The Cold Civil War

From bumper stickers to Taylor Swift, it's hard to escape signs of a nation divided against itself

A sign in the windows across the street from Denver Federal Court where the Taylor Swift sexual harassment trial was to resume in Denver, Colo. on August 9, 2017. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

I admit this could be a cheerier travelogue.

In the span of a year — Oct. 18, 2016, to Oct. 17, 2017 — I went on multiple trips, setting foot in 29 states. I enjoyed and appreciated the wide array of landscapes, sights, and history this country has to offer. But every now and then, events had their ways of barging in.

In New Orleans, I saw the Robert E. Lee statue, a symbol of the Old South — after the city council voted for it to be removed. In Lexington, Mass., site of “the shot heard ’round the world,” the flag was at half-staff — for victims of the Las Vegas shooting.

The more I thought about my experiences, the more I saw evidence for something that’s been the case for years: It’s not just a “culture war.” It’s a full-blown Cold Civil War.

OCT. 19. 2016 • HERNANDO, MISS.

“If there’s ever been a person who has made a deal with the devil, I cannot imagine they would act any different than Hillary Rodham Clinton,” the call-in guest said. “Hillary is pure, deep evil, mean. … Ask anyone who’s ever been around her about the odor. …”

It’s not precisely what I expected to hear on a break between podcasts.

Alex Jones, a gravelly voiced radio host known for conspiracy theories, picked up what Larry Nichols put down. ”Let’s talk about the odor, because I’ve heard the Secret Service say she smells like rotting meat. … Obama, I’ve been told, smells like rotting meat. Now, the Bible says this is what demons smell like.”

Paranoia and hatred are not limited to one side. A year before, Salon carried a piece headlined “They really want a theocracy,” referring to the 2016 Republican candidate field, calling out “faith derangement syndrome” and “arrogance intrinsic to religion.” Days before I started this vacation, a writer for the Atlantic condemned white voters who “have shown themselves to be not just unfortunates but undesirables — irredeemable hatemongers itching to reassert their cultural dominance.”

A party led by demons or one dominated by theocratic racists — which side are you on?

NOV. 4, 2016 • CHICAGO

Thanks to a previously planned trip, I’m in the Loop in the aftermath of the biggest party in Chicago history. Everybody is linked in celebration, but it will be short-lived. It’s a matter of days before the two sides of America confirm how much they hate each other.

A week after the Chicago Cubs win the World Series, Donald Trump will be elected president. If you tried to send that message summing up 2016 back in time to any point in the past 40 years, no one would have believed it.

APRIL 20, 2017 • AURORA, COLO.

Most of this trip’s travel has been on the open plains, passing half-empty downtowns, multiple abandoned schools and a sign that warned, “NO GAS FOR 75 MILES.” But here, going through subdivisions and sprawl that didn’t exist a decade ago, it’s like I’m in a different country. In many ways, I am.

I can only imagine what the driver in front of me, in a Prius bedecked with bumper stickers for Bernie Sanders and the “coexist” religious-symbol mashup, would say to whoever spray-painted “TRUMP!” in giant letters on an abandoned building 100-some miles away.

Especially since the election, only two words go back and forth across the trenches. The first is unprintable and the second is “you.”

Can we coexist — not just religiously, but urban and rural, college-educated and not, or any of the other divisions that spring up by the week? Do we even want to?

SEPT. 1, 2017 • CONRAD, IOWA

It’s not the Golden Band from Tiger Land, just two dozen high schoolers at most. It’s not the nosebleed section of Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La., just the BCLUW visitors bleachers with nothing to the rear but farm fields. But 10 and a half months and a thousand miles apart, I saw the bands do the same thing: Play “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a football game. Standing for the national anthem is one of the last things Americans, collectively if separately, still do together for their country.

Or, was, and did.

Three weeks later, Trump decides the best course of action in that latest brushfire of the Cold Civil War is to airdrop a tankful of gasoline on it.

OCT. 14, 2017 • AUGUSTA, MAINE

“Taylor Swift, like so many divas before her, has sold her soul to the devil!”

This statement from a pastor’s radio minute caught me off guard not just for its ferocity, but for the direction the criticism came from. Over the past year, it was not the right attacking Swift, but the left, for something she hasn’t said. Writers for multiple websites have denounced Swift for not denouncing Trump. BuzzFeed dedicated an article to calling out the entire country music genre for remaining apolitical.

In “Look What You Made Me Do,” one of Swift’s new songs, she is out to send a harsh message to her haters and destroy her previous incarnations.

She’s onto something. In the past 18 months, different electorates have sent the same message: Look what you made us do.

Here in Iowa, residents of Gladbrook, upset about losing their school, forced a vote on whether to dissolve the Gladbrook-Reinbeck Community School District. The petition-driven referendum, unprecedented in Iowa history, ended with the district intact — but Gladbrook voted 6 to 1 in favor.

Tama County was one of 18 counties in Iowa, and 11 in southwest Wisconsin, that hadn’t voted Republican for president in decades — until Trump.

When a substantial percentage of people believe things are not getting better, that they are losing what they value, and that it’s preferable to blow the whole thing up rather than endure the status quo, we don’t have a recipe for an era of good feelings.

It’s a formula for division and endless cycles of reprisals until one side is subdued.

At the airports, security rules tell the world the terrorists succeeded. But when it comes to everything else, no external force is needed. We’re doing it to ourselves.

• Jeff Morrison is a Gazette copy editor who grew up in rural Traer