As the United States grows ever more divided, what better way than a road trip to bridge the tensions? That’s the idea behind a recently-released book, “Union: A Democrat, a Republican, and a Search for Common Ground.”
Co-authors Christopher Haugh and Jordan Blashek are, respectively, the Democrat and Republican of the book’s title. Haugh is a journalist in California’s Bay Area, while Blashek is a New York-based entrepreneur and former Marine. Haugh describes himself as still searching when it comes to spiritual matters; Blashek is a Jew who’s been influenced by rabbis such as former UK chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
As classmates at Yale Law School, Haugh and Blashek not only formed a friendship, they began taking road trips in Blashek’s Volvo S60 to gain a better understanding of America, and themselves, in an increasingly challenging time. Those excursions ultimately spanned 44 states, 20,000 miles — and one book, published this summer by Little, Brown and Company.
When the authors spoke with The Times of Israel, Haugh noted that a book about road trips seems to reflect a different time when viewed through the lens of COVID-19.
“In some ways, it reads like science fiction or fantasy now,” Haugh said. “I’m a big believer that someday we’ll go back to traveling on the road.”
Originally hoping to launch their book with yet another road trip, the authors are currently participating in book events virtually. Haugh is staying indoors for an additional reason — the California wildfires.
“The past few weeks just underscore the need for all of us to learn to talk so we can act on big, hard things,” Haugh wrote in an email. “When you can’t leave your home due to smoke, a project like this doesn’t feel academic.”
Haugh told The Times of Israel that when Americans resume their road trips, he hopes they consider the “question of what do we want the road to look like.”
We felt called to pursue, as a mission, the question of what drives us apart and what can bring us back together
Blashek said that one motivation for the authors’ road trips was the worrisome path the nation was on heading into the notoriously divisive 2016 presidential election.
“As 2016 got closer, we both felt there was something deeply wrong in the country going on,” Blashek said. “Things seemed to be coming apart … At some point, I — and I think Chris, too — felt called to pursue, as a mission, the question of what drives us apart and what can bring us back together. We had to get back on the road.”
Their friendship could hardly have been unlikelier. Haugh has long, flowing hair, while Blashek sports a close-cropped profile. Haugh likes to contemplate nature, Blashek finds a meditativeness in shooting guns. Haugh worked for the Obama administration, first as a White House intern and then for the Kerry State Department, around the same time that Blashek was serving in the Afghan War.
“We fought about politics all the time,” Haugh recalled, before adding, “we built a great relationship. On the road, we were able to find some relief, and answers for gathering into the book project.”
Underscoring how differences can help people understand each other better, Haugh was impressed by his friend’s devotion to Judaism.
“I was always very touched by the way Jordan talked about his sort of search, the questioning nature of his own faith,” Haugh said. “It always really resonated with me.”
Blashek called his Jewish background “very fundamental” to the project. Citing the notion of a covenant bringing people together, he said that “the US is one of the only examples of a nation in the world based on the idea of a covenant … a ‘we’ instead of ‘I.’” He also invoked the idea of leaders in each generation being called upon to undergo a journey, finding parallels in biblical accounts of Abraham, Jacob, Joseph and Noah.
Reflecting on their own journey, both Blashek and Haugh marveled at the diverse natural beauty of the United States, from the New England coastline to the mountainous Northwest. Yet, Haugh said, their goal was to “not just see the country,” but “try to better understand one another in the car,” while incorporating “memoir, dialogue, reporting on the road about people we met.”
Up close with Americana at a Trump rally
Their toughest task was arguably attending a rally for President Donald Trump in Phoenix, Arizona, in August 2017. It took place a week after violence on the other side of the country — deadly clashes between alt-right demonstrators and counter-protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“It just felt like a strain of violence was infecting our politics,” Blashek said. “Large gatherings of people had the potential to spark some kind of violence or conflict … It really worried me as someone who’s been overseas and was trained to deal with violence.”
Inside the rally, they heard speeches from Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, pastor Franklin Graham and the president himself, whom Blashek characterized as “very charismatic up on stage.”
Meanwhile, the duo were getting bad vibes from some of the tattooed bikers in the audience, and decided to leave. Outside, chaos unfolded as police tear-gassed dueling Trump supporters and protestors.
And yet, the pair were momentarily heartened by seeing four individuals representing opposing sides having a peaceful interchange about the Black Lives Matter movement.
“It quite surprised both of us,” Haugh said. “Right before the tear gas, there were conversations going on between two BLM [supporters] and two rally-goers. We were blown away by it — a conversation about what BLM meant to the four men. They shook hands and walked away.”
Encouraged by this, Haugh said that he and Blashek began “finding the same type of thing around the country.”
The meeting of the minds, said Haugh is not going to be in politics. “It’s too formulaic, too binary, good and evil, my side, their side,” he said, adding that politics is “absolutely, extremely important, now more important than ever, but it’s just part of the story.”
Instead, Haugh looks more toward “culture, history, dialogue, telling the American story, getting away from politics.”
The men received a lesson in how history informs the present when they visited Tulsa, Oklahoma, site of the infamous 1921 pogrom against the “Black Wall Street” neighborhood of Greenwood.
“Race is inevitably an important part of the American story, a fundamental part of the American story,” Haugh said. “Tulsa really hammered it home for us. We’re still a segregated country in many ways.”
Haugh and Blashek had an impactful conversation with Jamaal, a local pastor affiliated with the Greenwood Cultural Center.
“He said progress happens with having conversations,” Blashek said. “Conversations can be uncomfortable. But it’s how we start to move forward.”
Blashek recalled another uncomfortable conversation when the authors journeyed across the US border and spoke with Mexican customs agents outside the town of Naco.
“It was hard to hear the perceptions of customs agents who spoke badly of the US, of hatred and violence,” Blashek.
Blashek said he was also moved by visiting a soup kitchen serving meals to immigrants — “people all over the world, all over Central America” — trying to get across the border to the US.
The American dream does not just belong to us Americans, but to everybody risking life and limb to come and achieve it
“I think we just thought about the lesson of the idea of the American Dream,” Blashek said. “It not just belongs to us Americans, but to everybody risking life and limb to come and achieve it. It was one of our most powerful experiences.”
Impact of prisons
Back in the US, the authors cited similarly powerful experiences meeting current or former prisoners looking to get their lives back on track, and the individuals working with them.
In Detroit, Haugh and Blashek saw not only a city dealing with job losses and abandoned homes, they also experienced a prison program offering inmates a chance to perform Shakespeare while doing some personal reflection. Haugh was impressed by Gabriel, one of the inmates rehearsing King Lear. Although Gabriel had a difficult upbringing, through the program he was learning to act and write poetry.
“People like Gabriel the poet, who are next to tragedy, often have the greatest amount of hope,” Haugh said.
In Tulsa, the authors met Mimi, the director of a program aimed at keeping women, especially mothers, out of prison. Blashek said, “What Mimi showed us is that often people working closest to a problem are the most hopeful of solving it.”
There are still plenty of obstacles, and the authors’ own history reflects this. Driving through Nevada, they got into an argument about a subject eerily relevant today — fatal shootings of Blacks by police. It nearly ended their friendship.
“One thing Jordan and I often say is that common ground is both fragile and can be difficult,” Haugh explained. “You get to these points when you fight and you can’t believe someone said that.”
Common ground is both fragile and can be difficult
However, he noted, “the advantage of going through the project, a car road trip, is that you find out you’re 100 miles from the nearest town. There’s one to three hours of driving. You simmer down.” And, he added, “maybe there’s something the other person said that I can embrace.”
Haugh eventually told Blashek, “I love you, man,” and they reconciled.
The authors are not quite on the same page when it comes to watching a different kind of interchange — the upcoming presidential debates between incumbent Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden. Blashek said he will definitely watch and hopes the candidates take the high ground as opposed to name-calling or insults. Haugh said he will probably end up watching, but he is more skeptical about what will unfold.
However, the authors are both more hopeful about America’s long-term future. Haugh summed it up with a reference to another American who worked to unite the country — president Abraham Lincoln.
“If we are actively building on the work going on in places like Detroit, Tulsa, everywhere, we have a shot at a more perfect union,” Haugh said.