The inauguration of Joe Biden was just days away, and Natalie Abbas was feverishly searching for 11th-hour interventions that could prevent the swearing-in of a president she’ll likely never accept. She sent a video to her friend and political sparring partner, Jim Carpenter.
Five miles across town, the local newspaper was on Carpenter’s sofa and The Washington Post on his doorstep. When he clicked on Abbas’ link, his jaw dropped and his white eyebrows darted up and down.
“This is nonsense,” he said, shaking his head. Then he laughed so hard he bent at the belly and slapped his knee. “It’s really nonsense.”
Abbas and Carpenter are local ambassadors for a program designed to bridge the nation’s extraordinary political divide, and the gulf between them is about as wide as one gets.
Carpenter is a 73-year-old retired statistician who believes what dozens of courts have found: Biden is the rightful winner. Abbas, 59, says her conviction that the election was stolen from former President Donald Trump is as strong as her belief in God. Together, they ponder the greatest challenge facing Biden and American society: how can they find common ground if they no longer exist in the same reality?
They don’t agree on basic facts. They don’t even share a vocabulary. They use the same words – truth, proof, patriotism – but they don’t mean the same thing.
In this sick and scared country, many have retreated to their bubbles, surrounding themselves with people certain the other side is their enemy – inhuman, un-American. Polls show roughly two-thirds of Republicans express doubts about the election.
So Carpenter and Abbas decided to navigate one of the tensest weeks in American memory together, as the Trump administration ended and Biden’s began. Abbas, who flirts with the QAnon conspiracy theory that a cabal of child-killing pedophiles runs the world, still desperately wanted to believe it wouldn’t happen. Carpenter could barely wait for the new president, one he believes is a man of character capable of leading the country off this dark and dangerous path.
“People are getting threatened on both sides,” he said. “People are going berserk.”
“It’s crazy,” Abbas replied.
“So tell them to stop. Can you tell them to stop?” “Can you tell your people to stop?”
They both sighed.
“I think we can lead by example?” Abbas offered.
Carpenter nodded. He’d written himself a personal mission statement that to him seems as true as any mathematical equation: “create a world of connection and respect by seeing the light in the eyes of others.”
“Where is the light?” Carpenter said. “I’ve got to find it somewhere.”
They are surrounded by reminders of what happens when Americans turn against one other.
Frederick County, right on the Mason-Dixon Line, is called the “crossroads of the Civil War.” On the bloodiest day in American history, Sept. 17, 1862, 23,000 bodies fell just 25 miles from downtown Frederick at the Antietam National Battlefield.
Memorials stand all over the county: “Their struggle to preserve the union must never be forgotten.”
The county is now reflective of the nation’s political mood. Frederick County’s 2020 vote mirrored the national popular vote: 53.3 percent chose Biden. And the political hostility bubbled over here, too: police investigated a letter threatening Biden supporters, campaign signs were torn out of lawns, and local partisans use words like “immoral” to describe their opponents.
So Carpenter and Abbas, who hadn’t seen each other in months because of COVID-19 restrictions, sat down a few days before the inauguration in the lobby of his retirement community. An hour away, thousands of National Guard troops were fortifying Washington, D.C.
The week before, on Jan. 6, Trump’s supporters had stormed the Capitol building at his urging, chanting “stop the steal” and threatening the lives of lawmakers while Americans watched in real time on TV. Abbas was at the rally, though she was not part of the siege.
“What do you mean the election was stolen? How was it stolen?” Carpenter asked her. He called Trump’s claims ‘the big lie” that led to rebellion. She gasped.
They are part of a national initiative called Braver Angels, inspired by a passage in President Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address in 1861, when he appealed to the “better angels of our nature” as the country was tearing itself apart.
Bill Doherty, a marriage therapist in Minnesota, started the group just after Trump’s election in 2016 because he thought the nation was edging toward a “civic divorce.” He’d sat across from warring couples, and learned that when they retreat to separate worlds, the marriage crumbles. On Facebook, he watched people say things like “if you don’t agree, unfriend me.” The tribal bunkers were being built before his eyes.
After the riot, Braver Angels scrambled together an online program and 4,500 tuned in. That is what gives Doherty hope: the first step in fixing a marriage is recognizing it’s in trouble, he said, and the only thing both sides seem to agree on is that the country is staring into an abyss.