It’s hard to build political bridges when we’d rather blow them up.
THE PULLED PORK and corn pancakes platter at Smoking Mo’s barbecue restaurant in Shelton just might be the thing we need to unite our fractured nation.
Two great tastes that go great together — especially when topped with Carolina-style barbecue sauce and breakfast syrup, and layered high in a tower of decadence.
A week after a raucous Donald Trump rally and counter-demonstration near the U.S./Canada border in Lynden, this restaurant at the southern tip of Puget Sound feels like a paradise island on the sea of our collective political discontent.
In any case, you can’t argue very much if you’re busy stuffing your face.
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In a campaign year featuring a filter-free billionaire, possibly the first female president and a democratic socialist as the last contenders standing, the most remarkable candidate of all just might be us — an electorate that seems fed up with politics as usual and the usual politicians.
Polls show that among the three remaining presidential candidates at the tail end of the primary process, only Bernie Sanders, who promised a political “revolution,” boasted a majority-favorable rating. Both presumptive nominees, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, suffer from near-historic low popularity standings.
No matter which candidate prevails, the public’s hatred of the political establishment, and perhaps our suspicion of each other, could win out on Election Day, giving our collective middle finger a landside victory.
For nearly a decade since the Great Recession, stock markets, major companies and CEOs raked in record returns, profits and salaries while the average American household watched its income flatline or decrease.
The downturn and its aftermath ushered in both Tea Party rage and Occupy Wall Street sit-ins. Then came battles over immigration, the minimum wage and police conduct with African Americans.
In Seattle this spring, large Black Lives Matter, Clinton and Sanders events drew a cross-section of the city’s famously left-leaning residents. But even in traditionally diverse liberal circles, race and class issues simmer beneath the surface.
The anger has been building since before the 2016 presidential race began, but something seemed to snap when we started shouting each other down and landing punches at campaign events.
All politics is local, the saying goes.
This time around, though, all politics seems personal.
There’s a sweet moment in Beyoncé’s stunningly in-your-face “Lemonade” visual album, at the end of the video for her rousing song “Freedom,” a clip that also was shown during her recent concert at CenturyLink Field.
We see home-video footage from the 90th birthday party of her husband Jay-Z’s grandmother, Hattie White, who tells the assembled guests how she’s dealt with life’s ups and downs.
“I was served lemons,” White says, “but I made lemonade.”
The past decade has served us lemons, too, but we’ve been throwing them at each other.
A recent national survey found that a quarter of us use the F-word daily, up 10 percent from 2006. Three-quarters of the respondents also said rudeness and bad behavior have been on the rise, driving the bar for civility lower and lower.
We should have seen this year coming.
THE “MO” IN Smoking Mo’s is Monica Carvajal-Beben, who grew up in Oklahoma. Co-owner and husband Tom Beben grew up in South Carolina. They’re both Democrats and Sanders supporters, and they’ve fallen in love with the old logging town.
In 2012, they purchased and renovated by hand the historic Bank of Shelton building in which the restaurant is located, with their business partner, state Rep. Drew MacEwen, a Republican.
“I always say, ‘Bipartisanship works. Look at Smoking Mo’s,’ ” Carvajal-Beben says during a break from cooking in the kitchen.
But she knows that sort of goodwill is in short supply outside her restaurant.
“Vilifying the enemy — that’s what our politics have become,” she says. “People feel like they’re doing something if they’re lashing out. It’s our new normal.”
Carvajal-Beben gets why people are so angry. The traditional version of the American dream is increasingly out of reach for those in the middle class whose buying power has shrunk. She understands that people are fearful that things will never turn in our favor.
In today’s lopsided economic climate, in which many say they haven’t personally benefited from the recovery, “You’re always going to feel like you just missed the mark,” she says.
“Our country is afraid.”
THE MOOD IS decidedly tense in the border town of Lynden on the day of Trump’s rally. His fans line up for several blocks on the street outside the local fairgrounds in hopes of making it into the stands. The venue holds only 5,500 people. But the crowd outside stretches far down the road and around the corner.
The road perfectly symbolizes our political divide.
Scores of anti-Trump protesters fill the sidewalk opposite the Trump line, while a row of law enforcement officers forms a wall between the two camps in the middle of the road.
The chants from the protesters cut to the bone. There are repeated accusations of racism and xenophobia. But aside from a few face-to-face shouting matches, people mostly keep their distance.
Politicians like to ply voters with bread and circuses — Trump throws in a prideful disregard for cultural sensitivity.
A couple of days before, he tweeted a “Happy #CincoDeMayo!” photo of himself digging into a taco salad and grinning like a kid who just took somebody’s lunch money to buy it.
“I love Hispanics!” his tweet read.
It took no time for his tweet to become protest fodder.
“Hey Trump, eat my taco bowl,” retorts a cardboard sign by a woman with #feministsagainsttrump.
Nasreen Mughal-Barrows, a Muslim-American from nearby Bellingham, quietly holds a sign that says everything she wants to express today without her saying a word.
In six lines neatly scrawled on a white board, she condemns misogyny, racism, Islamophobia, anti-immigrant speech, fascist rhetoric and Trump himself.
“For me, being out here isn’t so much about feeling passionate about a certain candidate; it’s about feeling passionate against this one,” Mughal-Barrows says.
Trump’s campaign slogan is “Make America Great Again,” often written with an exclamation point at the end.
The “again” part begs an important question: Great again compared to when?
People like Mughal-Barrows, 33, also want America to be great, but she, at least, has worked her whole life simply to make it bearable.
“I moved to this county in 1992, and there was a real lack of diversity,” says Mughal-Barrows. “I was one of the only Muslim students in my school, one of the only students of color, and all of a sudden I was put in the position of having to represent an entire minority, an entire culture and an entire religion and explain things constantly, especially post-9/11.”
Mughal-Barrows says she’s uncommitted and frustrated about the political process but has felt an affinity for Sanders.
Her in-laws, who are white but have embraced her warmly, she says, went to the rally.
She’s come to appreciate the importance of building bridges with others who are unfamiliar with and in some cases hostile to her and the religion she represents.
“How do you correct stereotypes and address fears without reaching across, without reaching out a hand?” she asks.
As she talks about bridge-building, a Trump supporter across the street shouts, “You can’t stop Trump!” through a bullhorn as Trump detractors yell back, almost drowning out our conversation.
“Trump has big hands,” another guy yells.
Mughal-Barrows just laughs.
“That’s their right,” she says.
“Make America white again,” someone shouts toward the Trump crowd.
Mughal-Barrows then looks to her sign, and her mood sours.
“When there’s a political candidate who is so outspoken with exactly what I have on here — with Islamophobic rhetoric — that really, really sets me off. It pisses me off,” she says. “Those manifest into real consequences for real people.”
She’s referring to Trump’s repeated suggestion that he’d ban some or even all Muslims from entering the United States until they are deemed not to be a threat.
“I don’t wear the hijab, out of fear,” she says. “I’m so sick and tired of having to defend myself.”
WHILE MUGHAL-BARROWS continues her silent demonstration, across the street in the line for the Trump rally, an opponent of trans-friendly restrooms takes signatures for a potential state ballot measure to “keep men out of the ladies room.”
Near him, Kenneth Overman, 61, of Arlington, waits in the hot sun with his teenage son.
Overman says he came of age politically among fellow white, evangelical Christians in the 1970s. A former Republican precinct committeeman, he used to be gung-ho for his party, especially after Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980.
“Over the years I’ve lost that zeal,” Overman says. “I feel that the Republican party has lost so many golden opportunities to make social differences in the country that it’s hardly worth passing the ball to them anymore.
“I’m almost sick of politicians, to be honest with you. If I have a chance to vote for a non-politician over a politician, the non-politician will get my vote.”
Yet here Overman stands, at a rally led by a man who is not a politician but who still hasn’t won him over.
He lets out a sigh.
“Donald Trump. What in the world is this? There’s never been a political run-up to the presidency in this country as long as I’ve lived that looked anything like this.
“I saw a sticker that says, ‘Trust Trump. First thing I said was, ‘Trust Trump? What do you mean?’ No way. I trust God. I don’t trust Trump.”
But he’s willing to give the candidate a chance to prove himself. He sees wisdom in Trump’s embrace of former Republican candidate Ben Carson, whom Overman says he deeply respects.
“If Trump were to be president, I wouldn’t lose sleep at night if he surrounded himself with men of character and integrity like Dr. Carson, who could guide him.”
“God willing,” Overman says of Trump, “he’s going to be thinking more about what he says. I will pray that he learns humility.”
JUST THEN, THE civility of the moment dissipates like a vapor when a vendor with a wagon full of anti-Clinton T-shirts walks by.
“Hillary sucks!” he bellows. Then he shouts a crude sexual reference to drive home his point.
Two young women in line are mortified.
“Wow, this has been an enlightening day,” one of them says.
None of us makes it into the already-packed rally inside the fairgrounds.
A group of Latino protesters, spurred by Trump’s call to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, among other things, drove from the Seattle area to voice their opposition in person. Wearing matching “Trump = Hate” T-shirts, they gather at the curb and chant at the Trump fans milling near the fairground gates.
“I’ve never felt like more of a minority than I do right now,” says Jose Mariscal, 19, a student at the University of Washington’s Bothell campus.
“All of my friends are minorities,” back home, he says. “All the people that Trump’s basically using as scapegoats, I’m friends with them.”
“I don’t think they’re hateful people,” he says of Trump’s supporters. “They live based on the stereotypes.”
“Hey hey. Ho ho. Donald Trump has got to go!” some protesters chant.
“The same goes for us,” Mariscal says. “Sometimes we’re afraid of the people that identify with the Republican party or Trump supporters. If you go on social media, people are only exposed to people they know. It’s polarized.”
The rally now over, people start to file out of the fairgrounds, which sparks a whole new round of chanting from protesters.
“Shame on you! Shame on you!” one group calls out. “KKK is not OK! KKK is not OK!”
Trump supporters Chad Cohn, 18; Noah Rathjen, 15; Colton Zender, 18; and Sam Stargell, 17, walk quietly past the jeering protesters, and unlike many other Trump fans, they hold their Trump campaign signs low, perhaps to avoid attracting unwanted attention.
They say they enjoyed seeing Trump, and they believe his detractors have him all wrong.
“These folks are angry because they think he’s a racist,” Cohn says.
He’s not, they all say, practically in unison.
Cohn says he admires Trump because he plays politics his own way.
“I like that this guy’s honest about everything — and real about it,” he says. “And he makes a great point — everyone’s pockets are greased.”
LEAVE IT TO a Canadian to see the common threads binding the two sides of the roadway.
Cameron Gardner, 33, a film-industry worker from North Vancouver, has been acting as a human Peace Arch today. Though not fans, he and his family spent the afternoon in line to see Trump, just for the spectacle of it.
They also didn’t get in. But it wasn’t a waste.
While mingling with the Trump crowd, Gardner says he had some revelations.
“We set up ourselves on these opposite sides, yelling at each other, but it’s so interesting because what I was constantly talking about was the things that both sides actually agree on,” he says. “It used to be political suicide for both sides to talk about anything anti-free trade. And now you’ve got a candidate on both sides saying maybe some level of protectionism is a good economic policy.
“When I boil down the passions on both sides, I think a lot of it focuses on social issues that divide us.” But, “There’s room to bring people together.
“I’m an optimist. I may be the only one.”