FREDERICK, Maryland — She fired up her laptop to scour the internet for bits from right-wing websites and conspiratorial YouTube channels.
The inauguration of Joe Biden was just days away, and Natalie Abbas was feverishly searching for 11th-hour interventions that could prevent the swearing-in of a president she’ll likely never accept. She sent a video to her friend and political sparring partner, Jim Carpenter.
Five miles across town, the local newspaper was on Carpenter’s sofa and The Washington Post on his doorstep. When he clicked on Abbas’ link, his jaw dropped and his white eyebrows darted up and down.
“This is nonsense,” he said, shaking his head. Then he laughed so hard he bent at the belly and slapped his knee. “It’s really nonsense.”
Abbas and Carpenter are local ambassadors for a program designed to bridge the nation’s extraordinary political divide, and the gulf between them is about as wide as one gets.
Carpenter is a 73-year-old retired statistician who believes what dozens of courts have found: Biden is the rightful winner. Abbas, 59, says her conviction that the election was stolen from former President Donald Trump is as strong as her belief in God. Together, they ponder the greatest challenge facing Biden and American society: how can they find common ground if they no longer exist in the same reality?
They don’t agree on basic facts. They don’t even share a vocabulary. They use the same words — truth, proof, patriotism — but they don’t mean the same thing.
In this sick and scared country, many have retreated to their bubbles, surrounding themselves with people certain the other side is their enemy — inhuman, un-American. Polls show roughly two-thirds of Republicans express doubts about the election.
So Carpenter and Abbas decided to navigate one of the tensest weeks in American memory together, as the Trump administration ended and Biden’s began. Abbas, who flirts with the QAnon conspiracy theory that a cabal of child-killing pedophiles runs the world, still desperately wanted to believe it wouldn’t happen. Carpenter could barely wait for the new president, one he believes is a man of character capable of leading the country off this dark and dangerous path.
“People are getting threatened on both sides,” he said. “People are going berserk.”
“It’s crazy,” Abbas replied.
“So tell them to stop. Can you tell them to stop?”
“Can you tell your people to stop?”
They both sighed.
“I think we can lead by example?” Abbas offered.
Carpenter nodded. He’d written himself a personal mission statement that to him seems as true as any mathematical equation: “create a world of connection and respect by seeing the light in the eyes of others.”
“Where is the light?” Carpenter said. “I’ve got to find it somewhere.”
‘Struggle to preserve the union’
They are surrounded by reminders of what happens when Americans turn against one other.
Frederick County, right on the Mason-Dixon Line, is called the “crossroads of the Civil War.” On the bloodiest day in American history, Sept. 17, 1862, 23,000 bodies fell just 25 miles from downtown Frederick at the Antietam National Battlefield.
Memorials stand all over the county: “Their struggle to preserve the union must never be forgotten.”
The county is now reflective of the nation’s political mood. Frederick County’s 2020 vote mirrored the national popular vote: 53.3 percent chose Biden. And the political hostility bubbled over here, too: police investigated a letter threatening Biden supporters, campaign signs were torn out of lawns, and local partisans use words like “immoral” to describe their opponents.
So Carpenter and Abbas, who hadn’t seen each other in months because of COVID-19 restrictions, sat down a few days before the inauguration in the lobby of his retirement community. An hour away, thousands of National Guard troops were fortifying Washington, D.C.
The week before, on Jan. 6, Trump’s supporters had stormed the Capitol building at his urging, chanting “stop the steal” and threatening the lives of lawmakers while Americans watched in real time on TV. Abbas was at the rally, though she was not part of the siege.
“What do you mean the election was stolen? How was it stolen?” Carpenter asked her. He called Trump’s claims ‘the big lie” that led to rebellion. She gasped.
They are part of a national initiative called Braver Angels, inspired by a passage in President Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address in 1861, when he appealed to the “better angels of our nature” as the country was tearing itself apart.
Bill Doherty, a marriage therapist in Minnesota, started the group just after Trump’s election in 2016 because he thought the nation was edging toward a “civic divorce.” He’d sat across from warring couples, and learned that when they retreat to separate worlds, the marriage crumbles. On Facebook, he watched people say things like “if you don’t agree, unfriend me.” The tribal bunkers were being built before his eyes.
After the riot, Braver Angels scrambled together an online program and 4,500 tuned in. That is what gives Doherty hope: the first step in fixing a marriage is recognizing it’s in trouble, he said, and the only thing both sides seem to agree on is that the country is staring into an abyss.
That shared fear brought Carpenter and Abbas together. He learned of the program and decided to start up a Frederick County version. When he searched for a Republican counterpart, Abbas raised her hand.
They hosted workshops in libraries and their partnership appeared on the front page of the local newspaper. Neither expected to convert the other, but both believed that trying to understand the other side was the only way to prevent the country from splintering irrevocably apart.
He was intrigued by her fearlessness, and how she could rattle off what she called evidence to support her claims. Carpenter delighted in having a window into a different world view.
“I just breathe deep and say, OK,” he said. “I don’t have to believe her. But I know that’s her reality. And I have to accept that because there are a lot of people with her.”
His mother was a Jehovah’s Witness, and he came to believe that blind faith can lead to magical thinking and fevered prophecies. Politics has become like religion, he thinks, where people like Abbas hold unprovable yet impenetrable beliefs. His father was an atheist and psychology professor, and he spent years searching unsuccessfully for ways to blend those worldviews together.
Abbas unspooled for him the election fraud arguments and rumors that she dug from the internet: dead voters, rigged machines, an Italian satellite, Rudy Giuliani’s promises, corrupt courts. The headline streaming on the television behind them read “Trump’s final days,” but she still hoped it wasn’t over.
“Woof,” Carpenter sometimes interjected, “this is a little hard to believe.”
“He’s a really good guy,” Abbas said. “He gets cranky once in a while.”
“It’s the age,” he said.
He squinted behind his wire-rimmed glasses, a pen in the front pocket of his button-up shirt. She is bubbly and youthful, in a pink leather jacket, skinny jeans and kitten heels, her long dark hair pulled back into a ponytail.
“Love ya,” Abbas said as she left.
‘A fight for good and evil’
A few days later, Abbas sat at her kitchen table with a legal pad, two computers and two televisions on, one switched to uber-conservative Newsmax and the other to Fox.
“Left Wing Hypocrisy Surrounds Violence in U.S.,” screamed the headline as footage of the Jan. 6 siege splashed across the screen.
She scrolled through her Twitter feed, pausing on a story from her favorite source, the far-right Epoch Times.
It was four o’clock, the end of Abbas’s workday as a paralegal investigator for a government contractor. In the evenings she turns her attention to being a “digital soldier” in an army searching for tidbits to prove that Trump is the rightful victor.
“It’s a fight for good and evil,” she believes.
Her path to politics was personal. When her daughter became addicted to opioids, she began advocating for policy change and took a leadership position in a local Republican club.
She saw systems fail those most vulnerable, and her faith in the standard truth-bearers of American democracy — courts, Congress, the media — eroded. She felt she could trust nothing but believe anything.
Now she thinks even mainstream conservative sources like Fox News aren’t telling the whole truth, especially since the network reported Biden’s victory. So she looks elsewhere.
If she were alone in her thinking, she might have felt she was “in no man’s land all by myself.” But there is so much conspiratorial material, she says, and so many others on this road with her.
“Sometimes you feel like, gee, am I crazy?” she said. “We know we’re not insane, but our world has become very chaotic and we’re just trying to sort it out.”
In the days leading up to Biden’s inauguration, Abbas fielded frenzied texts and calls from a close-knit group, each searching for proof that Trump would remain in the White House. As the hours ticked by, one friend grew increasingly panicked. Another called with a wild rumor about a last-minute military intervention that needed investigating.
“You need to get on it,” he told Abbas.
“I’m on it,” she said, clicking open a private search engine, because she doesn’t trust traditional ones not to filter results or track her keystrokes.
Abbas’s metric for discerning truth relies in part on intuition and faith.
“When I speak truth or I see something, I get goosebumps,” she said. “It’s a guide from God that I feel maybe I’m on the right track.”
Abbas grabbed the remote to switch on a video in which an unseen narrator described a vast global conspiracy of intertwined elitist villains.
“If Jim were here, he’d have his head in his hands,” she said with a laugh.
Talking across the divide
Carpenter’s phone beeped with a message from Abbas. She thought she was delivering proof: A fake map ricocheting around social media showing Trump winning nearly every state.
“Why we claim a win,” she wrote.
“California red?” Carpenter shot back. “Doesn’t pass the sniff test.”
They don’t agree on much, though both believe in the importance of integrity in elections and media. But their definitions of integrity differ. They’ve run across this problem with many words — riot, protest, sedition, treason.
“Those are landmines, aren’t they?” Carpenter said.
Abbas suggested they decide on a glossary, so that they actually speak the same language.
Outside of their friendship, most of the people they know think and talk like they do. Abbas said her friends have warned that the liberals won’t listen to her.
“I have been asked, ‘what are you doing? What do you think you’re going to gain out of that?'” she said.
Carpenter’s wife, Letty, is a devoted Democrat and gasps when she overhears the videos Abbas has sent.
“I’m not personally sure where it’s going to go,” she said. “Two people talking across the political divide. How much can they accomplish when the problem, when you step back, is so big?”
Friends, not enemies
He poured Abbas a Blue Moon and himself a bourbon.
“I might need a tequila,” she said as she arrived to watch the inauguration in Carpenter’s living room, where the television was tuned to a broadcast station so there would be no squabbling over choosing a channel. She wore a red sweater. He wore a blue button-up.
They settled into their seats and clinked glasses as Chief Justice John Roberts took the stage. Biden put his hand on the Bible and swore to uphold the Constitution.
“So I have to ask you a question,” Carpenter said. “Is he president now?”
“Well, he thinks he is,” Abbas replied. “And so do a lot of people.”
“But is he?”
“Not legitimately in my opinion,” Abbas replied. Her phone buzzed with messages from friends. They were puzzling together over how the inauguration might still be scrapped, theories involving military tribunals, court challenges, mass arrests.
Carpenter pressed her to connect the dots.
“I can’t quite grasp how that would work,” he said.
In his address, Biden spoke of building a more perfect union. Unity. Unity. He said the word eight times. He acknowledged some might call its pursuit “a foolish fantasy.” He conjured Lincoln, and the same words that had inspired the Braver Angels program: “our better angels have always prevailed.”
“Did you get goosebumps? I got goosebumps,” Abbas said.
“Me too,” Carpenter said.
He rocked in his chair, turning to her and smiling occasionally. He leaned toward the TV. He’s been losing his vision and Abbas worried he couldn’t see.
She sat stoically but was frustrated. Biden spoke of togetherness, but in her mind, the Democratic party had always demonized Trump.
“Do you think he was attacked at day one?” she asked Carpenter.
People hated him, Carpenter agreed, and his voice raised to a shout: “It’s his own damn fault for being such an asshole as a person!”
Abbas called it “shallow” to fixate on his personality, not his policies.
“Get over it!” she said.
Then they caught their tempers flaring. They laughed, and sighed.
They both hummed along to Amazing Grace. Carpenter pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, and wiped his eyes.
He asked Abbas how her daughter has been faring. She asked after his “lovely wife.” Their homes each have balconies overlooking the mountains; he’s lending her a telescope so she can watch the birds.
“Take care, my dear,” she said as she left.
They have come to see each other as friends, not enemies. They wonder: could that be enough?
Story by Claire Galofaro and Juliet Linderman. Associated Press writer Hannah Fingerhut contributed to this report.