GLEN ALLEN, Va. — Listening to the conversation at Robert Jones’ Parkside Barber Shop and Grooming Lounge, you’d never know we live in a deeply divided country that seems incapable of discussing everyday challenges.
Jones, a successful local entrepreneur, hosted a group of business leaders and educators here to ponder how to prepare the millennial workforce. They offered their ideas to Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Democratic congressional candidate Abigail Spanberger.
Both are on the ballot Nov. 6, but the hour-and-a-half exchange on a Saturday evening didn’t sound like what we think of as politics these days.
It was all about how educational institutions at all levels — and employers themselves — could endow students with the skills to succeed and provide enterprises large and small with the well-trained labor they need to thrive. The dialogue was detailed and practical, with a “we’re all in this together” spirit.
It had nothing to do with the 2018 campaign. And it had everything to do with the 2018 campaign.
As voting approaches, President Trump is doing all he can to drive the national dialogue away from such concerns and toward the ethno-nationalist themes he hopes might scare enough voters into backing Republican candidates.
There he was on Wednesday morning, back to tweets about his favorite topic, the immigrant “Caravans” from Central America, and charging — without any evidence, of course — that they are “made up of some very bad thugs and gang members.”
Any normal president would be ashamed of ripping the nation apart on this issue soon after the slaughter at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The attack was unleashed by an anti-Semitic gunman who appeared motivated by the work of a Jewish group on behalf of refugees. But Trump is an abnormal — and normless — president. This is all he has.
Yet on the ground, Democratic candidates are not taking the bait. They are insisting that the country is exhausted by acrimony, by the cries of right-wing ideologues, and by the evasion of the day-to-day issues — health care, education, job training — that they believe most Americans want their politicians to grapple with.
“I think you’re more likely to pull people together in the context of solving problems,” Kaine said in an interview after the labor-force session. It’s a formula that has worked for him this year as he has built a large lead over Republican Corey Stewart, the chair of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors. Stewart may be, as Kaine noted, one of the “most pure” Trumpian candidates on the ballot this year, given Stewart’s long-standing anti-immigrant activism.
Kaine said that he is looking for a particular kind of wave next week, “a wave of dignity and compassion and respect and community.”
Spanberger is a 39-year-old veteran of the CIA, a mother of three, and one of four Democrats in Virginia with a chance of taking a Republican seat. She faces tea-party Republican incumbent Dave Brat. It has become a neck-and-neck race in an area where, until recently, Democrats were barely a presence.
She doesn’t bring up Trump and doesn’t have to. Should her campaign and the Democrats prevail, the victory “will be about decency, modeling good behavior, being enthusiastic about who we are as a people and what this country has to offer; it will be about solving problems and working with other people and working across party lines.” Citizens, she said, are tired of politicians “who are just ideologues, and trying to stop things.”
Asked about the synagogue killings, she argues that the massacre underscores the obligations of “anyone of influence to denounce bigotry and hatred and anti-Semitism” and to “model constructive, respectful and measured behavior.”
The key word here may be “measured.” What often looks nationally like a split-level campaign — Trump railing about groups he seeks to marginalize, Democrats talking about economic mobility and the right to see a doctor — is actually one campaign. Its closing days highlight the two very different approaches to politics voters confront.
The pipe bombs sent in the mail and the tragedy in Pittsburgh brought home the costs of Trump’s style of politics. Our nation is paying a steep price for a form of leadership that knows only how to set Americans against each another.
The dialogue in a suburban barber shop brought together people across racial and ethnic lines to consider how to lift up the next generation. It illustrated the other way of doing politics. That’s the approach citizens have a right to expect from their leaders.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @EJDionne.