Over the space of just a few hours and within just 50 miles of each other, I’ve seen two entirely different visions for America this weekend.
In the unseasonably warm afternoon sun in Pittsburgh, a crowd had gathered to listen to their hero Barack Obama.
The Democratic Party is in trouble, perhaps big trouble, in Tuesday’s midterm elections. They stand to lose both the Senate and the House of Representatives in Washington DC and maybe see Republican governors win power in several states.
The implications for the Democrats’ domestic policies on the economy, healthcare, abortion rights, immigration and the climate would be profound. American foreign policy would shift more inward too.
And so the orator Obama, with a sparkle that President Joe Biden lacks, was out to gee up a lacklustre Democratic Party base.
His focus was the now-familiar warnings of the threat to democracy which Democrats say is posed by the election-denying Trumpian Republicans.
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- Barack Obama
- Donald Trump
- Joe Biden
- US midterms 2022
He warned about divisions which fuel a “dangerous climate”, citing the hammer attack on the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
As it is so often in American election cycles, Pennsylvania is key for both parties.
It could tip the balance in a pivotal midterm US Senate race between Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz.
“This habit we have of demonising political opponents, of saying crazy stuff. It creates a dangerous climate,” Mr Obama said.
“You’ve got politicians who work not to bring people together but to stir up division and to make us angry and afraid of one another just for their own advantage, so they can take power.”
In the crowd, there was a clear recognition of the importance of this midterm take on the country’s direction.
“This midterm is the most important midterm I think that we’ve ever had during my life for sure,” voter Alex told me.
Another said: “It feels good to hear a sane speech. Measured and balanced and says the right things and the things that people need to hear and that this country needs to hear is refreshing.”
Leeanna McKibben said: “I think it’s critical that we exercise our right to vote and that we eliminate the incivility that’s happening. We can have two-party politics, but it’s got to happen with respect and civility. And that’s not what’s happening right now.”
The key state of Pennsylvania
While Nevada and Georgia are both key senate races too, much of the focus is on Pennsylvania because of its history of swinging from the left to the right.
In the 2016 presidential election it swung to Donald Trump, delivering him the White House. Four years later it edged back to Mr Biden and the Democrats.
No wonder so much campaign money has ploughed into the campaigns here, and no wonder all the big hitters are criss-crossing the state.
A key problem for the Democrats is Mr Biden. His approval rating is just 40% according to the most recent polling. It’s another reason Mr Obama is out – a reminder that there is more to the Democrats than Mr Biden.
Trump’s red wave?
Fifty miles down the road at an airport, another former president was out too – Mr Trump, a man who hasn’t stopped campaigning since he lost the election two years ago.
“The election was rigged and stolen and we’re not going to let it happen again,” he told a huge crowd of his most faithful.
There is no evidence at all for his claim of election fraud. Audits, recounts and court cases across America have confirmed Mr Biden as the winner in 2020, yet Mr Trump has managed to sow doubt into the fabric of society.
The false claim remains his core message for a 2024 presidential campaign everyone expects him to announce any day.
“I love Trump!” supporter Lory Randall told me. “Best president ever.”
“Trump’s my guy because he’s honest, he doesn’t sugar coat anything, he doesn’t put up with anything and he puts America first,” Aaron Hoffman said.
Another said: “I’m here to see Donald Trump because I believe he should be our president and Joe Biden is destroying America.”
The vibe, the energy, the branding – it’s all here for the man who seems to command near-total control of today’s Republican Party.
For all that the Democratic Party and a minority of anti-Trump Republicans have done to try to discredit him, to expose him as a liar and a crook, to try to make sure he’s history, it really doesn’t feel like he is the past at all.
He hopes that this week’s midterm elections will provide a “red wave” confirming that his appeal stretches beyond this core and that election-denying candidates across the country, who he has endorsed, will win.
Remember – if they win, many of them will be responsible for judging the validity of the 2024 presidential election.
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The lone heckler
As Mr Trump spoke a lone voice piped up from the crowd.
“He’s a liar,” she screamed.
Her heckling, and the reaction from around her, was a neat glimpse of the deep angry divisions, up close.
“Lock her up! Lock her up!” the crowd shouted, borrowing a chant they used for Mr Trump’s 2016 rival Hilary Clinton.
“Go home. Go to your rally and brag about your Obama and brag about the inflation,” a man shouted into her face.
With some considerable force and with her arms locked into a hold behind her, she was then carted out by police.
Beyond the perimeter they released her and we chatted briefly.
“We know full well that the election was not stolen. It was fair, it was safe, it was secure…” she said before the police returned and resumed their eviction.
She never did tell us her name, but she spoke for many millions in the other America.
It’s hard to see how these two starkly different visions for these supposedly United States can be reconciled.