It’s startling to see what is reported in polling, playing out on the ground. During this past week of especially horrifying news, one of the stories has been that Trump voters are not having second thoughts in response to flagrant government abuse of human rights on the border. On the contrary, their support is all the more fervent. Trump may be right that grabbing children from their parents and putting them in detention centers, and the chaos that it has produced, is good politics for him.
At least it looks that way to me, on the ground, canvassing the 58th. The dynamics of this election are coming into focus. The Trump base will turn out in large numbers in the midterms. One element that goes into a wave election, low turnout on one side because they are discouraged, is not likely. What we can’t know yet is whether the Trump base is growing or shrinking in raw numbers, or whether the Democratic base is growing, or whether Democrats will be able to match Republicans for intensity. Swing voters, as always, could swing in either direction.
Here’s another discouraging sign. The behavior of primary election voters so far offers us no evidence of a coming blue wave in the 58th. Primary ballots returned through yesterday closely match the turnout in the 2016 election. In Montrose, Republicans outnumber Democrats about three-to-one and in Montezuma Republicans outnumber Democrats about two-to-one. It seems unlikely that ballots yet to be returned and counted will change those ratios much. Democrats could overperform in the November general election, compared to the primary election, but it’s hard to guess why that might happen.
In other words, Trump is onto something when he forecasts a “gigantic red wave.” Spraying gasoline on the never-extinguished embers of racism is working for him, no doubt about it. We can only hope it is firing up our base, as well, and alienating swing voters from Republicans.
But it’s doing something else, too. It feels like a powder keg out there, going door-to-door.
I can’t say if canvassing really is more dangerous and frightening this week than it was last week. I can’t separate out what happens in the news from what happens on the ground. Does the news of Trump’s latest outrage color what I see in voters? Or does it change what I’m actually seeing?
Most likely, it’s both and it’s an emotional roller coaster. A typical precinct in the 58th, outside of deep-blue Telluride, looks to me to be an increasingly dangerous patchwork, littered with booby traps. It’s a place where the mix of voters consists of a very large group of indifferent, disengaged or unresponsive voters; a small group of friendly voters who are eager to commiserate with a like-minded candidate about the dangerous state of our politics; and a larger group of hostile voters filled with Trumpian rage. When you knock on a door, you can never guess which type of voter will answer. The outward evidence is misleading. Registered Republicans can be friendly. Registered Democrats can be mean. Registered Unaffiliated voters can be closeted Dems or Republicans. Lovely looking homes can be full of hate and unkempt yards can belong to lovely people.
Often a person who appears to be in a state of psychological distress answers the door. Often there are people inside a home who choose not to answer my knock. As the song goes, “paranoia strikes deep, into your life it will seep,” and maybe it was as bad in 1966 when Buffalo Springfield released the song as it is now. Somehow, I don't think so. I think now is much worse.
The paranoia that has seeped into my life as I’ve tried to navigate this landscape safely is not just the fear of an unpleasant encounter. Vicious attack dogs patrol many properties. The gun issue starts to seem like less of an abstract argument. “I am armed,” gun proponents have told me, “so that I can defend myself against the federal government when they come to confiscate my guns.” People who talk this way believe they are members of a citizens’ militia, and that such a militia will be called upon to act someday. How different are they from the Interahamwe of Rwanda, trained and prepared to immediately carry out the genocide when they received a prearranged signal on national radio? What hateful words would Donald Trump have to tweet to mobilize our homegrown militia? We saw glimpses of how it might be sparked at the Bundy Ranch in Nevada in 2014, and at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2017.With Trump as president, the tinder is much, much dryer now.
I have spent time in Berlin, in Cambodia and in Rwanda. I am familiar with the literature and the movies of genocide. I co-authored a book about the civil rights movement, which I researched in part by spending many months in the Deep South, talking to people who had suffered under Jim Crow. The echoes of historic atrocities fueled by racism and tribalism are impossible to tune out as I canvass Montrose and Cortez.
We are always cautioned against hyperbole. Former CIA Director Michael Hayden has been sharply criticized for comparing Trump’s immigration policy to the treatment of concentration camp prisoners in Nazi Germany. A former CIA director! Mr. Hayden knows how quickly a situation can worsen from forcibly separating children from their parents, to incarcerating the children, to preparing for long-term detention of migrant families, to even worse crimes. Any student of history should know this.
If we are prohibited from calling Trump and the Republicans fascists, is it allowed to observe that they are operating out of the fascist playbook? Is it debatable that Trump won the presidency on racism and is doubling down on it to try to win the midterm elections so he can consolidate his power? We hate this fact, but Trump does command the agenda, and so this past week it’s been hating on migrants, all the time, 24/7. The racism becomes increasingly overt and the Trump base loves it. And they love that we hate it, because while heaping abuse on migrants and minorities may be the main point, trolling us is a welcome side benefit.
When we talk about the lessons of history, I always imagined that a lesson is absorbed so that we can avoid the mistakes of the past. But what if the lessons of history are used, instead, as a road map to a dismal future?
Faced with these realities, of rising fascism in the United States, of politics that at least in the near-term seem to be working to advance fascism, what are we called upon to do?
If we loudly sound the alarm, we are accused of hyperbole. If we retreat to the safety of our own tribe, we are acquiescent. But if we persist in campaigning in Trump Country, we court paranoia. We expose ourselves to risks that may be partially, but are not entirely, imaginary. Not knowing if they are real is the nub of the problem.
It is the essential nature of societal collapse that neighbors turn against neighbors. The very ordinariness of our neighborhoods seems like protection, but with the slightest shift in perspective, this very hominess can start to seem ominous. To canvass is to visit people where they live, which might be a reassuring experience or a deeply unsettling one. The most pastoral setting may house residents whose paranoia has morphed into hatred. When society is fragile, you approach strangers at your own risk.
For perspective, the four counties of the 58th House District voted for Donald Trump by a vote of 66% to 34%. That’s a 32-point margin. But it’s actually worse than that. Remove San Miguel County, the only pro-Clinton county in the district, and the pro-Trump margin in the remaining three counties jumps to 42 points, 71% to 29%. The latest national polls say Trump’s support may be growing. If so, there is no reason at all to think it’s not growing here. All of this could change, of course. It could change for the worse because Trump will make more disturbing news every week between now and the election, all of it aimed at deepening the paranoia and further inflaming us all. Or at least in an electoral sense it could change for the better, if his efforts backfire.
In any case, working the precincts of the 58th House District isn’t likely to get any easier. I am working to find the psychological space to allow me to do this without fear. Maybe even joyfully.
Our mission is clear: to change hearts and minds.
How to do that is anything but clear.