Union: A Democrat, a Republican, and a Search for Common Ground recounts the road trip taken by two friends who wanted to discover what about America divided them and what brought them together in the year before Trump was elected.
The next few days were a blur of fields and mountain ranges. We spent time in Bozeman, Montana, and explored Yellowstone National Park in a gentle rain. With Chris at the wheel, we passed into Idaho, where we swooped southwest across the pine ridges of the Sawtooths and the volcanic rocks of Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve.
In southern Idaho, we cruised along the long flat valleys—until a set of flashing blue and red lights filled the rearview mirror.
Chris spotted the state trooper’s truck, its form blurred by the heat rising from the road, as it barreled up the black pavement a quarter-mile behind us. Chris looked down at the speedometer—95. His stomach turned. The speed limit was somewhere around 70.
“Shit,” Jordan said, turning in his seat.
Chris pulled onto the shoulder, killed the engine, and leaned back, defeated.
“Don’t worry, man,” Jordan assured Chris, as we watched an officer in knee-high leather boots approach the car. “It was bound to happen at some point.”
“Do you know how fast you were going?” the officer said after Chris rolled down the window.
“T-too fast,” Chris stammered.
“License and registration.”
Jordan rummaged through the glove compartment, muttering something, while the officer looked over Chris’s license.
“You two been driving all night?”
“Nearly,” Chris said.
“What brings you out here”—he glanced at the license—“Christopher?”
“We’re driving across the country.”
“Jordan here is going to be the maid of honor at his sister’s wedding.”
“Man of honor,” Jordan corrected, without looking up. The officer stood mute.
“We are both at law school in Connecticut,” Chris offered, trying to occupy the silence.
“Sir,” Jordan interjected, his search frustrated, “I don’t have my insurance card, but I can try to pull it up on my phone.”
The officer frowned and said nothing.
“Yeah, it was my grandparents’ car,” Jordan continued. “They live in New York. I must have left it with them.”
“Give me your license, too.” Jordan fished it out.
“Encino?” the officer said.
“I grew up there. Like the movie Encino Man?” Jordan’s quip fell flat.
“And you’re from”—the officer looked down at Chris’s license again—“Washington, D.C.?”
“Well, no, I’m from the San Francisco Bay Area,” Chris said, “but I lived in D.C. for a few years after college.”
“And now you’re in Connecticut?”
“But the car is registered in New York?”
“Yep,” Jordan said, leaning down to smile at the officer through the window.
We both watched as he turned and made for his truck, which sat at a skewed angle on the side of the road. The Volvo’s engine clicked and popped loudly as it cooled in the spring heat. Chris watched intently through the rearview mirror. Jordan looked at him and laughed.
“Calm down, man, it’s not a big deal.”
“You never know,” Chris responded, still eyeing the officer. As a teenager, Chris had been pulled over for running a stop sign in Berkeley. The policeman had made Chris and two friends sit on the curb as he turned his mother’s burgundy sedan inside out. When the officer couldn’t find anything, he had cursed and tossed Chris’s wallet in disgust. “You got lucky,” the man said, leaving the three of them on the sidewalk.
A moment later, the Idaho trooper returned.
“I’m going to have to ask you to get out of the car,” the officer said.
Chris’s eyes darted to catch Jordan’s, which for the first time flashed with fear.
“Please step over there,” the officer said.
Chris stepped out of the car. The officer gestured to the side of the road and walked a step or two behind Chris. One hand hovered over his holster.
Chris’s eyes drifted off toward Idaho’s chaparral plains. The two of us had passed through Wisconsin, which was wild and green. We had driven through statuesque rock formations emerging out of thick woodlands, and gorges filled with emerald water on their floors. In Montana, Chris had drifted off to sleep in the passenger seat as thunderstorms passed over green pastures and wheeled in the shadow of the mountain ranges that lined the road. Idaho was flat and stark. There on the side of the highway, Chris noticed the sand under his feet and how it gave way beneath him. It was rough, unlike the peat on the highway shoulder in Wyoming where Jordan had taken a photograph of an American flag jutting from a rock outcropping in the middle of a lake.
“Would you step into my car, please?”
The officer’s command snapped Chris back to the present. He had dealt with police before but had never been invited into one of their cars. He tried the passenger door and found it unlocked. He stepped up and into the jumper seat. Things could be worse, he thought to himself. He could have my hands cuffed and a palm on the back of my head.
The cab was silent as the officer stepped around the truck to the driver’s seat. He passed in front of our car, where Chris could see Jordan craning his neck to watch. Chris reached for the seat belt out of habit, then thought better of it. An array of weapons—shotguns and long rifles—stood upright between his shoulder and the driver’s seat. Chris breathed deeply to steady his hands and calm his throbbing head.
“Kid,” the officer said after settling into his own seat. The silence deepened as he made himself comfortable, his single word hanging in the stale air of the truck. He looked straight ahead.
“None of this makes any goddamn sense.”
Sitting in the front seat of his truck, the officer explained his dilemma to Chris.
“You say you’re from California, but you have a D.C. license. Jordan here is from Los Angeles with a California license, but his car is registered in New York—to a different name, no less. Not to mention you say you’re both law students. But this guy Jordan is now starting business school, and you can’t stop shaking.”
He turned and peered at Chris over the shotguns. Chris suddenly wished he had cut his hair, or had at least changed his shirt, which displayed the phrase Berkeley Political Review across the chest.
Chris smiled weakly.
“It just doesn’t add up, kid.”
“I know it sounds crazy,” Chris said. “Hearing it out loud, it sounds crazy to me, too. But it’s the truth, sir. We’re on a road trip. He is who he says he is, and so am I.”
The officer had turned back around. Chris could see him eyeing the car, weighing our plea against the facts of the unusual situation.
“Besides,” he continued, “why are your eyes so bloodshot?”
Again, he had caught Chris off guard. Perhaps his red eyes were due to our sleepless driving habits, or perhaps it was just a fishing expedition. Whatever the officer’s intent, the stakes had just gone up.
“Sir, if you’re implying that I’m high or something, I can assure you that I’m not,” Chris said.
“I implied no such thing.”
Chris slumped back. Soon I’ll be moved to the back seat, where the doors don’t open from the inside, he thought. Why did I say that? Was that probable cause?
Chris regretted his decision not to take criminal law the semester before.
“Stay here,” the officer said and left the truck to approach Jordan. Chris watched from the passenger seat, relieved that the gruff man had left him alone, if only for a moment. Jordan got out of the car and faced the officer. Both of them had their hands on their hips. The man leaned in slightly while Jordan stood and faced him. The officer spoke, gesturing first at the car, then back at Chris, and finally to Jordan. Jordan responded with some hand-waving of his own. They both turned to look at Chris, and suddenly Jordan threw his head back and clapped his hands, a huge smile on his face.
“Damn it, Jordan,” Chris said aloud.
But then the officer smiled, too. He beckoned for Chris to join them, and Chris leaped down from the truck.
“I’m letting you go,” the officer said as Chris approached.
Chris was stunned. Jordan would later explain that the officer’s suspicion dissipated after he learned that Jordan had been a Marine. He may not have understood us, but he respected Jordan’s service, and Chris would reap the reward.
“A word to the wise, kid,” the officer said, pumping Chris’s hand. “Don’t be so scared next time. You’re a law student. You know what happens at a traffic stop. All that sweat and stammering made me suspicious.”
“Of course, sir,” Chris said, still shaken. “I guess it’s just the badge, the uniform—it’s intimidating.”
“Good luck to you both.”
We got back in the car as the officer pulled away with the grind of tires against gravel. His taillights soon disappeared around a rare curve in the otherwise empty highway.
Jordan looked at Chris with a triumphant smile. “I knew we’d get out of it,” he said.
“I’m done driving.”
Chris tossed the keys to Jordan and made for the passenger side.
“I can’t believe he just let us go,” Chris said.
Twenty minutes after the encounter, he was still rattled. Jordan had brought the car back up to a terrific speed, tempered only slightly by the knowledge that these long, empty highways were, in fact, patrolled.
“And he was so—reasonable,” Chris continued.
“Yeah, cops can be nice,” Jordan laughed.
“I just haven’t had a positive encounter like that in a while.”
It was clear that the two of us had completely different understandings of law enforcement. For Jordan, the police were, in a sense, his people. The military and law-enforcement often share a deep respect born from their professions’ similar perils. Though there were certainly bad apples here and there, Jordan believed that most police officers had good intentions and cared deeply about serving their communities. They deserved respect and gratitude for the dangers they faced.
Chris, though, had learned to be wary around cops. There had been an officer who handed out stickers and gave tours of his car to kids in Chris’s neighborhood. But in high school, after his own run-ins, Chris had read all about the Oakland Police Department’s checkered history and seen videos of police brutality online over and over again. Seared into his mind’s eye was the image of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old black man, lying handcuffed on the platform of the Fruitvale BART station just moments before Johannes Mehserle, a BART police officer, fired a bullet into his spine.
If Jordan’s assumption was that law-enforcement officers were decent people trying to do a job in the most difficult circumstances, Chris’s was that they could be dangerous—and, when they abused their power, deadly.
“Generally, if you’re respectful to police when they pull you over, nothing happens,” Jordan said. “If you call them Sir and act polite, they might even let you go.”
“That’s not true for everyone.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s one thing for you—or me—to say that. The situation might have turned out very differently if we were African American.”
“Maybe the situation would have turned out differently if you weren’t so nervous, or if I hadn’t been a Marine. You’re isolating one factor and making it all-important. My point is that if you’re generally respectful and give police no reason to be suspicious, then the situation will nearly always turn out okay. Are there exceptions? Yes. And they are tragic, and horrible, and the cops who make mistakes should be thrown in jail. But they are the exception.”
“I’m not sure we’re talking about rare exceptions here,” Chris said.
“My problem,” Jordan continued, “is that exceptional cases end up dominating the conversation so that all police seem racist, or poorly trained, or whatever. It creates a vicious cycle where police feel like they are under public attack while certain communities feel distrustful and disproportionately targeted by law enforcement. And because both sides feel this way, it increases the chances that mistakes will happen.”
“But they are disproportionately targeted by police,” Chris said.
“Honestly, I don’t know how to untangle the statistics,” Jordan said. “Do you?”
“You don’t even need to look at the statistics,” Chris said. “Just look around. You can watch videos on YouTube of cops being overly aggressive, shooting when they aren’t supposed to, firing tear gas into peaceful crowds. Or look at the long history of it or listen to the communities who deal with police on a daily basis.”
“Those are exceptions. Horrible, tragic exceptions. And if there’s malice involved, then that’s evil, and those bad actors should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But that shouldn’t mean we paint all cops as murderous or racist.”
Things went on like this for an hour or so. Both of us dug in, frustrated that the other couldn’t seem to accept points we felt were patently obvious.
By sunset, we passed Boise, ran out of steam, and stopped to find a bite to eat. The sun was hanging low in the sky as we parked at an Applebee’s. We ordered teriyaki chicken to go, then looked for a place to watch the sunset. We found it in a spit of land just off the highway in the foothills of a long valley. Plastic takeout bags in hand, we scrambled up to the top of a bluff.
“Did you see that Lewis and Clark went through Idaho?” Chris asked.
“That would have been like 200 years ago.”
Another moment of stillness. The battles of the day had subsided. Something about the golden view—the rustle of insects in the tall waving grasses, the muted sounds of the highway around the bend—washed away the worst of the day, even if a distance still existed between us.
How could we agree on so much, yet disagree on who an average police officer was? Or what racial violence looked like? How could we have felt the beguiling sensation of agreement in South Dakota, yet be so far apart come Idaho? Over the next few days, the two of us would keep revisiting the Idaho state trooper’s exclamation: None of this makes any goddamn sense.
Excerpted from UNION by Jordan Blashek, Christopher Haugh. Copyright © 2020. Available from Little, Brown and Company, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.