“I think it’s a civil war,” Zach Scherer told me.
We were sitting on the back of his Trump-branded pick-up truck earlier this week when he made the prediction.
“I think that’s the only thing that’s going to bring America back together after this election if we lose.”
Civil war? When I moved to America a year ago, I recall people raising this fear. I remember thinking they were mad. How could anyone possibly believe the ‘world’s greatest democracy’, as it’s sometimes fondly described, could be heading for civil war?
I’ve reported from numerous failed or failing states over the years. It seemed nonsensical to suggest that the United States of America could be among them.
Well, a year on, my view is shifting and I am profoundly concerned.
The armies and frontlines are not formed in the traditional sense. But make no mistake, there are armies and there are frontlines. The fault lines are alarmingly deep. It would be wrong to think America can just muddle its way through this inflection point in its history.
Recent polling suggests that a growing number of Americans believe political violence is acceptable. Just last week the husband of the nation’s third most senior politician, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was attacked in their home. Police say she was the target.
On the same day as the attack, authorities warned that threats of violence against politicians nationwide had massively increased.
The nation is bitterly divided and there is one thing causing this agitation – about a third of voting-age people in this country believe the 2020 election was stolen. They believe Donald Trump won.
Doubt sown into fabric of US society
If you spent the past two years thinking this was a fringe view peddled by a former president; a con which can now be dismissed as background noise, well think again.
Doubt has been sown into the fabric of American society. People have been duped. They are dismissing the institutions on which American democracy was built. They have been told not to trust their electoral process.
Back on the pick-up truck, Mr Scherer’s friend Corey Check was angry. These two young disciples of Mr Trump firmly believe the election was stolen by Joe Biden and the ‘woke radical left’.
“Everything. Everything is at stake. America is at stake. If we lose it, our country’s going to hell…” Mr Check said.
Loyalists still believe Trump won
Rattled by their stark predictions, I sought out a different generation of Republicans hoping for a more measured, nuanced perspective.
Local campaigner Cindy Hilderbrand had invited me to meet a group of six friends and activists at the local Republican party headquarters.
My first question – how many of them thought that Mr Trump was the rightful winner in 2020? All their hands went up.
“Absolutely did win,” retired US Marine Paul Garcia said.
He was interrupted by another in the group, Cheryl Guenther: “… and it wasn’t just the election day shenanigans. It was everything leading up to that. The suppression of the news, the suppression of everything that happened, brought on by media. The media is nothing more than a Democrat arm that is helping suppress all of this information.”
To be clear, there is no evidence at all that the 2020 election was fraudulent. Audits, recounts and court cases in states across the land concluded that nothing had occurred which would have changed the result of the election. Mr Biden won by a wide margin.
Even Mr Trump’s closest aides and his own family have said he lost. Yet he persists and his loyalists believe him.
Conspiracy theories spread faster than facts
Our conversation turns to the policy issues. On abortion, on crime, on drugs, on guns, on the economy, they all have perfectly legitimate conservative views. Broadly – abortion is wrong, crime and drugs are out of control, gun control is unconstitutional and the struggling economy is Mr Biden’s fault.
But here’s the problem. They believe they are failing to get their way on those policy issues not because a majority disagrees with them but because a minority stole the last election from them.
American society is siloed in echo chambers. They consume wildly partisan cable news, they believe nonsense on social media and dismiss factual reporting. Conspiracy theories spread faster than facts.
Threat to democracy ‘understated’
Not far away, at a rally for the local democratic party candidate, I got talking to a young Democratic Party voter, a man of similar age to Mr Scherer and Mr Check but poles apart in perspective.
Was this idea of a threat to democracy overstated, I asked.
“I think it might be understated. I think there’s a genuine threat to democracy in this country and it really scares the hell out of me,” Ryan told me.
“I don’t want to end up like what we’ve seen in Europe in the past. If we don’t learn from history, we’re doomed to repeat it and we need to uphold democracy to keep going, otherwise we are going to falter as well. I am worried.”
As America heads to the polls for this midterm take on the country’s direction, the anger and the division cannot be overstated.
Reflecting on all the conversations I have had, it’s jolting and bewildering.
There is so much going on; so many issues and there is absolutely no trust for the other side. There is anger and a sense of betrayal but I felt fear too. There is a real sense that Americans on all sides don’t know what comes next or how they will react to it.