At a Trump rally in Warren, Michigan, on March 4
At a Trump rally in Warren, Michigan, on March 4
David Maraniss and Robert Samuels

DETROIT — To reach the heart of the matter in Michigan on a late-winter evening, navigate out of downtown Detroit and drive 20 miles north on Interstate 94, and continue for seven miles, the darkening way lit by the flickering yellowish glow of American commerce, until you reach yet another strip mall at the corner of Schoenherr Road. There, in a storefront headquarters stuck between Buy Buy Baby and Long Tall Sally, members of the Macomb County Republican Party emerge from the cold to watch their presidential candidates debate again on television.

In the vast suburban landscape above Detroit, Macomb County is mostly white and middle class, filled with people who fled the troubled city and shed their pasts as Democrats and union members. Many are from families that voted for FDR and roared with the multitudes in Cadillac Square when John F. Kennedy opened his fall campaign there on Labor Day in 1960. All of that is long gone. It was 36 years ago that Macomb County became synonymous with Reagan Democrats, but the rightward lean began here a decade earlier with the embrace of George Wallace, the Southern segregationist.

The territory is largely Republican, and the phenomenon of Donald Trump has turned it once again into a case study of modern politics.

Among those in attendance at the debate watch are Jason Powrozek, an earnest 17-year-old senior at Anchor Bay High School, whom the state field director has praised as the most productive volunteer in Michigan, and longtime political aide Ken Matiyow, state Sen. Jack Brandenburg's district chief of staff. Matiyow's boss was the first Michigan senator to endorse Trump, an early rider among public officials across the country starting to scramble aboard the Trump train even while others were desperately trying to blow up the tracks.

If you wonder what the Trump phenomenon says about America, Matiyow suggests spending time knocking on doors in Macomb County. The feedback at address after address is the same. All anti-immigration, all the time. "Man, does that strike a nerve," Matiyow says. "It gets an incredible response when you get to talking about illegal immigration. People don't want them to ever be legal citizens." On immigration, Matiyow says, there's "a massive outpouring of disgust."

After describing how Brandenburg has helped turn Macomb County red by pounding away on conservative issues and taking the territory back one house at a time, Matiyow concludes a riff on immigration by telling a personal story about where he lives. For the past several years, he's been renting a place at the Village Park apartments not far from the party headquarters. When he moved there, he says, "There was no one there from India. Now half the building is made up of people from India. These are young techies who have come to replace American workers. This is a real scandal." The Indians, he says, all have proper documentation but are taking jobs away from Americans.

Matiyow sits in the front row as the televised debate beams in from Houston. He's alternately animated and subdued as the debate, much like the campaign itself, devolves into playground insults.

And when it's over, Matiyow says he much prefers town hall meetings over debates. The guy next to him offers that Trump is perhaps the new Andrew Jackson. Jason, sitting 10 feet behind them, used to worry about what Trump would say during a debate and how other candidates went after him, but no more. "Mr. Trump says whatever he wants to and it doesn't hurt him," he says.

A young perspective

Jason offers a different idea about how to view Trump, a variation of the dream that anyone can become rich and powerful. When first encountered at the regional Trump headquarters a few days earlier, the candidate was soft-spoken and polite. It would be hard to imagine him shouting insults at a rival, or at a protester at a Trump rally. Jason lives in New Baltimore, on the edge of Lake St. Clair, and won't turn 18 until October, in time to vote in the general election. His mother works at home, and his father is a sales rep for Cintas, a uniform company. Earlier that afternoon, he had made the 45-minute drive along 26 Mile Road from high school, wearing black dress shoes and a suit and tie, his brown hair gelled straight in front.

His says his support for Trump is rooted more in personality than the construction of a wall. He's never been much for cartoons or sports but is into prime-time television, his favorite show The Apprentice, which he began watching when he was 12. "I have always looked up to Mr. Trump," he says. "I like how when he walks into a room, he commands the room. ... I would like to become successful and help other people become successful."

Since getting involved in January, Jason has placed more successful calls from the Trump phone bank than any other volunteer in the state. He says he kept finding people who called themselves Democrats and said they had never voted for a Republican. At Anchor Bay High, he says, he worried at first about how classmates and teachers would react but decided, "I'm going to express myself and my views." He wore a Trump T-shirt to school and spoke up in government class, where he believes his teacher James Swartz admires him "even though I know Mr. Trump is not his first choice."

Swartz later praised Jason's involvement as an example of what it means to be an American. He says he's never had a student "take such an active role" in campaigning. "Neil Simon's "Biloxi Blues' comes to mind when thinking about Jason's role in political activism," Swartz says. In the play, Epstein accuses Eugene of "always standing around watching what's happening" and just scribbling in his notebook. "Jason is simply doing what Epstein is asking Eugene to do. Instead of scribbling in a notebook, which I guess would be this generation's version in the form of Facebook, Twitter or an Internet blog, he is making his contributions through his actions."

The fact that The Apprentice inspired Jason reveals something else about the Trump phenomenon. The New York real estate mogul's appeal is many layered. In the entryway near where Jason works the phones, two retired men wearing "Make America Great Again" caps sit at a card table, unofficial bouncers of a sort. Gary Hohf, 63, and Bill Manjar, 60, fit the Macomb County Reagan Democrat archetype — beefy guys who grew up as Democrats, once belonged to unions (United Auto Workers and ironworkers), felt "screwed," as they say, by various free-trade agreements, left the Democratic Party and are now all in for Trump. His is the first campaign they have ever felt the desire to join.

But when Jason exits the headquarters to canvas that day in Shelby Township to promote Trump ahead of the Michigan primary, at the time two weeks away, his companion is another variation of Trump supporter — Rick Cruz, a 62-year-old self-employed entrepreneur who shares young Jason's admiration for Trump's commercial success. In listening to Cruz, there's a connection between Trump's evangelism about money and his unexpected popularity among religious evangelicals, between mega-churches brimming with believers who want to be saved and arenas filled with people who want to be taught how to become rich. Prophets and profits, in this sense speaking the same language.

Respect for wealth

Cruz says he had read many of Trump's books, including Midas Touch and Why We Want You to Be Rich, and has taken courses Trump sponsored in real estate and wealth development. "I admire success," he says. Trump is his favorite profit evangelist, but he is also keen on investor Warren Buffett ("If I could just sit down in that fast-food restaurant where he eats every day, I would love to do that!") and motivational speaker Tony Robbins, and is just starting to get into the other businessman Trump is always trumpeting, Carl Icahn. Is he rich himself? Cruz has lost his share of homes and cars over the years, he says, and has been "divorced twice, like Trump." But "I'm comfortable enough with what I've earned. I haven't had to draw unemployment this last year even though I haven't worked."

The wide, quiet streets of the Shelby Township subdivisions are mostly empty as Jason and Cruz weave their way canvassing late in the afternoon. They finally find a guy hauling things out of his garage on Sandy Creek. His name is Mike Miroslaw, and he says he's not that into politics and believes it's "a really bad crop this year, a bad crop." But if the choice is between Trump and Hillary Clinton, he's going with Trump. "I want this country to get back to where it should be," he says. "It's time to focus on the U.S., on this country again."

The advocate

Focusing on the country is precisely what Fatima Salman was doing. She's an organizer with the Technical Assistance Center in Detroit, an outfit working to help the city's neighborhoods emerge from decades of decay, and is among hundreds of businesspeople and community leaders attending the winter conference of the Detroit Regional Chamber at the MotorCity Casino Hotel. The conference is about reviving the city's neighborhoods. That sort of work is what Salman believes being an American is all about. But there's more. She grew up in the suburbs, in Troy. Her mother taught Montessori. Her dad worked at Chrysler. "We always had a Chrysler in our driveway," she says. "We are very much a part of the Detroit car culture. We are so American!"

Now she's married to a doctor and lives in West Bloomfield with three children who attend public schools, and it's in that suburban setting, at a meeting of the West Bloomfield Township board a month earlier, that police escorted her to the safety of her car. She had attended the meeting in support of a resolution that the board had passed but was being challenged by a roomful of angry Tea Party conservatives. The resolution declared that West Bloomfield was a "welcoming" city for immigrants. Salman's parents came from India 42 years ago. Her husband grew up in Syria. They are American citizens and Muslims who worship at the Muslim Unity Center in Bloomfield Hills. The Detroit area had the largest concentration of Muslims in a nation of immigrants. Salman has always been proud that Michigan "was so welcoming to Muslims" — until that night at the town hall meeting when she was surrounded by anger. Reporters were at the meeting, and the discussion was recorded.

One resident talked about the beheading of Christians. Another said Muslims wanted to change the U.S. Constitution. A third said new immigrants from Syria and other Muslim countries would "never be American" — that these immigrants were taking jobs and resources away from real Americans and that the United States was in danger of becoming a Third World country.

"I was shaking," Salman recalls. "It shows we have a lot of work to do. We have to work overtime to overcome all the negatives. ... Trump by himself has changed Muslim life so much. The fear of the other. Everything they were saying at that town hall was what he was saying." The incident and others like it, as chilling as they may be, had one positive effect, she says. They forced the Muslims she knows to coalesce and get active and engage the world around them and not recede into their safe zones. The incident at the township meeting also challenged her view of America, she says, but did not change it. She lived in Syria once, as an exchange student in the late 1990s, and her husband grew up there. They knew what it meant to live in a closed society with an oppressive government. The United States, she says, is "a country that celebrates the beauty of diversity, the prosperity of diversity. The whole world looks at America and says, "You guys have got it!" "

In poisoned Flint

Perhaps, but they might look north to the city of Flint and say something else. Here is another Michigan story leading to citizen discontent. Flint, where the water is so full of lead that it's poisoning its residents, where the people are victims of government disregard, where Clinton and Bernie Sanders have come to campaign to debate and denounce a slow-to-react state government run by Republicans. Flint is where the Rev. Gerald Cardwell talked about how his church, Quinn Chapel AME, the oldest in the city's African American community, had lost almost all of its younger members since General Motors left town. The average age is now 65. He worries about that, along with why his hands started cracking a few years ago because of the additives in the water, and then the poisoning came along and he has stopped cooking and showering with tap water.

His is the city where Nakeyja Cade, a single mother who works at the Forman Mills clothing warehouse, worries about what that tainted water did to her 1-year-old daughter, Zariyah, who keeps testing high for lead in her blood and started having seizures and passing out a few months after she was born. And it was where the Rev. Allen Overton, a Baptist minister who has lived there for half a century, first noticed the funny color of the water, then the irritation of his skin, then thought it was odd that there seemed to be more concern early on about the water corroding car parts than about it harming people. How does he define America during this election season? As a nation that is still divided by race and economics.

"I don't know what it means to take America back or make it great again," he says. The words seem like code to him, entirely irrelevant to his city's struggles.

The KKK connection

On the Sunday morning when Trump, during a CNN television interview, fails to disavow the endorsement of former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke, Jeff Crockett sits in his home and flinches. He lives on a farm in Harrison, a rustic Arkansas hamlet deep in the Ozarks. With a town square that looks like a Western movie set, and more than 40 churches from First Baptist to Brand New Church, Harrison has tried to move beyond an unsettling distinction. It's the listed address of the KKK.

The Klan's headquarters was nearly 20 miles out of the city limits, but the mailing address says Harrison, and that's enough to keep the city's racist history fresh. During riots in 1905 and 1909, whites ran out practically all the African Americans living in the city. The reputation held that Harrison was a "sundown town," a place unsafe for blacks at night. The current census said that about 0.3% of the city — 43 people — identify as African American.

"We never hear any complaints from them," says Crockett, a former mayor who grew up in the Chicago suburbs. He is bald, with a hearty laugh and piercing blue eyes. As mayor, Crockett tried to reshape Harrison's reputation. When the city tried to host a convention for nonviolence, parents of black students from Little Rock were so afraid of sending their kids to Harrison that they asked if they could be accompanied by a police escort. In 2014, Crockett held a ceremony with those students in which they symbolically put "hate" in a casket and declared it buried. Some residents complained, asking why they were bringing up the subject of race.

"There's a percentage of racism here, but there's racism everywhere," Crockett says. "Diversity is harder to grasp because they've never been around it. They haven't had to drive through the projects, they don't know what Cabrini Green is."

After Barack Obama was elected, Crockett says open displays of racism were muted. "No one wanted to introduce racism." With Trump, he has concerns that his leadership might reintroduce that word he buried with the schoolchildren. "I worry a little that some people, very few people, might start beating the drum louder because of what Trump is doing."

Their slice of the country, largely ignored in politics, had suddenly been thrust into the national conversation. Republicans are eager to pick votes from rural and working-class white voters, and the top three candidates visited northwestern Arkansas in a 24-hour period. Their presence, and Trump's comments, provided neither solace nor clarity.

On the eve of Super Tuesday, Crockett headed to the Townhouse Cafe, a restaurant with exposed-brick walls and tablecloths that read "Société Générale." The old-timers like to come to this place each morning, visiting with one another from table to table. As Crockett munches on a breakfast sandwich and hash browns, Dave Fitton joins him briefly.

"So who are you voting for tomorrow?" Crockett asks.

"If there was a libertarian candidate, I'd vote for them," Fitton responds. "But there's not, so I'm not sure I'm going to vote."

Fitton believes the government has sunk beyond reproach. "Even when you send people with good intentions, they get up in Washington, D.C., and they get a lot in the club," he says. "Republican, Democrat, if you just look at what they're saying, there's not a lot of difference."

"I'm just confused right now," says Tim Lauer, 68. "I'm waiting for the shoe to drop to finally expose what these people are really thinking. I just don't trust them."

Lauer used to own the cafe with his partner, who died in 2012. They abandoned the partying lifestyle in New Orleans in the "80s to avoid the scourge of AIDS, seeking refuge in a town that was dry until 2011. The town folk rarely acknowledged that the cafe was run by a gay couple, and Lauer worked to be accepted. He held his tongue when customers complained if Lauer did "woman's work" of waiting on their tables. When he wanted to introduce the chicken fricassee as a dish, customers steered clear of it until they renamed it "stewed chicken over rice."

These regulars are independent, and proud to call themselves mountain folk. They don't believe in rocking the boat. They say what they resent most about the country today isn't the poverty or education level of their town, but that politicians don't fully understand their desire to run their own lives. They're interested in business, maybe, but not government programs. They're interested in the moral teachings of their pastor, but not this president. And they won't vote if they don't want to. Lauer understands that now, too. He says he was unsure whether he'd cast a ballot in the primary.

How do his patrons feel about Trump's push to get more votes from people in rural areas who didn't go to college? George Cady, 62, a former trucker, says he thinks the country is in dire need of some more common sense. "Our president is a socialist, and we are in debt," he says. "I personally think politicians could learn from us. I didn't go to college, but I know I have to pay my credit card bills on time. So what does that tell you?"

Texas and Michigan seem at the center of things this year in many ways. The vote may be more decisive elsewhere, but the threads of the story weave through these two states, the debate over different definitions of what it means to be an American. Texas, like Michigan, is a great divide. Here is one Texas: the richest donor base of conservative money in the era of Citizens United. Texas, where Alex Jones, America's airwave conspiratorialist, portrayed a world in which 9/11 was an inside job and the moon landings were faked. Texas, where public officials seriously questioned whether the Jade Helm military exercise was a prelude to a government takeover of the state. Texas, where officials urged gun manufacturers to move after the shootings at Sandy Hook. Texas, in the vanguard of voter-ID laws, abortion restrictions, guns in government buildings, and textbooks rewritten to eliminate history with a liberal slant. Texas, with the longest border and more than a thousand miles of Trump's imagined great wall.

A divided Texas

Then the other Texas, the land of Latinos who are rising faster than any group in the country and by large percentages want nothing to do with the wall or the idea of deporting 11 million or 12 million undocumented immigrants. San Antonio is the heart of this Tex-Mex Texas, the one that inspired the notion of demographics as destiny, an eventuality of a blue Lone Star that would change everything about American politics. The idea still seems a far distance away, if it would ever arrive.

Among the abuelas of this other Texas is Choco Meza, the top volunteer at Clinton headquarters in San Antonio. She was an immigrant herself, arriving in Texas in the early 1950s at age 3 with her parents and four siblings from Zaragoza in the Mexican province of Coahuila. Their first stop was Uvalde in the Rio Grande Valley, where her father, Alfonso R. Gonzalez, dug ditches for ranchers. Then they moved on to Eagle Pass, up along the border, where they lived in public housing, and where a second-grade teacher scolded Meza for bringing her Spanish-speaking mother to school. "If she doesn't know English, why is she here?" the teacher asked. "Because she is with me," Meza replied.

The family finally made it to San Antonio's west side, with these results from three generations: All five children went to college and three, including Meza, to graduate school. Among 13 grandchildren, three are lawyers and the others work in homeland security, cybersecurity and various businesses. Meza's son and daughter are lawyers. Asked what it means to be an American, she says: "Just look at my family. That is an American success story."

The anger and frustration that permeate this campaign have left Meza disheartened. So many obstacles that could have made Meza feel cynical about the democratic process, she says. As a woman, as an immigrant — "I can think of all these ways that I could have been held back, but I had to work through it, we have to work through it. Just because things don't happen right away is not reason to be belligerent to our own country. We may not be a perfect country, but we certainly are a great country."

One of Meza's oldest friends in San Antonio is Rosie Castro, whose mother, Victoria, arrived in San Antonio as an orphan from Mexico at age 6, living with her guardians, the Garcias. Castro also grew up with the Garcias. Her young mother never married, never got past third grade, worked as a housekeeper, but could read in Spanish and English, and sent Rosie, her only child, to Little Flower Catholic School and then to Our Lady of the Lake University. Rosie never married, either, but had twin boys, and as she became more involved in politics in San Antonio, she took them with her to meetings and rallies all over town.

As Rosie Castro sat in Henry's Puffy Tacos eating lunch a few days before the Texas primary, she pondered the same question asked of many dozens of people over the past month. What does mean to her to be an American? She says that when she started as an activist four decades ago, it seemed to her that America had "a lot of prejudice and no remedy. It didn't matter what the issue was, it looked like we were screwed." But she has always loved the country nonetheless. "Ever since I was a child, my thing was the American flag," she says. "I sold little American flags then. Later I had an American flag in front of my home. I just so fundamentally believe in the ideals of America. I believe that fundamentally Americans are good people. Even though we face difficulties, in a democracy there is a way to change things. You have to be engaged. You have to understand that things don't just happen. I think back to 30-some years ago when I ran for city council and didn't stand a chance, to today, when my sons could be president someday."

Her twin sons, now 41, are Joaquin and Julian Castro. They went to Stanford and Harvard and got law degrees and became politicians. One served in the Texas legislature and is now a congressman. The other, after being mayor of San Antonio, now works in President Obama's Cabinet as secretary of housing and urban development and is on the shortlist of potential running mates for Hillary Clinton. Here is one of the central tensions of the political debate this year. Although some express dismay about a lost America and the dilution of the national ideal by an influx of immigrants, there are people like Choco Meza and Rosie Castro who believe that the American ideal is alive to them and their descendants as never before.

Joaquin Castro, the congressman, came home to San Antonio that weekend to campaign for a local legislative friend and for Clinton. "People are motivated by two things," he says at one rally. "Hope or fear." And fear has been let loose this year, through the scapegoating of immigrants and talk of a wall across the Mexican border. "In the era of Donald Trump, you can't stay quiet. They are talking about us. The people of this neighborhood. And a lot of that talk started in Texas. This was ground zero."

Audrey Garcia was driving home from a cross-training class on Saturday morning when she saw Castro walking along Commerce Street, door-knocking in the Edgewood district on San Antonio's west side. She pulled over and got out of her SUV, bringing along her teenage daughter to meet the lawmaker. She said she wanted her daughter to be proud of politics and proud of her country, not angry.

The next day, in Louisville, a different side of America. Johanna Hribal had decided she needed to take a stand. Donald Trump was coming to town, and the diminutive 24-year-old middle-school foreign-language teacher with long black hair had decided to organize a protest. She'ss no lefty. She had never organized anything before. She didn't even know who would get her vote. What she did know is that she disliked what she considered to be Trump's bullying, wild boasting and arrogance, and feared it would ruin America. She had watched a John Oliver video detailing Trump's faults and read that fact checkers deemed more than three-quarters of the Trump statements they examined as false or mostly false. Maybe she could help stem the momentum.

As Hribal put out her protest call on Facebook, strangers from around the country warned her to be careful. Trump rallies could get violent, they wrote. When a local television station asked to interview her about the cause, she called her mother in Virginia. Concern, but not complete support there. "You know I actually am going to vote for him," her mother said of Trump. "I just don't really like Hillary."

The plan moved forward anyway. Hribal straightened her hair and wore a baseball cap to throw off any security guard who might have seen her on television. She wore a T-shirt with a bald eagle on it. At 1 that afternoon, she joined the line to enter Louisville's convention center, in the heart of its industrial downtown. Once inside, she waited for more protesters to find her.

"There are no seats here," Hribal said, although her protest was known as #emptytheseats. "We'll just stand and walk out."

Among those who joined her was Keith Rose, burly and bearded, who came with a handmade sign that said "Make America Great Again." The motto nauseated him. The past eight years, he said, had been the happiest in his life. Rose grew up gay in a small town in the 1990s, fearing that bullies might kill him. Now he's married to the love of his life and has watched a president, after some hesitation, fully embrace gay people. "What we're seeing is a lot of resistance to change in this country and it's sad," Rose says. "But we've come too far to let it get away."

The hall began to fill. Soon they were surrounded by men with thick beards and women in jeans, dancing and singing along to "Uptown Girl." Hribal was nervous. Then the rally started. A woman sang the national anthem. A Korean War vet saluted the flag. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told the crowd that Trump was the only person who could beat Clinton. And out came Trump to deafening applause.

Hribal was too short to see him through the tangle of arms and heads and cellphones. She was surrounded by women in American flag paraphernalia and men with caps proclaiming their veteran status. The crowd began shouting the candidate's name.

Was it time for action?

When Trump congratulated himself for introducing the debate about illegal immigration, a group of protesters on the other side of the room began to yell, although Hribal could not quite make out what they were saying. A teenager standing in front of her in a black Green Day sweatshirt turned red in the face and began to jump toward the protesters, both middle fingers in the air.

"Build that wall!" the crowd shouted. "Build that wall!" As the chant continued, a man in a purple sweater standing behind Hribal raised a hand in the air, clenching his fist. The crowd members were so riled up that they booed at Trump's utterance of the word "Mexico."

Hribal typed a message furiously into her cellphone. It was time. She hoisted a sign in the air and yelled, "EMPTY THE SEATS!"

The teenager in the black Green Day sweatshirt turned and sneered. He grabbed the sign and ripped it to shreds. Rose hoisted a new sign, with the name "Bernie" written in the colors of a rainbow. Another man tore it from his hands and stomped on it.

"Get them out of here!" Trump yelled from the stage. "Out!"

Men in the crowd lunged at Hribal, extending their arms, but Rose acted as a shield. Police officers were coming to escort the protesters out, but the path was blocked. The crowd seethed at them and called them losers. Hribal began to shake. As more officers approached to lead her and her friends out of the hall, a man in a green trucker hat leaned toward her. He whispered, "This old man will whip you."

Outside, Hribal waited near the entrance to see if any more protesters would be kicked out. One was a young black woman who said she was called vile racist and sexist names and shoved by the crowd. Video of her harassment later went viral. Ronald Fernandez, 29, came to find Hribal and wrapped her in his arms. He was her boyfriend.

"I'm so glad you're safe," he said, kissing her on the cheek.

"I'm a little shaken up!" she said. "I'm a little invigorated. Look at these people who are coming out to speak against this guy. Maybe there is hope in America."

Return to San Antonio for one final scene in the broad expanse in front of the Alamo. The afternoon is soft and warm, a becalmed sea compared with the raging whirlwind of Louisville. Smiling gaggles of 15-year-old girls pose in their flowing blue quinceañera dresses. Tourists stand erect on Segways and glide by single-file. African Americans and Anglos and Latinos come and go, men in cowboy hats, babies in strollers, people speaking Spanish and English and German. And sitting on the stone wall in the shade, a fellow named Maurice Jones. What is his definition of what it means to be an American?

Jones is from Wales, the village of Tal-y-bont. He's 63, a retired sergeant major in the British army who has seen action in Northern Ireland and the Falklands. And he's more than game for the question. He loves America as much as any native-born son, and to him the Alamo is the symbol. For many years now, he has made an annual pilgrimage from Wales to San Antonio and booked a room at the Crockett Hotel and visited the Alamo from late February until March 6, the date the mission fell to the Mexican army 180 years ago. He has been obsessed with the place since he was a boy and saw John Wayne play Davey Crockett in the 1960 movie.

Jones thought he knew America, until this year. That morning he had been asking other guests at the hotel to explain the rise of Trump and the ruckus in the Republican Party. He knows about nationalism, and in fact says he would vote for Britain to leave the European Union. And like all Europeans, he certainly knows about the difficulties Western nations face dealing with a flood of refugees and immigrants, although he believes the Britons are handling the problem more rationally than the Americans.

But "all the nastiness and name-calling on the telly from Mr. Trump" — that's beyond him. And so is the notion that America isn't great. "This is still basically the land of opportunity, is it not? If you work at it, you can still get on with it, can you not? It is a beautiful country. If I had it to do over again, and I were a young lad, this is where I would want to live."


This article is the last installment of Looking for America, a four-part series published on The Washington Post

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1. Which two words did U.S. President Joe Biden use about possible scenarios in the Russia-Ukraine standoff that upset authorities in Kyiv?

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⬇️  STARTER

Toxic geopolitics: More than ever, we need more women world leaders

The world is watching the Russian-Ukrainian border. Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening an invasion finds an ally in Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi, united against their common enemy: the United States. Back in Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden — marking his first year in power with painfully low approval rates (higher only than Donald Trump’s) — sends his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to Kyiv to reassure President Volodymyr Zelensky who worries that France’s Emmanuel Macron might undermine Ukraine. And we haven’t even mentioned Xi Jinping!

It’s an endless theater of world leaders beating their respective chests — and they have exactly one thing in common: they’re all men. It’s by now a decades-old question, but worth asking again: What would happen if women, and not men, were running the world? Would there be less conflict, more prosperity? More humanity?

In 2018, the World Economic Forum released a study that showed that “only 4% of signatories to peace agreements between 1992 and 2011 were women, and only 9% of the negotiators.” The report shows that in several conflict zones in the world in recent decades, citing Liberia, Northern Ireland and Colombia, women have been instrumental in achieving peace.

In Colombia, where 20% of peace negotiators for the 2016 peace treaty were women, Ingrid Betancourt, herself a victim of the 50-year conflict, has announced her candidacy for the May presidential elections. Differently from previous bids, where she focused on fighting environmental abuses and corruption, Betancourt now is putting gender issues at the center of her political agenda. Bogota daily El Espectador questions whether the former hostage will be able to ride this important political wave, with feminist movements flexing their muscle around the region demanding more rights.

In Italy, next week’s elections for the head of state are monopolized by infamously misogynous former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is hoping to be elected for the seven-year, honorary function. There is no official candidacy, but Berlusconi’s name and that of current Prime Minister Mario Draghi are the two getting the most attention. Italian feminist writer and intellectual Dacia Maraini writes in La Stampa that, yes, the very fact of electing a female president will be progress for the country — and by the way, there are plenty of women qualifed for the job.

There was also a woman politician making the news this week for actually getting elected: Maltese conservative politician Roberta Metsola, became the new European Parliament President after the death of Italy’s David Sassoli. And yet the election of the first female president of the EU’s legislature since Nicole Fontaine in 2001 has been widely criticized by female politicians — primarily for Metsola’s stance against abortion rights. "I think it is a terrible sign for women's rights everywhere in Europe," French left-wing member of the European Parliament Manon Aubry told Deutsche Welle.

The women who have risen to power in history (Margaret Thatcher, anyone?) don’t necessarily make the case that gender is the silver bullet to fix politics. Still, after watching all the toxic masculinity on the world stage this past week, we can rightfully demand fewer men.

Irene Caselli

🎭  5 CULTURE THINGS TO KNOW

• Record-breaking online concert of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand”: More than 100 musicians from around the world will take part today in a performance of Mahler’s epic 8th symphony consisting of 1,200 elements, including a double chorus, children’s choir, a full orchestra and an organ. The event is a culmination of a year of work; all artists recorded their parts in isolation besides the children’s choir. Tickets can be purchased here.

Yearly Japanese festival will set a mountain on fire: Today, the grassy hillside of Mount Wakakusayama in Japan will go up in flames as fireworks go off in the background as part of celebrations for Wakakusa Yamayak. The origin of the festival isn’t totally clear, but might relate to border conflicts between the great temples in the region or to ward off wild boars.

• New insights into antiquities taken by the Nazis: Scholars are looking into how German forces during World War II looted artifacts such as on the Greek island of Crete. Nazi officials pillaged these valuables for their own personal gain, but many were also destroyed, which is why researchers around the world are hoping to gain greater insight into this often overlooked aspect of German occupation.

Exhibition of Beirut’s restored artwork: The Beirut Museum of Art has inaugurated the exhibition “Lift” featuring 17 paintings by Lebanese artists that had been damaged by the port explosion in 2020, and have since been restored as a result of a UNESCO initiative.

The world’s first vegan violin tunes up: Berries, pears and spring water are just some of the natural ingredients relied on for the construction of the instrument by English violin-maker Padraig O'Dubhlaoidh. Traditionally, animal parts like horsehair, hooves, horns and bones are used, especially to glue pieces together. The £8,000 instrument is sure to be music to some animal lover’s ears.

🇷🇺  NAVALNY SAGA & PUTIN’S INTENTIONS


One year ago anti-corruption lawyer and politician Alexei Navalny was detained in Russia, marking the effective end of domestic opposition to Russian president Vladimir Putin. In the time since, more than half of the former coordinators of Navalny's headquarters fled Russia. Even Navalny's name is forbidden: Putin never says his name, calling him "this citizen."

At the same time, Navalny’s imprisonment and the de facto end of the opposition have changed Russia. The fear of persecution, the lack of alternatives and the total censorship and propaganda have caused Putin's ratings consistently downward.

An aging leader with no successors, no enemies and dwindling popular support is finding it increasingly difficult to explain why he must continue to rule forever. In such a situation, there’s nothing quite like an external threat to fuel the raison d’être of the authoritarian regime. In Putin’s eyes, the perfect threat right now is NATO expansion, and the perfect enemy is its neighbor Ukraine and its attempts to join the military alliance. Whether Russia's president is ready to engage in a real war is the great unknown, but its aggressive and uncompromising foreign policy — like his disposing of Alexei Navalny — is the latest legitimization of his increasingly absolutist rule now into its third decade.

Read the full story: What The Alexei Navalny Saga Tells Us About Putin’s Intentions On Ukraine

🇨🇴  FROM HOSTAGE TO POTENTIAL HEAD OF STATE


Íngrid Betancourt spent more than six years as a prisoner of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) terror group in Colombia, an experience that is sure to play a role in her recently announced presidential campaign. Betancourt, who is 60, is running as part of the Verde Oxígeno and is the only woman in the Centro Esperanza Coalition (CCE), a centrist alliance.

Betancourt could be a boost for the coalition and embody its goals of transforming, overcoming polarization and, as its name indicates, giving hope to Colombia. In particular, the centrist candidate who in the past has been largely focused on anti-corruption and environmental protection, has said she will make women’s rights a cornerstone of her campaign.

Read the full story: Ingrid Betancourt, A Hostage Heroine Reinvented As Feminist For President

♀️ 😔  YOUNG WOMEN FACE THE BRUNT OF THE COVID-19 MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS


A growing number of studies around the world show that COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions have prompted a disproportionate increase in mental health illness among teen girls. These include rising suicide rates among adolescent females in the United States, Germany and Spain and a higher prevalence of anxiety and eating disorders in Israel. But why are women being disproportionately impacted?

There’s a range of reasons. In India, for example, young women had increased difficulty accessing education resources when schools went online and shared a disproportionate burden of household tasks as opposed to their male peers. Around the world, social media also played a significant role; without access to in-person socialization and hobbies, young people spent more time online, often comparing themselves to others, impacting feelings of self-worth. The situation is particularly dire given the challenges of accessing mental health support resources during the pandemic.

Read the full story: Why The COVID-19 Mental Health Crisis Is Hitting Teenage Girls The Hardest

💡  BRIGHT IDEA


Norwegian mobility company Podbike has announced that Frikar, its four-wheeled enclosed electric bike, will soon hit bike lanes on home turf. The futuristic-looking vehicle does require the user to pedal, which powers a generator and drive-by-wire system that keep the Frikar running — with a speed limited to 25 km/h.

#️⃣ TRENDING

“Mãe De Bolsonaro” is the top query on Twitter in Brazil, after news that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s mother Olinda Bonturi Bolsonaro had died at age 94.

😄📚 SMILE OF THE WEEK

Photo of the new President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

New President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

Philipp Von Ditfurth/ZUMA


London’s legendary bookshop Waterstones Gower Street tweeted a photo of a letter from an anonymous user confessing to having forgotten to pay for their books some 48 years ago. Owing approximately £100 ($136), adjusted for inflation, they had sent through £120 ($163) to make up for their tardiness. Touched by the kind gesture, the bookshop reciprocated by donating the money to the largest children’s reading charity in the United Kingdom.

👉   OTHERWISE ...

Dottoré! is a weekly column on Worldcrunch.com by Mariateresa Fichele, a psychiatrist and writer based in Naples, Italy. Read more about the series here.

Bucket of tears

I’ve been thinking and thinking about a patient of mine since yesterday. His name is Giovanni.

Psychiatrists, you might not know, are quite often asked the same unanswerable question: "Why does one become insane?”

When I was younger, I searched and searched for an answer, losing myself in scientific explanations about synapses, neurons and neurotransmitters.

By the end of my studies, I’d realized that the only thing that was clear was that I’d been clutching at straws to justify my work and give it a semblance of scientific dignity. In the years since, I’ve forced myself, in defiance of the authority of my position, to reply with a laconic but honest: "Sorry, but I don't know."

So when Giovanni asked me that same question, he was not happy at all with my answer. “Dottoré, how’s it possible that you don't understand why I became crazy?”

When he tried to ask me again one day, I tried a different response:

"Giová, do you cry?"

"No. Why?"

"Imagine that the tears that you don't shed, that you force yourself not to shed, because that's what you've been taught to do, all end up inside your heart. The heart is an organ that pumps blood, which brings nourishment and oxygen to the whole body. But over time those diverted tears accumulate to the point that the heart begins to pump them instead of your blood. Slowly your body becomes sick, but the part that suffers the most is your brain. Because tears don't contain oxygen and nourishment, just sadness."

I expected a reaction to this fanciful explanation, but instead Giovanni kept quiet and eventually left.

The next time I saw him, he said: "Dottoré, I've thought about it. I know you told me about the tears to make me feel better, but maybe you’re right. Because sometimes I feel that I have a lake, more than a heart. But it takes a very powerful pump to pump out all that water, and my heart alone cannot do it. And now that you've explained to me how I became crazy, can you also tell me if I'll ever get better?"

"Do you want another story or do you want the truth?”

"This time, I’d rather have the truth!”

"The answer is always the same then. I'm sorry, Giová, but I don't know this either. But I can tell you one thing for sure. I'll help you slowly, slowly with just a bucket. Because the truth is, not even I have that pump."

⏩  LOOKING AHEAD

• Italy's parliament will convene Monday to begin the process of voting for a new president to succeed Sergio Mattarella for a seven-year term.

• Qualification games for the 2022 FIFA World Cup will be held from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2 for South, North and Central America as well as Asia. Argentina’s national team will not be able to rely on superstar Lionel Messi, still recovering from COVID-19.

• Next Thursday will mark 100 years since Nellie Bly died. The American journalist is known for her record-breaking 72-day trip around the world in 1889, inspired by Jules Vernes’ book Around the World in Eighty Days


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