The Lincoln Highway Ends in a City Fortifying Itself for the Election


Crossing the Bay Bridge into San Francisco, relief mixes with disbelief: The end of the Lincoln Highway lies only a short way ahead. We’ve made it 4,000 miles, some on dirt roads, all in a vehicle that doesn’t like bumps — through a pandemic, windstorms, freezing temperatures, and no shortage of small mechanical issues that left us perplexed, but also the owners of a new toilet.

Exiting onto Fremont Street, downtown, my disbelief takes a turn: Everywhere we look, storefronts are boarded up or being boarded up. Workmen in yellow vests carry plywood. A saw buzzes through two-by-fours atop a makeshift workbench. Lumber lines the sidewalk and frames out glass windows. Construction workers seem to outnumber pedestrians. It’s Election Day eve, but I have the feeling I did as a child on a Gate Night, Mischief Night, Cabbage Night, Devil’s Night — the night before Halloween when kids would egg houses and toilet paper trees. It was harmless, but I remember being more spooked by the breakdown in the rules — What could happen? Will tomorrow be OK? — than by any ghost or goblin.

The Lincoln Highway Ends in a City Fortifying Itself for the Election

All along the Lincoln Highway, I’ve asked people the same two questions: What is your biggest fear or concern about the future of the country? And what binds us together as Americans?

To the first question, not a solitary soul said China. Or Russia. Or Iran. Or any other country. Not one person mentioned a terrorist group — not a word about another 9/11-style attack, or a dirty bomb, or even a nuclear weapon. A fair number mentioned climate change. One, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, cited cyberwarfare. But even those issues were framed as internal challenges — a national complacency that must be overcome.

Nearly every person saw our biggest threat to be lying within us, and the most common answer was the divided state of the country — politically especially, but also economically and socially. In those answers I heard the speech Abraham Lincoln gave in 1838, long before civil war lay on the horizon, in which he inveighed against mob violence, including lynching and looting. “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Lincoln said the only way to hold the country together, to prevent it being torn apart by inflamed passions, was “reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason.” Yet not one person along the Lincoln Highway seemed to place their faith in reason — at least none said so explicitly. Even as many lamented our inability to communicate with one another, they seemed at a loss as to how to overcome that, blaming social and partisan media for fomenting tribalist passions and swamping reasoned and reasonable dialogue.

So if not reason, what will hold us together? More on that later. For now, the crash of the Pacific — a sound that is eerily similar to the Wyoming wind, but so much more comforting — lies below, and I need a moment of peace before going back downtown to face those boards and the night that lies ahead.

The Lincoln Highway Ends in a City Fortifying Itself for the Election

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Frank Barry is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. This column is part of a series, “Looking for Lincoln: A Portrait of America at a Crossroads.” It features reports from Barry’s journey west along the Lincoln Highway, a zigzagging network of local roads running from Times Square to the Golden Gate Bridge, from Sept. 11 to Election Day.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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