Terry McAuliffe ventured out to address supporters gathered in a hotel ballroom in McLean as the hope drained from his campaign for Virginia governor. It was 10:18 on election night, Nov. 2, a little more than three hours after the polls had closed. “We still got a lot of votes to count,” he said with a frozen grin. After thanking family and supporters, he briefly ticked off Democratic achievements during the past eight years, under his original term as governor and that of his successor, Ralph Northam, who joined him onstage. Because of those accomplishments, “this is a different state,” he said. Then the music swelled and McAuliffe was gone, played off Virginia’s political stage to the strains of “Born in the U.S.A.”
McAuliffe was right — this is a different state, though in more ways than he probably meant. It’s a different country, too. In Virginia, Democrats can point to changes they fostered, especially during the past two years, when they controlled both houses of the legislature and all three statewide elected positions. They abolished the death penalty, legalized marijuana and passed laws addressing voting rights, climate change, immigrant rights, LGBTQ rights and other priorities. They spurred the process of removing Confederate statues and other symbols of white supremacy. Overall, according to McAuliffe, Democratic initiatives have made Virginia more “open and welcoming” than it was.
Yet, presented with that record, Virginia voters responded by giving Republican Glenn Youngkin an edge of nearly 2 percentage points — an abrupt turnaround after they chose Joe Biden over Donald Trump by a whopping 10 percentage points in 2020. On top of Youngkin’s inauguration this month, the House of Delegates has also returned to GOP control.
Meanwhile, the battle lines over culture and identity created by former president Trump, or provoked in reaction to him, crossed the Potomac River just as surely as they knifed through every other state. Virginians — and Americans in general — are dug into bitter stalemates over mask mandates, the role of government in people’s lives and the extent to which the racial reckoning prompted by the murder of George Floyd requires fundamental change. Democratic approaches to those issues crafted in Richmond or advocated nationally by Biden and Congressional Democrats have only fueled further backlash.
Many feel stuck in the middle, like Skip Smith, an information technology specialist I met outside a polling place in Great Falls. Smith told me his paramount issues were protecting abortion rights and defending gun rights, which placed him squarely between the two parties, and he still felt undecided as he prepared to vote. He lamented how everything has come down to fraught either-or choices, and he cited the Founding Fathers’ dire warnings about the corrosive effects of partisan zealotry. He was especially concerned by Trump supporters continuing to sow doubts about the last presidential election.
“We’re looking at the collapse of democracy in America,” he said. “I cannot state plainly enough how terrified I am.” In the end, he filled in votes for Democrats, with an exception. “I held my nose and voted for Youngkin,” he said after casting his ballot. “I still don’t know if I made the right choice.”
Smith is not alone in his sense of terror. As Virginians greet the prospect of a new governor and a divided legislature, the politically purple state offers a microcosm of a country clenched in a raging argument over its identity and future.
I traveled across the commonwealth late last year in search of what has changed in Virginia and what matters to Virginians now, and emerged with a collage of snapshots of a state divided and on guard. From their opposing ideological bunkers, nearly every one of the dozens of people I met said they felt more urgency than ever to be politically engaged, to let their voices be heard. On the surface, they sounded like a dissonant chorus of passionate disagreement. At a deeper level, though, there was a common dread, a collective ache. Virginia — and America — didn’t used to be like this, so bitter and unstable, these voters said. As much as they blamed the other side for the pervasive sense of peril, most of all they wanted to find a way to a place where politics didn’t feel like an existential death match. They weren’t sure how to get there. America can’t go back, they knew, but is the country even capable of going forward anymore?
One chilly Saturday evening in mid-November, a few hundred people gathered on a patch of pavement that was arguably ground zero for Youngkin’s victory: the parking lot outside the Loudoun County Public Schools headquarters in Ashburn. It was here that parents had started protesting pandemic restrictions and “woke” school curriculums more than a year ago, touching off a movement that fueled Youngkin’s campaign and resonated with concerns nationwide. Now, as supporters waited to greet the governor-elect on his post-election thank-you tour, they bought “Let’s go, Brandon” shirts from a vendor, chuckling at the euphemistic meme for a profane insult of Biden, and waved “Parents for Youngkin” signs. Youngkin climbed onto a flatbed truck to address the crowd.
“You all started something right here that spread across the commonwealth, across the nation!” he said in a ragged voice. “This movement doesn’t stop today. … We can’t go back to our old lives because guess what happens? … We wake up and our school boards have moved. We wake up and our kids are being taught things we don’t want them to learn. We all of a sudden wake up and Virginia has moved to a place that looks like California East!”
The crowd booed, and the “Parents for Youngkin” signs bobbed in disapproval. The magic that national Republican strategists see in Youngkin — the ability to deliver partisan lines while simultaneously coming off as a humble suburban basketball dad who shows no trace of his private-equity millions — was on full display. Youngkin is the new prototype of the reality-based-yet-still-Trump-loyal wing of the GOP. His needle-threading moves are being studied and copied. The trick is to harness Trump’s energy without being corroded by contact with it.
After the rally, Youngkin lingered to take pictures with supporters, including Jessica Mendez, who brought her daughters, ages 7 and 9. “I wanted them to be a part of this, and to witness history and the effect that you can have, the change that any one person can make,” Mendez told me. She had tears of emotion in her eyes.
Mendez first spoke at a school board meeting when she became concerned that remote learning during the pandemic wasn’t the best for her daughters. She thought the schools could be reopened safely. She found herself joining the vanguard of a parents movement that was growing in size and energy as it swept up concerns at the center of the nation’s culture wars, including transgender bathroom policy and pronoun use, library books dealing with sexuality and the reckoning over racial history and equity in public school curriculums.
“I used to think that … nobody was listening to us at school board meetings,” said Mendez, who is active in a group born of the struggle, Fight for Schools. “Why go? … But I had it all wrong. It wasn’t the school board members who needed to hear us. It was everyone at home. It was the parents. It was the grandparents. It was the neighbors. They were listening. And they needed to hear us.”
By this past fall, school boards across Virginia were facing protests from parents to “educate not indoctrinate,” and Youngkin seized on their concerns as an election issue. He promised to ban critical race theory, a college-level analysis of systemic racism that critics have used as a catchall for a variety of race-conscious lessons and policies in schools. “Parents are awake,” Cheryl Onderchain, another parent leader who introduced Youngkin at the rally, told me. “We’re not woke. We’re awake.” The schools “can stand up until they’re blue in the face and say, ‘We don’t teach critical race theory.’ They push critical race theory ideology into their teacher trainings because they want the teachers to weave it throughout their lessons.” Those parents in Loudoun are seeking to recall board members, in part for participating in an anti-racist Facebook group, saying they violated open meetings laws.
The activism of Mendez, Onderchain and their allies awakened a cadre of parents in Loudoun and across the state with an opposite view. Those parents began speaking out to defend pandemic precautions, library book policies and the schools’ commitments to teach racial history and promote equity.
“I wanted to be part of the other side, the voice of truth,” Brit Jones, who helped form a group called Loudoun 4 All, told me in a cafe in Leesburg. “It’s very important that we vocalize and publicize the fact that that is not what Loudoun County stands for. It is a very small subset of people who are backed by right-wing dollars, who have an agenda to destroy democracy.”
Jones, who is Black, has two boys, ages 6 and 12, in the public schools. To parents who say the schools should stick to teaching the basic skills needed for college and life, she says those necessary skills include “empathy and equity and tolerance.” Racism “is uncomfortable to experience; it’s uncomfortable to talk about,” Jones said. “If you’re young enough to experience it — my children are young enough to experience it — [then] it’s age-appropriate to talk about, so that my children don’t have to experience it.”
“What they’re really against is teaching the truth about history and not whitewashing history,” says Rasha Saad, another Loudoun 4 All parent. “We are a community, and what really makes me so sad is that I’ve been in this community for 20 years … and for the alt-right, the conservatives, to come in, spread this misinformation and cause this divide in our community — absolutely not. … That’s not what America is.”
The parents I met on both sides started out wanting the best for everyone’s children, but many ended up seeing each other as tools of larger political forces. And then, together, from their opposing vantage points, they noticed that their comfortable suburban refuge wasn’t the same place anymore.
“People became somehow not as friendly as they were before, and these barriers between people, they started growing bigger and bigger,” Omar Toufaily said one afternoon in November when he and his wife, Maysam Al Ghubaini, had me over for tea in their townhouse. “Suddenly things start getting very aggressive.”
Toufaily first detected the change after the attack on the Capitol last year. It deepened with the controversy over the schools. He posted a message of support for the school board and received online attacks against his family and business — much as Mendez had told me she received insults from a neighbor. “Things start[ed] getting really, really poisoned,” Toufaily said.
On the wall of the living room were certificates of appreciation to Al Ghubaini from U.S. military units for her service as an interpreter in Baghdad, where she said masked militia men broke into her home and shot her in revenge. Toufaily is from Lebanon. The couple settled in Loudoun because of the good schools, where their son and daughter, 8 and 10, are enrolled, and became U.S. citizens in 2018. “We feel like we are in the best country in the world,” Toufaily said. “But we need to find a way to let people live in peace, at least between neighbors in the same communities. … If we continue in the same way, so each party or each one is fighting this aggressively for his own ideas, we will never find a solution.”
Herbert Alexis Sifuentes Shols rested his hands on a table in the dining room of his restaurant, Sabor a Barrio. I could see “Lima” tattooed on the back of his right hand and “Peru” on his left. His American Dream started with using those hands to work as a cook, re-creating the delicacies he grew up with. Now, after 22 years in this country, he owns two restaurants and is raising three children. “My hands are from Peru, but my heart is from here,” he said.
Sifuentes Shols hosted Youngkin twice at the restaurant — once for a rally to reach out to the Latino community a few weeks before the election, and once for a rally to say thank you less than two weeks after. Both times Sabor a Barrio was packed. A few negative comments rolled in over social media from people who couldn’t understand why the restaurant would give a platform to a Republican. But the days when Latinos should be expected to reflexively vote for Democrats are over, Sifuentes Shols says. “Now you think, Who is going to do the best for the country?”
The restaurateur is an example of how standard political coalitions are being scrambled under the pressure of new realities. Still, he admitted, to vote for a Republican can be “scary” because of “what they say about Republicans, that they don’t like Hispanics.” But, he added, “when you listen to [Youngkin], you don’t see party, you don’t see red or blue, you see him.” He liked Youngkin’s focus on kitchen-table issues like cutting the grocery tax so the community could more easily afford fresh produce, and his promise to support small business. He was impressed at how Youngkin joined in prayer with the people at the restaurant. “You see the type of person he is,” Sifuentes Shols said. “He wasn’t faking. He was saying the truth of what he felt.” The fact that Youngkin returned to the restaurant after the election — when he no longer was hustling for votes — confirmed for Sifuentes Shols that the new governor will keep his promises to the people.
Not far away, in the Woodbridge section of Prince William County, the immigrant advocacy group CASA of Virginia was giving out turkeys. Thanks to the work of CASA and other advocates, undocumented immigrants in these neighborhoods no longer face hard-line enforcement policies imposed by a previous generation of conservative local officials. Immigrants and low-wage workers made other recent gains despite the opposition of Republicans in Richmond. It was a bitter irony for the activists that Youngkin still made inroads in the Latino vote, while at the same time reducing Democratic margins in the diverse, blue counties of Northern Virginia by wooing White Republicans and independents.
“All these folks that were big supporters of Donald Trump … suddenly lost their favorite politician,” said Kenny Boddye, a Prince William County supervisor, who was helping to hand out turkeys. “They were out for blood.” Even so, the Democrats retained all their delegate seats representing the state’s most diverse county.
“We know that the political parties take turns, especially here in Virginia,” said Luis Aguilar, CASA’s state director. “It will be very interesting to see whether [Republicans] have the ability to govern for all.”
The Sunday evening after the election, Lynlee Thorne hosted a bonfire on her farm in the Shenandoah Valley. The flames blazed atop a hill overlooking a cow pasture. Several dozen guests drew close for the warmth and for the solidarity of others who felt equally crushed by the Democratic drubbing that was especially severe in rural Virginia. In places like this across rural America, the ideological chasm seems almost insurmountable.
The people around the fire felt down — but not out. Thorne set out a huge piece of butcher paper where they wrote their hopes and ideas for action going forward. “I also heard just a lot of determination there,” she recalled. They thought the conservative lock on rural voters could be challenged if big-city Democrats took country people more seriously as voters who shared many of the same values.
I met Thorne, who’s political director for the grass-roots group Rural GroundGame, a few days after the bonfire, when she had a smaller fire going. She and some other farmers were cutting bacon, ribs, loins and chops from the carcasses of four recently slaughtered pasture-raised pigs. “Something that Republicans have done really, really well is not offering solutions, but making sure they are present to tell people who to blame,” Thorne said. “And that is a really powerful mobilization tool that they’ve used very effectively.”
Northern Virginia liberals could learn something from rural Democratic candidates who know how to reach across ideological lines and have respectful, unvarnished conversations with neighbors, the farmers said. Sometimes empathy is all it takes to earn a vote, even if you may disagree over Trump or guns. “We’re real tired of progressives and Democrats in the urban crescent speaking of the communities that feed them multiple times a day with disdain,” Thorne said. “It’s easy … to kind of write people off as, ‘They’re all just racist, out of touch.’ Those folks are loud … but that is not everybody here. Some [rural] people just need [liberals] to show up and have these conversations … and get back to a place where we’re asking each other how we arrived at where we are.”
This part of the valley produced one of the largest vote swings toward Republicans in the governor’s race. Not far from Thorne’s farm, I met one of the women behind the Republican effort, Barbra Knupp, who lives in a suburban-style development constructed amid rolling farmland. She held her Yorkie in her arms in the living room as she described her political awakening. It began with frustration over Democratic highhandedness at the national and state levels. “When they got control [in Richmond] they went so berserk they were doing things just to be doing things,” she said. Trump’s defeat to Biden caused despair among conservatives in the valley — much like the desolation felt by Thorne and her circle after Youngkin’s victory. Trump supporters found solace in the creation of a local “prayer and action” group called Red Wave. Knupp attended meetings and coordinated volunteers for the local GOP headquarters.
People are “tired of being called racist. They’re tired of being called white supremacist,” Knupp told me. She recalled being surprised and delighted to discover that the GOP statewide ticket (a White man, a Black woman and a Hispanic man) was more diverse than the Democrats’ (two White men and a woman of color). Then she caught herself. “Barbra, you’re actually surprised by this,” she said to herself. “They have convinced you that conservatives are racist.”
Knupp recalled a time not too long ago when she said she could have open conversations with more liberal friends or colleagues. “I could say, ‘Oh no, why would you think that?’ And they would say, ‘I think that because — ’. And vice versa. They would say, ‘Oh, Barbra, how could you vote for that?’ ‘Well, look at it this way.’ ‘Oh, okay, I see.’ And we would come to realize we weren’t that far off sometimes. We just explained it differently.”
Those days are gone, she fears. “I always felt for the longest period of time that we don’t differ in what we want for our country. We differ on how to get there. But now I think we’re at a crossroads. We’re differing on what we want for our country.”
What with the election over and the holidays around the corner, I thought attendance would have flagged at the weekly Saturday breakfast of the Virginia Beach GOP, but by 7:45 a.m. the Golden Corral Buffet & Grill, located several miles inland from Virginia Beach’s actual beach, was teeming with about 80 Republicans. They donned blue plastic gloves, per the restaurant’s health rules — a mandate they could live with — to fill their plates for the $10.49 buffet.
I loaded up at the omelet station and took a seat among this group who, I knew, had helped produce by far the largest vote shift toward Republicans in the state — more than 19,000 — compared with the last gubernatorial election. I wanted to know what had fired them up.
“I’ve always voted, but I never got involved because I thought: They have people that handle that. Good people, smart people, and they don’t need me,” said Larry Lane, a government contractor. “But when all the turmoil in our cities happened, you know, with George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. … It was just that I felt like things were kind of spiraling out of control. … I can’t sit back and not get involved.” He volunteered, worked on the party website, helped get a sound system for the breakfasts, recruited at least one friend.
I heard the outline of Lane’s story repeated many times at the breakfast. People had amped up their engagement because something in the potent brew of issues swirling around the pandemic, Trump, schools, racial justice, election integrity and personal freedom concerned them enough to move from spectator to actor. The issues were bigger than Virginia — they were national — but people focused their energy where they could, locally.
“It was just a whole degradation of everything,” said Rebekah Bragg, a party volunteer. “People just kind of got fed up, at which point we really started to look at the control that [the government] had on every element of our lives.” Bragg was selling wooden Christmas ornaments she and a friend had made — printed with a giant, curling red wave about to break on a beach — for $10 apiece, with proceeds going to the servers’ tips. “We wanted a voice,” she added, “and we felt throughout the entire year what really got us riled up about anything is the lack of voice.”
In Youngkin, they thought they had found an appealing leader who could restore something of the unity that ideologically moderate Virginians craved. However, this fantasy of unity was quickly challenged during the public comment portion of the program when a woman in a Make America Great Again hat accused Youngkin of already going soft on the idea of ending pandemic-related mandates. The governor-elect had just told a reporter that he would leave it up to local jurisdictions. “I’m disgusted,” said the woman. “I can’t say that I’m surprised, because I think his true colors may reveal themselves. I pray to God he’s not a RINO” — a Republican in name only.
Many in the crowd muttered disapproval of the woman’s comments, but she still got some applause. Now that these Republicans were politically engaged — as so often happens with political victors in these times — they seemed to disagree on the extent to which they could afford to lay down their partisanship.
The stately homes on Monument Avenue look out on empty pedestals. Virginians can read their own meaning into the voids once occupied by triumphant renderings of Confederate heroes including Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart and Robert E. Lee. Their removal following the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis is a long-overdue acknowledgment of the lingering presence of white supremacy — or is it an erasure of history? One of Northam’s last acts as governor, a month after the election, was to launch the next phase of the avenue’s transformation, ordering the removal of the massive pedestal that used to support the likeness of Lee on his horse in the center of a traffic circle.
“Less is more in this situation,” Brandon Fountain, a Richmond Black Lives Matter activist better known as Bee the Gardener, told me. He was one of a small crowd that gathered the day after Northam’s announcement to watch workers prepare to dismantle the 40-foot plinth. “Without it being there, there’s less reminder of the ownership or superiority.”
Fountain had cultivated a garden in the grassy interior of the circle when protesters occupied the space after Floyd’s death. The demonstrators held vigils, brought in a basketball hoop, served food, helped register voters and festooned the pedestal and grounds with painted messages and artwork. Several blocks away, it was the demonstrators themselves who toppled the Davis statue, while authorities ordered the removal of the other monuments during that turbulent summer. The protests were mostly peaceful, though initially the police response was harsh, with officers firing tear gas. The city later apologized.
During the campaign Youngkin didn’t oppose dismantling the Lee monument. After the election, as work began on the pedestal, he told a radio interviewer: “I have been so clear that, that we can’t, we can’t airbrush away history, and I am really committed to making sure that the monuments that have been removed, the pedestal, end up in a museum or on a battlefield so that we don’t lose our history.”
The carting away of the statues was a powerful symbol of how Virginia was becoming what McAuliffe referred to as a “different state,” and it signaled how the nation was evolving, too. The commonwealth and the country are grappling with the abrupt change in the landscape. Supporters of the racial justice protests hoped Virginia would live up to the promise implied by the statues’ removal by taking more steps in that direction, such as enacting further criminal justice reforms and promoting equity in other ways. Youngkin’s victory, however — following his campaign against the amorphous boogeyman of critical race theory — called those hopes into question.
“This has never been about erasing [history]. It’s been about not putting it on a pedestal anymore,” said Laura McClintock, a consultant who had supported the protests in 2020 and was among those who gathered as work began to remove the Lee pedestal. “These were symbols, but they meant something. And now that they’re gone, the real meaning is in what we can do going forward, to change policy, to change laws and change practices, and to prevent a lot of pain and suffering.”
Youngkin’s supporters, though, saw the commotion around the statues as evidence of things falling apart. Just outside the state capital, in Mechanicsville, Tywana Hampton had found it “heartbreaking” to see the Confederate statues being protested, vandalized and removed. “It shows that if you want something, you’ve got to tear up things and act crazy and scream and yell and misbehave, and then you get what you want,” she says. “If it were up to me, I would have kept the monuments up, and then I would have added monuments that show progress, like a monument of Martin Luther King down there would have been nice.”
Hampton, who works in health insurance, and her husband, Tony, a sign language interpreter for public schools, are Black and think Democrats are exaggerating and exploiting racial issues for political gain. We spoke in their living room, where a portrait of their son, who is in college, was proudly displayed on an easel. “When someone says ‘Black Lives Matter,’ that makes me feel like, Did you ever think my life didn’t matter?” Tywana Hampton said. “It’s insulting to me.”
Once she took a picture standing on an auction block for enslaved people that was preserved in another part of the state. “Like, Yeah, I’ve conquered this,” she said. “It was a power move for me.” The statues gave her a similar feeling. They “make me always remember how far I’ve come and how we can keep moving forward.”
Across Virginia, the legacy of the Civil War shares physical and mental space with the heritage of the American Revolution. From the quarters of enslaved people at George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello to James Madison’s Montpelier, the nation’s ideals and its sins are still argued over.
In Hanover County, north of Richmond and birthplace of Patrick Henry, I visited the historic courthouse where, in a legal case years before the first shots of the Revolution were fired, Henry offered one of the first arguments for the primacy of elected representatives over an unelected king. On the lawn in front of the courthouse is an obelisk commemorating Confederate war dead. The juxtaposition was jarring — memories of the nation’s founding carefully preserved alongside a certain reverence for the attempt less than four score and seven years later to destroy the Union.
Today the stakes for the state and the nation are almost that high, as I heard again and again from people I met. Sometimes they appealed to the same founding principles of liberty and justice for all to argue opposite points. As I contemplated Henry at the courthouse, I recalled the alarm in the voice of the owner of an antique clock sales and repair shop I had met a few days earlier in Bedford, to the southwest. “It’s time for the people to wake up and smell the roses,” Don Adams, a Youngkin voter, told me over the chimes and cuckoos of dozens of old clocks tolling the hour. Some dated to the era of the Revolution. Now Adams was worried about how much more time America has. “If you don’t, by the time you do, it’s going to be too late. … If you read [the Declaration of Independence], it says that it’s up to the people to oust the government and start over if they want to.”
No one was talking about rebellion or civil war just yet, though they did sound as though they were in the late stages of giving democracy one last chance. “We feel like we’re in an existential battle,” Dale Hargrove Alderman, chair of the Hanover County Republican Committee, told me when we met in her house that predates the Revolution. “If you’re worried about America … the only way you can make a difference right now is on the ground, and you’d better get involved and you better get people elected.”
For the Republicans of Hanover County, that meant turning out 12,000 more votes for Youngkin than the GOP got four years earlier, giving the party one of its highest net margin gains. Alderman knew she was making headway when she saw a Youngkin sign go up on Thomas Leachman’s lawn in Ashland. Leachman comes from a family with Democratic roots, and he had voted for McAuliffe for governor in 2013. As we sat on his porch watching the trains pull through the historic railroad town, Leachman explained why he, too, is so worried about the direction of the state and the nation.
“I feel like the state of Virginia is a little bit too divided than what I’m used to,” he said. “We’re not representative of the people we’ve always been.” He’s tired of conservatives insulting Joe Biden with the refrain “Let’s go, Brandon.” It “was funny for like two weeks,” Leachman said. “But now it’s getting to the point where we need to move past this because that’s the type of stuff that’s bringing us as a country down.” He’s equally impatient with liberals trying to cast every conservative as a clone of Trump. “Politicians probably need to lead the way in treating one another better than they do, rather than just put one another down all the time, because it trickles down,” he said. “Youngkin represents a guy that I feel can be like a coach-slash-mentor that brings people together.”
Whether or not the new governor actually turns out to be a uniter, Leachman put his finger on Youngkin’s appeal as a type of politician who might offer a timeout from the existential battle. The question is whether there can ever be a timeout from the existential battle. It’s something that people in many parts of the state told me they yearn for.
“We are living in a time when everybody’s teeth are on edge,” said Naomi Hodge-Muse, president of the Martinsville-Henry County NAACP, whom I’d visited in the southern part of the state. Even though she volunteered for McAuliffe, she said Youngkin “could be a brand new paradigm for where America needs to be. It ain’t all to the left. It ain’t all to the right. It’s right here in the middle. … If Glenn Youngkin can use good sense and not sit down with those crazy white supremacists … and understand that he is my governor as much as he is your governor … he could become the poster child for the new Republican Party that does not race-bait and brings our country back to the center. … America needs to be America for everybody.”
The political center is increasingly endangered, if it even exists anymore. But the left and the right don’t need to meet in the middle, if they could just remember how to communicate “soul to soul instead of ideology to ideology,” Peg McGuire, a Republican in Roanoke, told me. McGuire largely blames the far left for the poisoned atmosphere — progressives who dismiss Trump voters as racists, for example — though she faults the far right as well — conservatives who automatically reject the concerns of Black Lives Matter and dismiss Democrats as “socialists.”
“Why should anyone be hated for their vote?” she said. “Their vote comes with a story and a belief system and who they are as a person. … If you’re not going to listen to that person’s story and why they believe what they believe, you’re shutting that down and you’re not part of the community. You’re not part of America, because we are billions of individual stories.”
I kept meeting people who thought a solution to our discontent might lie in more openhearted encounters with those who disagreed with them. As I shuttled between ideological bubbles, though, I looked in vain for places where the bubbles merged. The pandemic has only hardened our retreat into bunkers of true believers. One morning near the end of my trip, I stopped by the EL3ven11 Beauty Lounge in Rocky Mount, a hilly little town south of Roanoke.
As Bridgette Craighead, the owner, awaited the day’s first customer, she told me how the atmosphere in town had been politically charged since the murder of George Floyd. The tension had continued through the defeat of Donald Trump and the campaign to elect Glenn Youngkin. “Whether you’re on the right side or the left side, I just think this is the year of awakening,” she said.
Craighead had helped lead Black Lives Matter protests in town and got 23 percent of the vote running as a Democrat for state delegate. “Times are getting scary, and instead of entertaining this national propaganda … we need to be worrying about our neighbors,” she said.
Craighead was dissecting what she considered one element of that propaganda — conservatives’ distortion of critical race theory — when the salon’s door pushed open and Christina Morris came in with her daughter Bri, who was about to turn 12. “Hey, Queen,” Craighead said to Morris, her standard greeting (men are “King”). Morris, who is White, adopted Bri, who is Black, when the girl was 6. To Morris, who had discovered Craighead’s salon awhile back, it was worth the trip from Roanoke to bring her daughter to a stylist who knows how to take care of Black hair.
Continuing the thread of conversation, Craighead said, “If we’re going to ban critical race theory, then we need to get rid of every single [Confederate] statue.”
I wondered if Morris would agree with Craighead about critical race theory — but she didn’t, exactly. To her, critical race theory “is actually creating division” because it focuses on differences, “instead of saying that, you know — we talk about being a melting pot.”
I soon realized that the Black Lives Matter activist salon owner and the White libertarian-leaning licensed professional counselor who voted for Youngkin didn’t agree on a number of things. But as I listened to them talk for the next 90 minutes, I could sense something else emerging.
Morris noted that BLM gets criticized by some because supporters sometimes participate in protests that turn violent. But Craighead pointed out that her BLM demonstrations weren’t like that. And her group responded to the racist taunts of Rocky Mount residents by shouting “I love you!” (Craighead was accused of using “abusive language,” a misdemeanor, in an incident in September; she denies the charge. The case is pending.)
“There are going to be variations of [Black Lives Matter] and misinterpretations of that,” Morris conceded. “That can be for anything, like a misunderstanding. And I think that happens a lot.”
Craighead related how, after one protest, she got a letter from someone saying she should go back to Africa because “we tried to domesticate you and it did not work.”
“I’m sorry,” Morris said. “But that speaks volumes about the person who wrote the letter; it has nothing to do with you.”
The talk turned to hair. Morris told Craighead that she had taught herself how to give Bri crochet braids. Craighead crossed the room with a delighted smile and open arms. “White girl, let me hug you,” she said. She explained how rare it is for White people to give Black hair its due. Morris said she is starting to pay closer attention to White people’s interactions with her daughter.
Craighead was elbow-deep in shampoo suds when Morris brought up the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager who fatally shot two people in August 2020 during unrest in Kenosha, Wis. The stylist paused in scrubbing Bri’s hair to pay close attention. Morris explained how, to her, it was clear Rittenhouse acted in self-defense.
Craighead shook her head. She told Morris that a Black man in Rittenhouse’s place would be in prison or dead.
“We’re talking about two different issues,” Morris protested. “We’re talking about self-defense, and then we’re talking about race.”
Craighead put a period on the subject: “We’re going to always have different views on that.” But she said it with a tone that communicated she wouldn’t hold it against Morris.
Craighead brought up the case of Chrystul Kizer, charged with killing the man who sexually abused her as a teen. Now there was a case of injustice they could agree on — Morris and Craighead both thought Kizer was being unfairly prosecuted.
After a while, Craighead had a question for Morris. “You’re a Republican, you voted for Youngkin. … Is it possible to be a Republican but also support me? … Why support me when our views don’t add up?”
“Because I’m going to support policy,” Morris said. “I don’t necessarily vote Republican — it’s the Republican values that I support,” and she saw values in Craighead that she could appreciate. She said if she lived in Rocky Mount, she would have voted for Craighead.
“What we’re doing here … we are setting the tone for the world,” Craighead said. “I’m willing to hear your views, you’re willing to hear my views. We might not agree, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love you.”
“It’s respect for each other,” Morris said.
Craighead turned on the hair dryer, which drowned out further conversation. I realized that no one had won any arguments, and nobody compromised any principles. But a conservative and a liberal had a little better idea of where the other was coming from. For a moment, at least, in this beauty salon in the hills of southern Virginia, a different state almost seemed possible.
David Montgomery is a staff writer for the magazine. Washington Post polling director Scott Clement, polling analyst Emily Guskin and database editor Ted Mellnik contributed to this report.