Civil war ghosts rising again: DAN HODGES visits Trump country
America’s civil war ghosts rising again: DAN HODGES visits Trump country ahead of Tuesday’s crucial mid-term elections and discovers it’s neighbour against neighbour
Army veteran Jim Berry fixes me with a grizzled stare and doesn’t mince his words. ‘What we’re seeing is socialistic anarchism,’ he says. ‘You look at these people on the Left and free speech is only allowed for them. They may hate Trump, but at least he says what he does and does what he says. I’ve waited a long time for a President like this.’
Berry, in his early 60s, is sitting in his guitar shop on the main street of Culpeper, the picture-postcard town that represents the unlikely crucible of a new American insurrection.
Culpeper is in the Virginia 7th, one of the 24 congressional districts the Democratic Party needs to win if they are to retake the House and deliver a mid-term body blow to Donald Trump’s presidency in Tuesday’s elections.
Half an hour up the road is Spotsylvania, among the most hallowed of all Civil War battlegrounds. In 1864, it was the scene of the most brutal fighting of the most brutal campaign of the conflict. When it ended, 30,000 men lay dead or wounded and the Confederacy had suffered the losses which would ultimately force its surrender.
But, as I’m about to discover, America’s Civil War ghosts are stirring again.
Loathing. Lies. Neighbour pitted against neighbour. Even husband against wife. Ahead of Tuesday’s crucial US mid-terms, Dan Hodges visits Trump country
Before I arrived in Virginia, I spent an evening with friends in a leafy middle-class suburb of Washington. Just about every other front porch contained a yard sign endorsing the Democrats or the multilingual statement: ‘No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbour.’
But I was told my trip was about to change. ‘Wait till you reach Culpeper,’ my hosts said. ‘America starts to look very different.’
It did. A couple of minutes after crossing the county line, with the Blue Ridge mountains drawing a ragged border across the horizon, I came across a different sign.
Planted defiantly beside Route 15, it warns ‘Kneel on our flag and we won’t watch your games’ – a blunt repudiation of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the NFL players who have endorsed it by kneeling rather than standing for the national anthem.
I spent an evening with friends in a leafy middle-class suburb of Washington. Just about every other front porch contained a yard sign endorsing the Democrats. But I was told my trip was about to change. ‘Wait till you reach Culpeper,’ my hosts said. ‘America starts to look very different’
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Culpeper is Trump country. In 2016, the county’s 21,000 votes broke two to one in his favour.
But the Virginia 7th is actually a highly competitive district. Numerous heavily Republican but sparsely populated rural counties abut the strongly Democratic Richmond suburbs of Chesterfield and Henrico. Which makes this a knife-edge contest.
Wielding the knives are two candidates straight from the central casting agency of America’s culture war.
Incumbent Dave Brat is a product of the insurgent Tea Party movement, a sort of proto-Trump.
In 2014, he stunned the Republican establishment by winning a bitter internal battle with sitting congressional House Majority leader Eric Cantor, running a hard-Right anti-immigration, anti-crony-capitalist, anti-Washington insider platform.
His challenger is Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA officer, teacher and Girl Scout leader, part of the ‘new wave’ of Democratic women who have picked up Hillary Clinton’s fallen standard.
Virginia Congressman Dave Brat, left, during a debate with Democratic challenger Abigail Spanberger, right, at Germanna Community College in Culpeper
As I drive past isolated farmhouses to hook up with Spanberger’s campaign in their Orange county HQ, the stream of soft rock on my radio is interrupted by an advert sponsored by supporters of Brat.
‘Nothing is more important than my safety,’ says a woman’s voice, darkly. ‘Abigail Spanberger is a risk we can’t afford. She taught at “Terror High”, a school so radical one student tried to assassinate President Bush. We can’t trust her in Congress.’
A fact-check reveals Spanberger provided maternity cover at a Virginia school several years after a former student was convicted of terror offences. But few voters are likely to conduct a fact-check.
Like Culpeper, Orange is essentially a single high street, another small town fighting a brave rear-guard against the soulless malls slowly devouring Middle America.
The Spanberger campaign office is situated in a former tavern once owned by fourth US President James Madison. According to local folklore, in his first campaign Madison failed to provide free beer for the locals, and lost. It was a mistake he never repeated.
Warm and articulate, Spanberger is serving her supporters coffee, rather than beer. I ask her about the attack ad, expecting her to blithely dismiss it. But she is candid about its potential influence.
The Civil War of 2018 is creating many scars. And when Abigail Spanberger speaks of Brat, it’s with a tone of loathing and contempt. ‘I’m running against an opponent who can’t tell the truth. Who makes up stories about me. Who misrepresents my positions on everything’
‘I laughed out loud when I first heard it. But the difficult part is I know that it impacts people. People are frightened by it. I took a lot of risks serving in the CIA and I made a lot of sacrifices. It’s one more reason why I’m committed to ensuring my opponent doesn’t make it back to Washington.’ Spanberger is trying to learn from 2016. She is keen to downplay gender – ‘I don’t want anyone to vote for me just because I’m a woman.’
She’s focusing on Dave Brat, not Donald Trump (‘I don’t need to run against Trump, I’ve got my own version’) and she’s trying to reach out to Republican voters by pledging to defend the interests of everyone, even those who don’t support her.
But the Civil War of 2018 is creating many scars. And when she speaks of Brat, it’s with a tone of loathing and contempt. ‘I’m running against an opponent who can’t tell the truth. Who makes up stories about me. Who misrepresents my positions on everything.’
US President Donald Trump gestures before boarding Airforce One
For many observers, the backdrop to these elections has been the letter bombs posted to Democratic politicians and the Squirrel Hill synagogue shooting last weekend which left 11 Jewish people dead. But here in Virginia another bloody legacy overshadows this campaign. Orange is a 40-minute drive from Charlottesville, the scene of violent clashes between anti-fascists and neo-Nazis that resulted in the death of activist Heather Heyer. ‘If it wasn’t for Donald Trump, Heather Heyer would still be alive,’ farmer and Spanberger supporter Bill Speiden tells me. ‘He’s changed everything. In Orange, friends are turning on each other. My wife had someone come up to her and say, “I just wanted to see what a commie ranter looks like.” It’s never been like that here before.’
Another Spanberger supporter, education supervisor James Dallas, echoes him. ‘We’re not the United States any more. This isn’t who we’re supposed to be.’
Later that evening, I fall into conversation with Roger Clark, a beekeeper from Cedar Mountain. He says that for the first 48 hours after Trump’s victory he had to cut himself off from the world. Then his wife Linda interjects. ‘I voted for Trump,’ she says. ‘Hillary kills babies.’
I finally track down the Brat campaign to a bar in the small town of Blackstone. But I arrive to find the Congressman berating local journalists – ‘do you check your facts?’ – and I am told my presence is not welcome. Fortunately, some of his supporters are more forthcoming.
‘Dave and Trump both talk common sense,’ Jeanne Everahat, a wife and mother, tells me. ‘We need to close our borders. Just look at the migrant caravan’ – a reference to the 7,000 migrants marching towards the US/Mexico border, and Trump’s pledge to halt their advance.
She agrees about the polarised nature of the campaign, but blames that primarily on the media.
‘If you actually get out there, it looks very different. You see blacks in high places. You see whites in high places. I’m afraid a lot of this division is your fault.’
A moment later I’m joined by Billy Coleburn, the mayor of Blackstone. He explains the Brat campaign’s defensiveness is because they believe Spanberger’s team have deployed ‘trackers’ to disrupt the event. ‘They send them in to follow and confront Dave and try to get him to lose his cool,’ he says.
Eventually Brat’s organiser, the magnificently named William Outlaw, appears. He apologises for my eviction, but again blames it on the toxic nature of the campaign. ‘I genuinely believe at the heart of what we’re seeing is the fact that Donald Trump wasn’t supposed to win,’ he says.
‘The liberals just can’t accept it. That’s where the outrage and the violence are coming from. But it doesn’t have to be this way.’
I’m told I can catch up with Brat at the Louisa fairground.
On the drive out of Blackstone I pass another giant sign: ‘Trump: Yes We Did! Now: Lock Her Up!’ It may not have to be this way. But here in Virginia, it is
On the drive out of Blackstone I pass another giant sign: ‘Trump: Yes We Did! Now: Lock Her Up!’ It may not have to be this way. But here in Virginia, it is.
At Louisa, the Halloween fair organised by a local church is in full swing. Mothers and fathers wander round, tiny ghosts and ghouls in tow, while the band plays an infuriatingly catchy version of Christian pop. Clearly feeling he is among his own people, Dave Brat is starting to relax. ‘We’re doing good. We’re trending up,’ he says smiling. But then the bugles of the Civil War of 2018 sound again.
‘The tone of the campaign was great in my district for years,’ he declares angrily. ‘But with Spanberger and the campaign it’s all negative. We’ve had them swearing at us to stop us speaking. We had a pastor giving an invocation, and they stopped him speaking.
‘The Dems have been using tactics like you’ve never seen.’
Brat insists he’s trying to run a positive campaign. But if he is, word doesn’t seem to have reached some of his supporters.
‘I’m voting for him because he’s not one of those crazy Democrats going around doing crazy stuff,’ Jack Singleton tells me.
‘As a free American, I don’t like certain people and I’m going to vote against any of them.’
President Donald Trump speaks at a rally, November 2, at the Tri-State Airport in Huntington, West Virginia
He is especially concerned about gun rights. ‘I would prefer every person in this crowd had a gun. Then if anyone bad came in here, everyone could just put them down.’
Francis Poindexter, the organiser of the fair, is praying for divine salvation from her political opponents. ‘I believe God is in this situation,’ she says. ‘Look at Donald Trump. Everything we pray for happens.’
Did the Lord deliver Donald Trump? ‘Absolutely,’ she replies.
If the figure waving to the crowds on Friday in a chilly airport hangar at Huntingdon Tri-State airport is the product of divine intervention, he isn’t letting on.
This is one of Donald Trump’s final appearances of the mid-term campaign, and he is seizing the moment. ‘We’re here to celebrate our amazing achievements together. To make sure America’s great comeback continues. We’re now moving full speed ahead like nobody thought was possible.’
To many these are classic hackneyed Trumpisms. But at least he is deploying an upbeat message. The audience responds enthusiastically. And for a moment I start to think perhaps the talk of a nation turning against itself is overblown.
Supporters hold campaign signs during a Make America Great Again campaign rally
Then his tone, and the mood, changes. He begins regaling the crowd with a blood-curling description of the migrants marching towards America’s border.
They are violent offenders, sexual offenders, murderers, he warns. ‘Do we let them in?’ he asks. ‘Build the wall!’ the crowd chants in response.
Just before leaving Virginia, I drive out to the Confederate Cemetery in Spotsylvania. Rows of small white headstones, some recently tended with Confederate flags, line the circular grounds.
On the base of the monument, tucked discreetly round the back, are the following words: ‘We have gathered the sacred dust, of warriors tried and true, who bore the flag of our nation’s trust, and fell in the cause, though lost, still just, and died for me and you.’
Like their forefathers 150 years ago, the warriors of both sides in the new US Civil War believe in the absolute justness of their cause. On Tuesday, the American people will decide who is right.
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