The day starts early.
I need to make up time due to the snowstorm, so I have a 74-mile ride ahead of me, the longest of this journey so far. I grab a muffin and a cup of coffee at a local cafe and pedal off, wearing a puffy jacket, long johns and a knit cap underneath my helmet.
The highway slices through red rock badlands that look like they were parachuted in from southern Utah. It’s still bitterly cold and there’s snow in the ditches. As I cruise around one cliffside, I spot a sprawling property along the banks of the Wind River with pro-Trump flags everywhere.
They say ‘Hunters For Trump,’ ‘Veterans For Trump,’ and ‘Bikers For Trump.’ That third one has a photoshopped picture of the president riding a motorcycle with a red, white and blue elephant on it.
I’ve been looking for two weeks to find an enthusiastic, flag-flying Trump supporter to interview – now is my chance. I ride up the driveway and make small talk with a woman smoking a cigarette outside. I tell her I’m a public radio reporter interviewing folks in small towns and rural communities ahead of the 2020 election – that I spotted this property from the road and had to give it a shot.
She’s kind and tells me the owner of the property, Ben Barto, would be happy to speak with me. He’s inside working at a desk and greets me warmly. He was born and raised in Wyoming and makes his living as an artist, creating ornate, antler-handled knives and producing Trump apparel – shirts, bumper stickers, and flags like the ones I saw outside. Barbo was a supporter from day one.
“He’s the first president who has not been a politician in a long time,” Barto says. “Donald Trump cannot be bought. He’s not a career politician. He’s a businessman. That’s why he’s turned the economy around and that’s why people love him.”
Barto is middle-aged and says he’s gotten into politics more as he’s grown older. As a kid, he used to be a Democrat – his family supported President John F. Kennedy. He believes the party used to be pro-America, but now it’s not.
“They became liberal. They kept going further and further to the left,” he says.
Barto equates them with socialism and Marxists and says the country is spiraling into a revolution.
“I think it’s heading there,” he says. “People are now waking up. They’re tired of seeing what’s going on in these cities burning under Democratic rule. Black Lives Matter – Black Lives Matter aren’t the only ones that matter. Black Lives Matter is the most racist, progressive movement out there. They’re the cause of this destruction that’s going on right now.”
I point out that we often misunderstand each other's life experiences here in America. Essentially, that we’ve lost empathy for people we don’t know – that a progressive in a city might not understand why a person like Barto supports Trump. At the same time, certain rural conservatives in majority white Western states may not understand why there would be people advocating that Black lives matter, especially considering minorities make up a disproportionate percentage of fatal encounters with police.
I then ask him if that makes sense.
“It does make sense,” he says. “I think if we all sat down at a table, everybody would realize how much they have in common with each other, and just work towards that common ground.”
He tells me he was watching a football coach on TV that morning.
“He was saying that he wished everybody would get back to the locker room mentality, you know, where you have so many different people that are in a locker room from different parts of the country,” he says. “And their common goal is to win. And they put all their other barriers and all their other preconceived notions aside and they work as a team.”
I’m confused by his rationale. On one hand, Barto is saying that people need to come together and find common ground. But at the same time, he’s telling me this country is on the verge of a revolution. I ask whether he thinks we’ll really fight if we have so much in common.
“Yeah, I guess they’ve pushed us to the point,” he says. “You can see it in cities all over. I mean, you can’t even go to an outside cafe without some of these nutballs coming up and harassing you.”
He’s blaming liberals.
“You know the conservatives – you don’t see us out there rioting,” he says. “You don’t see us looting. We express our point of view but we don’t take it to that physical, burn-down, thug mentality of rob, steal, burn, looting. This country is fed up with it. We’re about to explode.”
Barto also fires at journalists, arguing we are to blame for heightening partisanship.
“Get rid of most of the media. That’s the problem. They are fueling the whole thing. Get rid of fake news,” he says.
That’s an argument I’ve heard multiple times throughout this journey. But here’s the thing – “media” isn’t one thing. It’s complicated. Whether it’s print, digital, TV or radio, there’s straight news, editorials, commentaries, op-ed pieces.
Most Americans don’t have sharp media literacy. It isn’t something most of us are taught in school. And while I don’t own a television, I’ve spent some time in motels over the past two weeks watching Fox News, CNN and MSNBC. The lines are often blurred between opinion programming and straight reporting. Even I, as a journalist, sometimes struggle to tell the difference.
And even in more moderate, straight reporting, it’s hard to get into the nuances when you are trying to distill a complicated story into three-and-a-half minutes for broadcast on NPR.
I remember, earlier in the year, I had a wonderful, hour-long conversation with Breck Crystal, who ranches and owns a horseback-guiding service near Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah.
Crystal wasn’t your stereotypical rancher – he was young, from out-of-town, and used to wear his hair in dreadlocks and deejay in Salt Lake City. But he grew up in a ranching family in Idaho and was now returning to the trade, albeit in southern Utah.
He had deep, fascinating things to say about growth, work, and the kind of money tourism attracts.
But that conversation was distilled into two short audio clips for a story about how the Trump administration was pushing to open more land in the monument to cattle grazing and natural resource extraction. He became my “rancher” perspective – a simplified version of himself. A towering pine of a person shaved into a toothpick for a story.
I’m not necessarily saying that’s wrong. The media has a short amount of time to explain a complicated situation in an allotted time segment that is shrinking every year.
However, the consequence of all this is that we often transform people into single ideologies – an easy caricature for those with opposing viewpoints to assail on social media, fueling further partisanship.
All this points to the disparity that I’ve witnessed over the past two weeks – some of the kindest, most helpful people I’ve met on the road – including Barto, who is warm and generous to me with his time – openly acknowledge that they are prepping for a coming civil war against an insidious, vague villain on the other side of the political fence.
Later, as I’m riding away from his property, I imagine Americans shooting shotgun slugs into desert darkness, yelling at ghosts that don’t exist.
But as I sweat and curse my way up and down hills, trying to make my way to Lander, the image evaporates into the high, blue sky.
I’m riding through the Wind River Indian Reservation and I haven’t seen anyone for hours.
The highway is littered with dead animals. A fox. A falcon. A kitten with bright red blood running from its mouth. At one point I see a hawk gliding on the wind near me. My mind is exhausted and I’m listening to the minimalist, avante-garde composer Jean-Michel Blais. His piano plinks like shards of sunlight striking the high desert floor. The riding becomes meditative and I enter that slow current again, where politics and revolutions and America don’t exist. It’s just sagebrush, sun, and the familiar howl of a tailwind pushing me towards Lander.
As I enter Fort Washakie on the edge of the reservation, I see two people wearing masks and hanging out near a nursing home. They are the first people I’ve seen in six hours, other than a tourist from California. I’m excited to speak with them but they politely decline. I’m disappointed that I didn’t get to speak to anyone on the Wind River reservation. But I need to reach Lander before sunset so I ride off.