In nation at war with itself, one town tries cup of civility
LOVETTSVILLE, Va. — When Maureen Donnelly Morris came from nearby Leesburg to open her café in Lovettsville, she got a warm welcome. Neighbors rallied to her aid. Divisions ripping at their town and their country were set aside. America's thunderous rage felt distant.
They sank posts for her parking signs. They brought solar lights for the cheery space outdoors, sharpened her bagel-slicing blades and contributed plants, all to herald what would become the town's social hub and civil common ground, Back Street Brews.
Forget, at least for one split second, red, blue, left, right, pro-Trump, anti-Trump. No one asked the woman from Leesburg: Which side are you on? (And she wouldn't have said, if they did. Still won't.)
In this community of some 2,200 and others like it across the United States, neighborly ways and social ties persist, even in a country that seems to be at war with itself. It's a quieter force than all the yelling that is driving Americans apart. But the redemption of a nation and future of its democracy may depend on it as the anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol approaches.
At least among neighbors in the café, says Moe, as everyone calls her, “You’re allowed to be a Republican and I don’t hate your guts. And you’re allowed to be a Democrat and hopefully you like me if I’m not.”
In a terribly fractious America, that sentiment can no longer be taken for granted.
A year after the violent assault on the Capitol by supporters of a defeated president, Donald Trump, the United States is split in nearly every conceivable way. Shared sacrifice seems to be an artifact. Against the coronavirus and other problems, we're conspicuously not “all in this together,” as the pandemic cliché claims. There's no common set of facts.
Still menaced and now exhausted by COVID-19, Americans can't agree that it's better to be vaccinated. Elected officials, even the No. 2 Republican in the House, refuse to say that the duly proper, legal and fair election of President Joe Biden was not stolen from Trump. To be clear, it was not.
The battles have filtered into professional sports, where some players were willing to forfeit $400,000 a game to preserve their right to expose themselves and others to a disease that has killed over 800,000 in this country. Abortion, a subject of long-settled constitutional law but ongoing political debate, is dividing the U.S. even more than usual as the Supreme Court considers whether to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Deeply complicated questions about race, parental rights, schooling and the teaching of history gave rise to fiery, simplistic slogans and a sense among voters in Virginia and elsewhere in November's elections that Democrats are out of touch. Virginians put the brakes on their drift from red to blue, electing a Republican governor for the first time in a decade.
The Republican Party remains in thrall of a man who peddled conspiracy theories from the highest office, eggs on local Republicans to skew election laws to make it easier for them — and perhaps him — to win, and threatens Republicans in primaries who do not endorse his lie that the 2020 election was a fraud.
The public is deeply split over whether to believe an unassailable fact — that Democrat Biden was honestly elected. In the Jan. 6 aftermath, about two-thirds of Republicans agreed with the idea that Biden's election was illegitimate and by the fall, their interest in seeing the insurrectionists prosecuted had declined.
To Fiona Hill, who served the previous three presidents across party lines as a Russia analyst, it all adds up to politics in the United States as "Mortal Kombat, the video game.”
“You have to kind of slay your enemy," said Hill, whose new book examines the root causes of the rise of Trump and other populist leaders. “It's all basically framed as win-loss, victory-defeat, red versus blue, different factions and shades of blue fighting with themselves. ... The Republican Party, the party of the people that I worked with when I was new in the Bush administration, they’ve all disappeared."
That's the warring America. It plays out in Washington, in decidedly uncivil town meetings across the country and over the airwaves. It infects social media, where people, by their own admission, lose their minds.
There's another, quieter, America, too. It asks about the family. It commiserates about the water bill and shoots the breeze. It's a place where people who can be Facebook-nasty are face-to-face polite. Often it meets over coffee.
There's no question that Trump drove people further into their political corners and made things louder, coarser and more chaotic. And the one-two punch of political distancing and social distancing has taken a toll.
Trump and the pandemic “pretty much ripped a hole through the center of town,” says Kris Consaul, a left-leaning activist and a former town planning commissioner in Lovettsville.
Into the breach came Back Street Brews, which set up in a building shared with the Painted Pig craft shop in late 2017, then expanded in 2021 to fill the space after pandemic-plagued months of serving people only out a window. The town got its first place to hang out, sit with a laptop or strum a guitar.
Worship groups, a new-mom gathering and various other coffee klatches have taken root. Political discussions pop up, though rarely a heated argument. And when you sneeze in one cubbyhole, a stranger in another calls out, “Bless you.”
“It’s not really a pot-stirrer kind of place,” said Moe, who turns a brilliant smile on everyone who walks in. “I just don’t invite it. And if it comes up, you know, as long as it’s respectful, you can talk about whatever your beliefs are. I don’t care. If you are a staunch this or staunch that, I always say, keep that out of here.”
John Ferguson, a long-retired foreign service officer who moved here five years ago, contributed flags and solar lights to Back Street on Lovettsville's Pennsylvania Avenue, a lane barely wide enough for two cars to pass. He's there often and makes runs to Costco for Moe. He was massively relieved when Trump vacated the big white house on that other Pennsylvania Avenue, in Washington.
Ferguson was raised in the “FDR Democrat” tradition in Hartford, Connecticut, where the Republicans were wealthy businessmen and Democrats were almost everyone else.
A student of history as well as a career diplomat, Ferguson shudders at the fresh memories of Trump on rally stages, “strutting around, jutting out his chin ... like Mussolini,” the Italian fascist of World War II.
“A colossal mess and a tragedy,” Ferguson says of the Trump legacy. When it comes to defending the integrity of elections and standing on guard against more insurrections like Jan. 6, “I don’t think you can pussyfoot around right now and certainly not for as long as Trump is on the scene.”
But what of the Democrats?
“They seem to take a sort of smug attitude," Ferguson said. “They are treating Trump voters as if they’re stupid. That’s a huge mistake. It’s tremendously dangerous to alienate them.”
Erik Necciai, a consultant to federal agencies, brought his family to the Lovettsville outskirts just more than 10 years ago. In the early 2000s, he worked as a Senate aide to Democrat John Kerry of Massachusetts and Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine on the Small Business Committee. He knows about quaint bipartisanship. He's also handy with a shovel.
So when another neighbor made wooden posts for Back Street's tight parking, Necciai bought the concrete, dug the holes and poured the footings.
“We all have different political views,” he says, describing his own only as moderate. “It's very hard to have conversations nowadays in public spaces. But I sat here in this coffee shop not long ago ... and some topic came up, and then all of a sudden, we were solving five or six different political problems. Russia, what do we do about that? China?
“Everybody’s opinion was greatly accepted. And I think we need a little bit more of that. We live in a world now where we are learning better to not judge people on their exterior. Yet, if somebody were to come with a particular hat — a red hat ... we instantly judge them. When we don’t necessarily know them."
Jessica Sullivan, a professional tarot-card reader who also works behind the counter at Back Street, moved to Lovettsville 15 years ago to take a job teaching at a private school across the river in Maryland. The town had a reputation then as a backwater of Loudoun County, a fast-growing area of northern Virginia encompassing the tech corridor outside Washington and rural towns and farms.
“I remember thinking, dear God please let me not die here because this place has nothing in it and I don’t know anybody,” she said. But as the town grew in the years since, so did her attachment to the people.
Now, she says, "I don’t want to live anywhere else. ... I'm very relaxed and chill and I don’t need anybody to think the same things that I think in order for them to be a good person to me."
PERILS OF ‘MASKBOOK’
Still, Sullivan said, “we do have a kind of dark undercurrent at times.”
In one provocation, a pro-Trump parade that came through town during the 2020 campaign diverted off the main street and stopped outside the home of the activist, Consaul, and her wife, Sheryl Frye, blaring horns to intimidate the couple.
It was also in 2020 when the couple turned their sprawling fence line into a showpiece, painting it the colors of the gay pride rainbow flag. It was meant as a statement of support for LGBT youth who, like others, were isolated at home in the pandemic.
The festive decoration has delighted many in town while upsetting some on the cultural right.
As Consaul describes how 20 people showed up to help paint the fence, her cat sits on her lap on her porch and her roaming chickens stop to listen, heads cocked sideways.
The parade was an overt sign of friction. But behind the shield of social media, where you can spout an opinion and not have to look someone in the eye, the tone has been harsh and confrontational.
The local gun store owner, who routinely posts inflammatory, liberal-hating slogans on a sign outside his store and rages on social media, in 2020 announced a sale on AR-style rifles. The sign named the sale after “krazy” Kris and her neighbor — with a mangled spelling of their names — in a call to “Be Armed.”
Yet on both sides of the divide, people share a consensus on a few things. One is that Lovettsville is a family-friendly place where you can send your 10-year-old to the 7-Eleven alone without worry.
Another point of agreement is that Facebook has given a few ugly voices an outsized megaphone — half-hiding behind the online veil that Moe calls “Maskbook.”
In raw exchanges on the local Facebook group, a downtown home and family displaying multiple pro-Trump banners were denounced as a “Trump dump.” From the other side, vile insults have been flung at gay people and anyone on the left.
Many in town have quit this online competition of cruelties. As if rubbernecking a car wreck, others can't quite look away.
In that forum, “people feel more free to just say whatever they want and attack,” said the woman whose yard boldly displays the pro-Trump sentiments of her husband and herself. “I've heard it all.” She asked not to identified because of local tensions.
As she spoke, her cat jumped on the chest-high fence with the 2024 Trump banner and rubbed insistently against the interviewer's face.
Off Facebook, the Trump supporter has got some liberal friends and doesn't hesitate to visit Back Street, sizing up Moe as “definitely down the middle.” "We take our little one for milkshakes and things like that.”
So do the radical lefties. So do the moderates. So do the just plain people.
They'll all shoot the breeze, ask about family, complain about the water bill or something.
Then it's back to the ramparts. That's America for you.
“It’s affecting people,” Moe said of the perils of this era. “Not me. Not in my bubble. We’re going to be fine, everyone! We’re going to land on our feet in my coffee bubble.”