A Democrat in North Carolina changed her voter affiliation, scared to be outed in a red state. A Republican in Washington stopped speaking to his Democratic neighbours and lied to pollsters about his support for President Donald Trump, calling himself a member of the “silent majority“.
Across the United States, political signs have been set ablaze, cars have been vandalized and neighbourhood scuffles and shouting matches have proliferated in the waning days of the most toxic election season in more than half a century.
Amid the erosion of political discourse, a fear of retaliation has spread, pitting neighbour against neighbour and squashing the political exchange that fuels a thriving democracy, experts say. Some Americans say they have taken down election yard signs and quit social media over fears they could be physically targeted. The victims are often political minorities: blue voters in red states and red voters in blue states.
“How did we get to this place where expressing our political beliefs was practically a declaration of war?” asked Beth Dorward, 56, an editor from Maineville, Ohio, who worries about being singled out for her liberal political beliefs. Her signs supporting Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden are sitting on her coffee table under a pile of bills.
There’s a “constant taunt, and the taunt says, ‘C’mon, put them up. Speak your piece,’ ” she said.
The threats have affected voters from coast to coast. A Pennsylvania family found six gunshots fired through the Biden sign in their front lawn in early October, according to local media reports. An Alabama woman with a Biden sign in front of her home told local news she woke up to the word “Trump” spray-painted in bright orange on the hood of her white Honda Civic.
A convoy of trucks flying Trump flags aggressively chased a Biden campaign bus recently on an interstate near Austin. Video of the chase, which quickly went viral on social media, shows one truck swerve into the path of another vehicle, scraping its passenger door, to tailgate the bus.
Trump supporters have been targeted, too. A video circulating online shows a man ripping a Trump flag off a car during a parade supporting the president in Orange County, Calif., in early October. Even the head of the Georgetown County elections board in South Carolina was swept into political tensions when local Republicans said they captured him and his wife defacing a Trump sign. Dean Smith, a 15-year veteran of the board, resigned a few days later, the Coastal Observer reported.
More than 1 in 3 respondents to a Marquette University Law School poll in October said they had stopped talking about politics with at least one other person because of disagreements about the presidential election. That’s about the same total percentage as in 2016, but Democrats specifically showed a jump: About 46% said they have bowed out of political conversations this year, compared with 39% in 2016.
Democrats also are far more likely to keep quiet than those on the other side of the political aisle, according to the poll. Only 28% of Republican respondents said they had stopped talking politics with someone.
The fear created by threats and violence has a chilling effect on the nation’s political process, said Katherine Cramer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
“People are increasingly seeing people of the opposite side as less than human,” she said. “When you see the opponents as the enemy, it makes it very difficult for democracy to persist.”
The Washington Post communicated with 98 voters in 33 states who said they have hidden or outright lied about their political views out of fear of physical harm, online harassment or vandalism. Some of those fears are fuelled by first-hand encounters, while others said images of armed men at protests and polling places and news stories about political violence have raised their anxieties.
Suzanne Tollefson, a California attorney from a Republican-dominated area in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, has always faced some flak for supporting Democrats in her town. When she supported Barack Obama in 2008, a picture of him as Hitler was stapled to her mailbox.
But this year, the level of vitriol has worn her down.
“Jacked-up trucks” with Confederate and Trump flags are a common sight, she said, as well as the bumper stickers that say “Make America Beautiful – Kill a Liberal.” The county seat was nearly shut down earlier this summer over a rumour that antifa was coming to burn down any home that has a US flag out front.
She now only shares her thoughts with people she can trust, she said. With others, she stays neutral, keeps quiet and looks over her shoulder.
“This is the first time in my life I have been afraid of my fellow citizens,” said Tollefson, 57. “I am sad and angry about my self-censorship, because it is not wholly voluntary; it stems from a place of fear and survival. I am exhausted from worry and hate.”
On the other side of the country, Kelly McNamara, 57, a retired military chaplain’s assistant in southwestern North Carolina, said she wasn’t aware of how many Trump supporters lived in her gated enclave until she saw the flags and yard signs sprouting up this year. She said she recently went to the elections board to change her voter registration from Democrat to unaffiliated, “so my neighbours couldn’t look me up.”
Her fears grew when she saw men with shaved heads, long beards, battle fatigues and guns standing guard outside a polling place in her small town of Rutherfordton, she said.
“I’m afraid to let my neighbours know how I vote in case of a civil war. Being in a gated community, I was looking for better protection, but now I know I am locked inside with mostly Trump supporters, and it’s on a mountain, so almost everybody has guns,” said McNamara, who is also a gun owner.
Some blame Trump for the rise in tension and violence, saying his hesitancy to condemn white supremacists and heavily armed far-right extremist groups has sent a signal to supporters that some level of violence is acceptable in U.S. politics.
An October Fox News poll found that 58% of Americans said that the way Trump talks about racial inequality and the police is leading to an increase in acts of violence, with about 38% believing the same about Biden.
The Rev. W.J. Rideout III, an independent voter who pastors All God’s People Church in Roseville, Mich., noted the arrests in an alleged right-wing plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, D, in explaining his unwillingness to discuss politics with some people.
For quiet Trump supporters, fears of doxing and other online harassment from digital mobs have muted their political talk. Cities suffering vandalism by far-left actors further their concerns about retaliation for their political views, they said.
Bill, a resident of the Dallas suburb of Plano who spoke on the condition that only his first name be used because of concerns about political retaliation, said he is leaning toward voting for Trump. But unlike in past elections, he’s keeping those views to himself. The 56-year-old fears that if he expresses his political leanings publicly, people on social media will track him down and harass him or his family.
Bill, who works in sales, blames much of the tensions on far-left demonstrators, including supporters of the loosely organized far-left network known as antifa.
“There have just been many crazy things out there…. And there are too many people who seem to be spoiling for something,” he said. “It’s not safe for me. It’s not safe for my family.”
John Snider, 75, a real estate financier in Spokane, Washington, also believes that left-wing actors are more likely to commit political violence than those on the right and said the risk of being called a racist has shut down his conversations with liberal neighbours. His friends, Republicans who feel like the past four years have been good for their bank accounts, either hang up or lie to pollsters and say they’re for Biden, he said.
“That’s why I think the polls are wrong,” Snider said. “We’re the silent majority. That’s how we see ourselves. Keep your mouth shut.”
Other voters say they’re remaining steadfast in voicing their views in the face of political conflict and intimidation, at least to a certain degree.
Karan Ciotti, 56, a lawyer from Houston, said she stopped wearing her gold V-O-T-E necklace after a co-worker criticized it as a “political statement.” She also stopped interacting with two neighbors who made remarks she felt were racially insensitive toward people of colour.
But Ciotti, who is white, continues to display a “Hate Has No Home Here” sign in her front yard, even after her homeowners association sent her a letter asking her to remove it. The sign will stay there at least until after the election, she said, adding that she’s “praying people are less tense once it’s over.”
In South Florida, Democratic activists and candidates have been struggling in recent weeks to curb a wave of sign-stealing and abuse from far-right groups such as the Proud Boys, said Diaundrea Sherill, president of the Miami-Dade Young Democrats. At a recent Democratic car caravan, Sherill said Trump supporters turned up and heckled Biden supporters.
But Sherill, 31, said she is determined to visibly and vocally express her support for her preferred candidates and believes most young voters will, too.
“The younger folks are defiantly open about standing firm in who they support,” Sherill said. “The older generation may not be so, but the younger generation are pretty bold, and willing to say who they are voting for.”
Trish Collins, a nurse in Unionville, Connecticut, said she questioned whether to advertise her support for Biden after hearing stories from her friends and neighbours about missing yard signs and scowling looks from passing motorists. When she saw news coverage of armed clashes at protests and political rallies and the alleged plot to kidnap Whitmer, her anxiety grew.
“I have been through plenty of elections, but never before was I afraid that someone would come to my house and do something because I had a sign in my yard,” said the 54-year-old Democrat, whose Hillary Clinton sign was stolen from her yard in 2016. “You used to see people always putting bumper stickers on their car. But now you heard that nobody is doing it because people are afraid someone will do something to their car when they are out.”
Collins agonized for several days over whether to put up her Biden signs. Finally, a few weeks ago, she decided to go for it – planting two Biden signs and one sign that reads “Dump Trump” in her yard.
A few days later, an older neighbour walked over to her with a smile.
“She thanked us for putting the signs up, because she was too afraid to,” Collins said. The anxiety will have been worth it, she said, if just “one person drives by my house and looks at my signs and says, ‘You know what, I am going to go vote.’ “