former Bill Clinton backer who is on disability benefits. ‘I wish I’d voted now,’ he says. ‘I would have voted for Trump since he is getting robbed. I think there will be riots. With two children, I worry about the future.’

A few miles away in the city of Wilkes-Barre, I found Steven, a lift engineer in his late 50s, who backed Trump but despairs of all politicians. He said: ‘Since Tuesday, I’ve stopped watching TV and turned off my social media. Let them all fight it out.’

Can Biden bring this country back together – especially when the hard-Left is vociferous in his party, destructive protests routinely break out in major cities and activists demand the defunding of police forces after several killings of black citizens? 

Only time will tell. But the omens are not good. 

Two weeks ago, Philadelphia imposed a curfew after consecutive nights of protest over a fatal police shooting sparked looting and violence. On the other side of the country, Portland in Oregon had been scarred by such disturbances for months.

It would be an immense challenge for Biden even if he were younger and more energetic. 

His supporters argue that the big difference between him and Trump is that he will try to mend the divisions while restoring some professionalism to federal politics.

One thing was absolutely clear as I witnessed the factions and felt the frictions in the touchstone state of Pennsylvania over the past few days: America does not feel in a healthy condition, despite many people’s desperate desire to restore a spirit of national togetherness.

‘What scares me the most is that a democracy that has worked for 240 years is in trouble,’ said Vincent Cotrone, 58, a forestry expert I met waiting for the barber in Wilkes-Barre whose political journey has taken him from Ronald Reagan to Biden. 

‘There are big divisions but we are one country and we have done amazing things over our history. ‘It worries me that people are going to do serious harm to one another. We need to remember that we are all Americans.’

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