How a Road Trip Through America's Battlegrounds Revealed a Nation Plagued by Misinformation
A lifetime ago, on Sept. 14, Greg Vanlandeghem sat outside a café in Holly, Mich., and explained to me that he planned to vote for the President’s re-election because he saw the race as a contest between two bad options. “We’ve got a guy trying not to die,” he told me, “and we’ve got Trump.”
The candidate Vanlandeghem described as “trying not to die” was Joe Biden, the 77-year-old former Vice President, who’s been dogged by right-wing attacks on his mental acuity. But now, the “guy trying not to die” might well be the 74-year-old President, who was being treated with supplemental oxygen and a battery of drugs after contracting COVID-19, a lethal virus that can cause everything from pneumonia to strokes to neurological impairment. Vanlandeghem, a 37-year-old home builder, is a social and fiscal conservative, but he didn’t vote for Trump four years ago and considers the President a “buffoon.” If anyone’s mind was going to be changed by Trump’s diagnosis, I thought perhaps it might be him.
Vanlandeghem was unfazed. “I think it’s unfortunate,” he said, after I called him back to ask his opinion on the latest updates. “But it’s something that a vast majority of the population is going to come down with at one point or another.” He still isn’t considering voting for Biden.
I wasn’t surprised. Once again, history was unfolding in Washington; once again, voters seemed to be reacting with a collective shrug. If there is one constant in this extraordinary presidential election, it’s that every time the political class declares that a news event will permanently reshape the race, it usually seems to evaporate into the ether. The President could be impeached for abuse of power, publicly muster white supremacists, tear-gas peaceful protesters for a photo op, pay less than his employees in taxes, declare that he’d refuse to accept the results of the election, hold a possible superspreader event at the White House–and millions of Americans will ignore it. To half of us, all this is an outrage; to the other half, none of it matters.
How voters are processing Trump’s behavior at this fractured moment may be the most important question of the 2020 election. But it’s a tricky one to answer in the midst of a pandemic that has turned the campaign into one interminable Zoom call. It’s hard to get a read on a race that has limited travel for both candidates and reporters, a contest with countless polls but few insights, lots of speeches but few crowds, plenty of talking heads but few ordinary voices. So in September, after recovering from COVID-19 myself, I spent three weeks driving across the battleground states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, trying to get a fix on what’s happening between the ears of the people most likely to determine the winner on Nov. 3.
The more people I met, the more I detected something deep and unpredictable lurking beneath the surface, something that I wasn’t sure was reflected in the polling data, something that maybe couldn’t even be measured at all. My phone was filling with news: news about wildfires engulfing the West Coast; news about Trump reportedly calling fallen soldiers “losers” and “suckers”; news about the death toll from COVID-19 passing 200,000; news of Trump’s admitting to journalist Bob Woodward on tape that he had intentionally downplayed the virus, purportedly to avoid causing a panic. But almost nobody seemed to be talking about these headlines, and when I asked about them, people often didn’t believe them or didn’t care. I felt caught in the chasm between the election as it was being reported by my colleagues in the press and the election as it was being experienced by the voters.