Swing State Dispatch: Rallying for Women’s Rights and Talking to Trump Supporters
A protester holds a sign at a women's rally in Doylestown, PA, one of many rallies held across the United States to protest Donald Trump's hasty Supreme Court selection of Amy Coney Barrett, who's set to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Photo: Johanna Schneller
Four years ago, noted journalist, Zoomer contributor and U.S. citizen Johanna Schneller watched and railed and tweeted from her home in Toronto as Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton to be named U.S. President. This year, she decided she couldn’t sit the election out, so on Oct. 4 she drove to her hometown of Easton, in the swing county of Northampton and swing state of Pennsylvania, to do what she can to help Joe Biden’s campaign. This is her second dispatch from the U.S. ahead of the Nov. 3 election.
I’ve been in Pennsylvania for two weeks, volunteering for the Biden campaign, and on Saturday I had my first real conversation with die-hard Trump supporters.
I was in Doylestown, where I’m staying with one of my dearest friends, Judith. Doylestown is archetypal old PA: It began in 1745 when William Doyle built a tavern at a confluence of north-south and east-west routes, and it grew into a borough of handsome houses with wraparound porches, on leafy streets named for trees, surrounded by fields – some sporting corn, others McMansions. James Michener wrote here; so did Pearl Buck and Oscar Hammerstein. The population is mainly well off, university educated, and evenly split along political lines.
The announcement that a women’s rally would be held at 12:30 p.m. at the corner of State and Main – part of a chain of women’s rallies across the country to protest the hasty addition of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court – was promptly followed by an announcement that a Trump truck caravan would go through the same intersection at the same time. The borough manager asked the caravan organizer if he’d consider changing the route to avoid altercations – pro- and anti-Trump rallies in Doylestown the week before had resulted in a fistfight and two arrests – but the Trump caravan organizer declined. (I sat in, via Zoom, on the Doylestown council meeting where this was discussed. The caravan was using public roads. Legally, they had every right. All council could do was hire extra police to wave them through red lights and to minimize face-to-face contact.)
So there we were, three cops and some 200 protestors, mostly white, mostly women, mostly middle-aged, standing in the amber October sunshine, holding up placards that read “RBG Sent Me,” and “Know Justice, Know Peace,” and “We Need To Talk About The Elephant In The Womb.” For half an hour, everything was joyful. Drivers passing through the intersection tooted their horns and gave thumbs-up signs, while we indulged in mild chanting. Then, at 1:15, from the bottom of the hill on Main Street, we heard it: air horns, engines gunning. “Here they come,” the woman beside me said.
Trump On Parade
For the next 90 minutes, a steady stream of vehicles roared by, horns blaring. There were motorcycles, BMWs, semis, SUVs, pickup trucks with contractor’s names on the doors. There were two full buses. Every vehicle was draped in red-white-and-blue bunting, bristling with Trump banners, festooned with American flags. Americans aren’t supposed to alter their flag, but these folks did: I saw flags with crosses in the centre, with Trump’s face in the stars, and most alarmingly, with two automatic rifles in the centre, surrounded by black letters reading “God Guns + Trump.” I bumped into to the borough manager at one point, and he said, “For people who allegedly love the flag, there sure are a lot of flag violations.”
Trumpers were leaning out their car windows, shaking their banners, smiling with perfect white teeth. Some had life-sized cardboard Donald Trumps in their back seats. The doors of a pink convertible read “Adorable Deplorable” spelled out in black electrical tape. Quite a few Trumpers were holding up their middle fingers. Between the engines and the horns, the noise was like a solid wall that smacked into you again and again. Some of the protesters turned their backs on the caravan, but most were yelling, too, flashing thumbs-down and F-you signs of their own. It was relentlessly ugly.
Down the hill, a few yards south from the edge of the protest, I saw a group of six people waving a Trump/Pence flag. They were a greeting committee, the first people the caravan was seeing. I decided to go talk to them.
Heart of Gold
Even before this confrontation, my heart had been aching, as if stabbed by 100 tiny daggers every day. I’ve been setting out each morning from Doylestown and driving 40 minutes north into the county of my youth, Northampton. The drive is tailor-made for rumination. The road, which winds along beside a river, is lined with stone walls and huge old trees. The falls colours are still vivid, scarlets and umbers and oranges, laced with just enough bare branches to remind me that winter comes quickly. I haven’t lived here since 1980, when I graduated from Freedom High in Bethlehem. (Yes, that’s right, Freedom High. Our main rival was Liberty.) But the landscape, the architecture and the topography feel so familiar. I’m listening to a lot of ‘70s music on my satellite radio, and I still know all the lyrics.
Around every corner of my drive, the sun throws dappled shadows across the road ahead, or bounces off an iron-gray cloud, and Neil Young sings about searching for a heart of gold, or Stephen Stills tells me to love the one I’m with, or the Youngbloods suggest that I smile on my brother and try to love one another right now, and at least once a commute my eyes sting with tears. I’m here to do what I can to protect the country that – despite everything – I still love, and somehow that’s gotten tangled up with who I was and who I am now, and where did the time go, and how did we get here?
A Blue Canvass
I begin every shift at the Voter Activation Center, a storefront in downtown Easton plastered with Biden-Harris signs, and fully stocked with boxes of hand sanitizer, masks and gloves. (The Biden campaign didn’t begin knocking on doors until Oct. 10, because they were obeying Centers for Disease Control protocols. The Trump camp has been knocking doors since June.) I chat to Ryan, the lead (and often only) staffer, who has a charming habit of tying back his sandy hair a slightly different way each day. Like me, he’s left his home, in his case Brooklyn, to devote himself to this election. He feeds me bits of news: The Biden campaign has a ton of money, nearly half a billion U.S. dollars. Democrat pols call it “fund-raging.” On the first weekend that Biden allowed door-knocking in PA, 300,000 volunteers hit 80,000 addresses.
Then he gives me a code for my MiniVAN app, which sends me a list of addresses of likely Democrat voters, and I spend the next four hours hauling myself up and down the hills of Bethlehem and Easton. I scramble up rickety porch steps. I talk soothingly to unleashed dogs. I breathe into my mask and fog up my glasses. Roughly 15 per cent of the people on my list answer their doors, and to them I ask the same five questions: Can we count on your vote? Do you have a plan for voting? Will you vote down the ticket, for state and local races? Will you take others to the polls with you? Will you consider volunteering? (I thought I was doing this to provide information to voters, and I am, but I’ve come to see that I’m mainly collecting data.)
Pennsylvania is one – if not THE – key swing state, and a lot of eyes are on us. Bruce Springsteen launched an “America Needs Pennsylvania” campaign with a re-release of his song “Philadelphia,” set against images of local suffering and Trump promises broken.
U.S. statistician Nate Silver, and editor-in-chief of the FiveThirtyEight blog, is predicting that whichever candidate wins the state will win the election. And the voting process is pretty diabolical. You mark the mail-in ballots by filling in standardized-test-style ovals, in blue or black ink only. Then you put your ballot in a secrecy envelope, and then put that envelope in another envelope, and then sign a declaration, and then mail it or use a drop box. It’s so complicated that the cast of Succession has released, in character, a PSA explaining how to do it. (“What the f–k is a secrecy envelope?” Brian Cox, the patriarch, growls.) There are estimates that 100,000 ballots could be deemed ineligible and thrown out, a chilling figure considering that Trump won the state in 2016 by only 44,292 votes.
So we canvassers have been urged to drill down on the voting plan, and only with people who are either hard left or leaning left. If we accidentally knock on the door of a Republican, we leave immediately; let them figure out how to vote on their own. I’ve encountered a few undecideds, and I do my best to sway them. I have a personal spiel about my free health care, and that piques their interest. Judith gave me an analogy about taking the public bus – “It doesn’t go exactly where you want it to go, but which one gets you closer?” – that has worked. But I realized quickly that very few people want to engage in in-depth policy discussions with a masked stranger at 3 p.m. on a Tuesday.
My longest conversation so far was with a guy who’d emigrated from Colombia, and had seen first-hand what happened when socialists took over. When I assured him that Biden isn’t a socialist, he replied that “the old man” wasn’t the problem. “It’s the girl,” he said, meaning Senator Kamala Harris. “She will run things, and she’s a socialist.” I could not dissuade him.
He was a cakewalk, though, compared to those six Trumpers at Saturday’s rally. Four men, two women, all in their 40s, only one wearing a mask. (Everyone in the women’s rally wore masks; almost none of the Trump folks did.) I walked up to the group, introduced myself, and told them I was an American who’d come from Canada to work for Biden. “So you’re a socialist,” Shorter Man said. (Shorter Man was also Louder Man; he spat out every word harshly, at full volume, as if we’d been arguing for hours.) I said no, Canada is a democracy, and asked, “I’d really like to understand what you like about Trump.”
I don’t know if their side is handing out pamphlets with talking points and instructions on how to pivot, but wow, they all had them: Best president ever. Best economy in American history. I asked if they were happy with Trump’s response to Covid-19; they were thrilled. I asked if they minded about his not paying taxes; Shorter Man spat back, “What about Burisma?” referring to the Ukrainian natural gas company on whose board Hunter Biden had served, leading to allegations of Joe Biden influence peddling. Shorter Man didn’t answer my question (a pattern than continued), but I answered his; I replied that Joe Biden had been cleared – by Republicans – of any wrong doing. They said, “We haven’t heard that.” Shorter Man countered with, “What about Biden’s mansion?” I said he bought it for under $200,000 and sold it after many years; they said, “We haven’t heard that.” I asked if they minded that Trump had called soldiers losers; they all talked at once on that one: Biden kowtows to Iraq, Trump hasn’t sent anyone to war, in fact he’s bringing them home.
I asked the women if they felt Trump was misogynistic; Shorter Man said, “What about your guy and blackface?” I said Justin Trudeau had apologized and electors opted to forgive him. You should have heard them laughing.
“Let me ask you something,” Shorter Man said. “Do you think the media is corrupt?” I told him I’d worked my whole life for magazines and newspapers, that the people I’ve found there are skeptics who want to tell the truth. They hooted at that. “How do you explain Nick Sandmann?” one of the women asked. They had to remind me who that was: the Kentucky high school student who stood face to face with a First Nations drummer at a pro-life rally at the Lincoln Memorial back in Jan. 2019, and recently settled defamation lawsuits against both the Washington Post and CNN for suggesting he was an aggressor when he said he was calmly trying to defuse the situation. “Of course you don’t remember his name,” they said.
“But you probably support Antifa,” Shorter Man said. I replied that the vast majority of BLM protests were peaceful; the two women said, “Answer the question!” I said I supported protests, not riots, and then I mentioned the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, which ended in violence when white supremacist and neo-Nazi attendees clashed with protesters, with Trump remarking there were “very fine people on both sides.” A chorus went up at that one: The media mis-edited the tape of Trump, he’d explained what he meant about “very fine people,” the public never got to hear it.
Throughout this conversation, my heart was pounding, I was sweating, and I could feel blood pulsing in my cheeks. I’ve always thought that I could conduct, or at least follow, a reasoned argument, but these people made my head spin. They kept stepping toward me, not menacingly, but not in a friendly way either, and I kept backing up. I kept telling myself I should leave, but I was in it now.
“Let me ask you one more thing,” I said. “Does it bother you that the President of the United States said at his NBC town hall that he doesn’t know what QAnon is?”
Again, they all spoke at once: “How do we know what he knows?”
I said, “Wait – I know what it is, you know what it is, shouldn’t the leader of the country know what it is?”
“We wouldn’t presume to know what he knows,” they said. And then one woman said this: “Why, are you a pedophile?”
I squeezed my eyes shut. The sun pounded on the part in my hair. “I’m not,” I answered, dead calm. “But do you honestly believe – do you honestly believe – that there is a ring of Democrat pedophiles operating out of Washington, D.C.?” Yes, they said. They do.
“Well, I really appreciate your talking to me,” I said. “I’m going to go back to my friend now.” I turned and headed up the hill. Taller Man, the one wearing the mask, caught up to me. “I do think it’s good you came to talk to us,” he said. “You’re the only one who has. Everyone else just yells and flips us off.”
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been thinking a lot about who I am in all this. I spend my days in what I thought was my hometown, but I’m visiting streets I’ve never set foot on before, ringing doorbells I never would have rung. When those ‘70s songs I’m listening to were brand new, I had my little routes: I drove to my friends’ houses, to school, to malls and fast-food joints. But I wasn’t adventurous. I didn’t explore. I talked to my circle, sat at my table in the cafeteria. The education I received didn’t ask me to be adventurous, either. It wasn’t about questioning – it was about memorizing a set of ideas and regurgitating them. Being here, feeling the air chill a little more each day, I’m painfully aware of how soundly these silos are built into people, how deeply they’re rooted. I left this place in 1980. But it hasn’t left me.
Those heart-stabs I referred to, they aren’t from my Trumper debacle. They’re from other, quieter, highly civil conversations I’ve had: the Black teenager who told me it didn’t matter who won, because his life wouldn’t change. The guy who intimated that he’d felt bad for a long time, and he was voting for Trump because Trump made the Libs feel bad, and he wanted the Libs to feel as bad as he did. The 70-year-old woman who told me she didn’t talk to her seven siblings or their children anymore, because they like Trump and she likes Biden. I stand on the porches of semi-detached houses, and one side has Biden signs and the other has Trump, and I wonder how these people are going to keep living together?
On my daily commute I pass a fancy house whose huge front lawn is a Halloween fantasyland, covered with pumpkins and skeletons and ghosts – and Trump signs – and I wonder if I’d let my kids trick-or-treat there. I don’t think I would. So what does that say about me?