The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For two Nebraska women, the Kavanaugh hearings test their view of their country, of Trump and each other

Laynette Van Anne and Kerri Schnase-Berge pose for a portrait in their neighborhood in Gering, Neb., on Sept. 28. The two live across the street from each other and are friendly despite their political differences. (Valerie Mosley/For The Washington Post)

GERING, Neb. — On the morning of one of the angriest and most contentious Supreme Court confirmation hearings in U.S. history, two women in rural western Nebraska rose to get their families ready for the day.

Kerri Schnase-Berge, 43, had lain in bed the night before thinking of the woman who had accused Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her in the early 1980s. When she woke early on Thursday morning, Christine Blasey Ford was still fresh in her thoughts.

“How could she even calm down to fall asleep?” Kerri said. “I just couldn’t get that out of my brain.”

On the other side of the cul-de-sac, Laynette Van Anne, 49, woke in her home thinking about the judge who she believed had been smeared by Democrats still angry about the 2016 election. “They’ve found him guilty before all of the facts have even come out,” Laynette said matter-of-factly. “All the Democrats want is to overthrow anything Trump tries to do.”

Both women had grown up in this pocket of the state. Kerri graduated from the local high school and lived for several years in Denver and Washington, D.C., where she worked in politics and her husband held a senior job in the Agriculture Department. They returned home to start a family.

Laynette was less well-traveled — the farthest away she had ever lived was Lincoln, across the state — and she sometimes wondered if Kerri’s experiences in Washington had given her an understanding of the government’s inner workings that weren’t available to average Americans, like her.

They met three years ago after Laynette’s then-13-year-old daughter, Morgan, was raising money for her eighth-grade class trip to Washington and left a handwritten note on Kerri’s front door.

“My mom and dad say I can go if I earn half the money,” the note said, “so I want to babysit your kids.”

Now Morgan is Kerri’s kids’ beloved babysitter. Kerri and her husband follow her high school cross-country races in the local newspaper and have taken their children to see her basketball games.

She is also the link between two women who, like the rest of the nation, often have opposing views of the country and where it is headed. Their differences remain raw despite long efforts to bridge the impasse. Both women awaited the Kavanaugh hearings on Thursday with a sense that the stakes couldn’t be higher.

For Kerri, the hearing was a test of whether female victims of sexual assault would be believed, even when their attackers were powerful and influential. “That’s essentially what all of this comes down to,” she said.

For Laynette, it was a test of whether the Democrats, in their zeal to stop President Trump, were willing to tarnish and politicize the highest court in the country. Both women watched, hoping for some new insight into what had happened between Kavanaugh and Ford.

Mostly, though, they watched in the hope that their side would win; that their voice would prevail 1,600 miles away in Washington.

Today western Nebraska is the reddest region of one of the reddest states in America — a product of the country’s great and ongoing geographical sorting into two separate ideological camps.

Trump carried Scotts Bluff County, which includes Gering, by 48 points. By western Nebraska standards, it was a tight race. In several of the more rural surrounding counties Hillary Clinton received fewer than 20 votes.

When Kerri first moved back to Gering in 2008, she liked to spar with her Republican friends over politics. But in recent years she has learned to keep her political opinions to herself. “It didn’t feel safe anymore,” she said. “No one was going to pull a gun on me, but it just wasn’t fun.”

The day after the 2016 election she said she felt angry and physically sick. She decided to pour out her feelings in a Facebook post.

“To my Muslim American friends, to my LGBT friends, to my Latino friends and to American women, particularly those who have been victims of sexual assault, I don’t have an explanation for what happened Tuesday,” she wrote. “We will not let him hurt you. We are Americans, and we will not let him destroy our values.”

Laynette read the post on her phone one evening after work. “It hurt that she had to apologize for us Americans voting [for Trump],” she said. The post also confused her.

On warm days, when the windows were open, Laynette and her husband loved listening to Kerri playing with her children in the backyard. Her booming laugh carried for blocks. Kerri and her husband, John, treated Morgan, Laynette’s daughter, as if she were a member of the family.

“Kerri you and I need to visit,” she wrote in a private message. “I need to understand where all this comes from.”

A week or so later Laynette brought a pot of coffee to Kerri’s house. They argued about gay rights. Laynette and Kerri attended the same Catholic church, and both hung crucifixes by their front door. “Do you believe God makes you gay, because if you do then what’s wrong about it?” Kerri asked.

Laynette replied that she knew gay people and was “fine with them,” but she didn’t like it when they tried to convince her that “what they were doing was right.”

Kerri raised the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump boasted about grabbing women’s genitals. The men she knew best — her husband and father — had never used such language, she said.

Then they are “saints,” Laynette replied. She’d heard plenty of talk like Trump’s growing up in rural Nebraska.

Their toughest exchange sprang from a moment of levity. When Laynette mentioned that she was going next door to talk with Kerri about the election, her daughter issued a warning: “Don’t mess up my babysitting job with your stupid politics.”

Kerri laughed at the story and then turned serious. “It won’t be a problem as long as there’s no racism,” she recalled saying. Two years later, she replayed the conversation in her head and regretted it. Kerri believed Trump was a racist but didn’t think that Laynette harbored prejudiced views. Still, she never apologized for the remark.

They met once more for coffee, but neither seemed especially excited about it. Their views were too different to reconcile. As the months passed, Kerri grew angrier and more frustrated with the state of the country. Her father and sister suggested that she should move to Denver, where more people shared her perspective on Trump. Kerri told them she liked Gering.

“I was raised in a small-town atmosphere and I want my kids to have that,” she said. “It’s a nice thing that my neighbors know my kids and that I can follow Laynette’s kids in the newspaper. I can follow their successes.”

Her low point came over the summer when the Trump administration began separating children from their parents at the border. Kerri was playing the “The Star-Spangled Banner” for her kids on the piano in their dining room. When she got to the question at the end of the song — “Oh, say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave over the land of the free and the home of the brave?” — she began to cry.

A few days later she and her husband started a campaign on Facebook to collect toothbrushes and stuffed animals to send to churches and relief agencies helping children at the border.

Laynette noticed the Facebook campaign online but decided not to donate. “I was a little uncomfortable that they were doing it,” she said. She believed that just as many, if not more, children had been separated from their parents by previous administrations and that the issue was much more complicated than it was being portrayed in the media.

Kerri’s collection campaign, she said, “just played into the false reporting.”

Christine Blasey Ford recounted and defended her sexual assault allegation against Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh on Sept. 27. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Kerri’s husband was at work; her kids were out of the house as she listened to Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) open the hearing on Thursday.

“A terrible couple of weeks,” Grassley was saying of the period since Ford first came forward publicly in an interview with The Washington Post. “Unacceptable . . . a poor reflection on the state of civility in our democracy.”

Taped on the wall above Kerri’s television was a magic-marker drawing of a rocket ship that her son, Theo, 6, had asked her to hang a few days earlier. Her eyes were fixed on the screen where Grassley was still talking.

“Why is this necessary?” she asked. “Are they trying to freak her out before we even get ­started?”

The camera cut away briefly to Ford, who brushed back her hair, rustled some papers and sipped a glass of water. “I wish I could transfer some confidence to her through the television,” she said.

Kerri was perched on the edge of her couch, her elbows resting on her legs and her head pitched forward toward the television set. She stayed in that position for the next half-hour as Ford described the details of an encounter 36 years earlier that she said were “seared into my memory.”

On television Ford recalled being pushed into a bedroom and assaulted by Kavanaugh who placed his hand over her mouth to muffle her calls for help. She described her attacker’s laughter as, she said, he and a friend fled down a narrow stairway, “pin-balling off the walls on the way down.”

Soon Kerri’s phone began to chirp with a text message.

“Are you listening?” asked her mom in Denver.

“I feel so sorry for Christine,” Kerri replied, referring to the woman she was hearing speak for the first time, but who in only a few minutes had come to seem to her both believable and familiar. “She looks horrible.”

“Who wouldn’t be?” her mother texted back. “They have already pretty much told her that he WILL BE confirmed.”

During a break in the action, Kerri listened to the sympathetic commentary on MSNBC. She briefly flipped over to Fox News where one of the anchors was lamenting that the Republicans had yet to lay a glove on Ford.

“That’s why I can’t watch Fox,” she said, turning the television back to more comfortable territory. She looked at her Twitter feed where she mostly followed liberal activists and columnists. On Facebook, some of her old friends from elementary and high school were attacking Ford. “All these accusers are about the most unattractive, ugly women I’ve ever seen,” one elementary school classmate had written. “Take it as a compliment you b-----s!!!”

She briefly thought about replying and then just decided to block the classmate. “I don’t need that kind of toxicity in my life,” she said.

Farther down in her feed, a local group that had formed after last year’s women’s march, called “Panhandle Pussycats,” was looking for volunteers to help organize a protest in nearby Scotts Bluff in the event that Kavanaugh was confirmed.

Kerri’s husband had been listening to Ford’s testimony on the computer in his office, but had to break away for afternoon meetings. So Kerri texted him a quick update. On television, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) was calling the hearing an “unethical sham” and “the most despicable thing I have seen in my time in politics.”

“Lindsey came totally unglued,” she wrote, “and the ­Republicans are back in the game.”

Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh adamantly denied Christine Blasey Ford's allegation of sexual assault before the Senate Judicary Committee on Sept. 27. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

During her lunch break, Laynette rushed home from her job at the county treasurer’s office to watch the hearing.

She had been guiltily stealing glances at Fox News on her phone between customers who lined up to turn in auto registrations or submit sales tax forms. She popped two slices of leftover meatloaf in the microwave for her and her husband, a veterinarian. They bowed their heads and said a quick grace over their meal just as Kavanaugh was making his way down a packed hallway headed to the hearing room.

“Who wants to be scrutinized and filmed like that,” she said as camera shutters clicked away on the television. “I just feel bad for him.”

She paused and sighed.

“And for her, too,” Laynette said, thinking of Ford. “I am sure she doesn’t want to be doing this either.”

Kavanaugh choked back tears as he recalled how his daughter Liza, 10, had suggested that they pray for the woman who had accused him. “It’s a lot of wisdom from a 10-year old,” he said. “We mean — we mean no ill will.”

Laynette’s eyes were fixed on Kavanaugh’s wife, who was sitting just behind him. “I don’t know how she’s not crying,” Laynette said.

“He seems believable,” Travis added.

Laynette glanced at her watch; she was going to be late getting back to work. “I’d like to watch him finish,” she said, grabbing her purse and scrambling to the door. She started the car and pulled out of the driveway.

“Dang!” she said thinking of the emotional scene that was playing out in Washington. “I don’t know what to say. Just dang.”

So much of the testimony seemed like another world. She wondered what kind of teens spent their days hanging out of country clubs and their evenings guzzling beer at house parties. “Where were the parents?” she asked. “That wasn’t my life when I was 16.”

When she returned home from work in the evening, the testimony was finished. So, she flipped on Fox News and checked her Facebook feed. One of her friends had posted a short video that was circulating online of an African American woman passing an envelope to one of Ford’s lawyers. The post suggested that it could be a clandestine payment of some sort. Laynette wasn’t sure what to believe, but from what she knew about Washington it seemed ­possible.

“I bet they know a heck of a lot more than the rest of us,” she said, thinking of the hearing room packed with lawmakers and journalists. “To be honest, we don’t trust the media to tell us the truth anymore.”

On the other side of the cul-de-sac, Kerri had flipped off the television and was unpacking her son’s half-eaten school lunch and asking him about the “active shooter drill” that had taken place earlier that day in his first-grade classroom.

“Was it scary?” she asked.

“It was only a drill,” he said. “But I bet if we have a real one it will be a little scary.”

Kerri checked her phone and saw a missed text from her mom. “Grrr! He’s going to get in,” she had written of Kavanaugh.

When Kerri wrote her angry Facebook post after the 2016 election, she had chastised herself for sitting “silent through the election.”

“I am awake now,” she had written. “And I will be complacent no more.”

She was still figuring out what it meant to be active and engaged in the Trump era. Watching the day’s hearings left her feeling empty and she doubted that joining a protest march with the Panhandle Pussycats or some other group would make her feel any better. “I’m sitting there cheering like I’m watching a football game,” she said of her day spent mostly in front of the television. “I have my team. Laynette has her team. It’s not a good thing.”

Back on Laynette’s side of the cul-de-sac, she was making lasagna for her family and thinking about the hearing and also about Kerri. She had given up hope that her voice could be heard in Washington. This, she decided, was one cause of the political chasm ­between them.

“She wants more control over what’s happening and I think maybe I relinquished that,” Laynette said. She spooned out a layer of ground beef and a layer of mozzarella mixed with cottage cheese onto a bed of lasagna noodles and popped the pan in the oven. Dinner was going to be 30 minutes late, she told her husband and children.

“Our life is not there,” she said, thinking of Washington. “It’s here.”