Then I moved to Rome and watched the European Union grow ineffective and paralyzed, as the dream of a vibrant, unified Europe seemed to wither. Democracy was losing ground in Hungary and the Philippines; it had all but surrendered in Russia. Syria became a slaughterhouse. The Islamic State dispatched terrorists around the world. China’s politics became more oppressive, as President Xi Jinping cracked down on dissent and nurtured a Maoist-style cult of personality. Economic globalization was supposed to accelerate political liberalization around the world, but instead authoritarianism appeared to be on the rise. The West, it seemed, had failed to anticipate the possibility that globalization could contribute to the destabilization of — or pose a threat to — democracy, even in the United States.
This summer, I decided I wanted to explore this place that had become a foreign country to me. I didn’t understand what had happened since I left, why so many people seemed so disillusioned and angry. I planned a zigzag route, revisiting places where I once lived or worked, a 29-day sprint through 11 states (and four time zones). I knew I would be moving too fast to make any sweeping declaration about the state of America, and I wouldn’t ask people which presidential candidate they were voting for. I was more interested in why they were so anxious about the present and the future. I wanted to find out why the country was fragmenting rather than binding together. Most of all I wanted to see with my own eyes what had changed — and so much had changed.
By the time I arrived in Washington in late July, the notion that American democracy could come unmoored was not being easily laughed off. Before beginning my journey in earnest, I paid a visit to Patrick J. Buchanan at his white mansion near the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency in Northern Virginia. I’d thought of Buchanan often over the last year, as Donald Trump secured the Republican nomination. In 1992, I covered Buchanan during a campaign stop in Macomb County, outside Detroit, when he was a Republican insurgent running for president, the Trump of that era. He mocked Republican elites, denounced free trade and globalization, antagonized minorities and vowed to build a “Buchanan fence” along the Mexican border. Buchanan’s nostalgia for the era of white-majority America was often interpreted, not without cause, as barely concealed racism. He lost in 1992, and again in 1996 and 2000, but he always predicted that his issues and his angry coalition would endure.
When I asked if he had any concern about this election damaging American democracy, he said he didn’t worry too much about that. He talked about the European Union as evidence of the political dangers posed by immigration and described “ethno-nationalism” and economic nationalism as potent political forces. “I look around the world, and I think all those countries are coming apart,” he said. “And I think ours is going to come apart. The melting pot is not melting anymore.”
I mentioned that I was leaving the next day to travel along the Texas-Mexico border. Buchanan grimaced for a moment and jokingly offered to lend me a shotgun. I thanked him, and later I flew off into the heat.
From the sky, there is no border. The helicopter thump-thumped above downtown El Paso as we passed over the concrete ditch through which the Rio Grande flows, dividing El Paso from the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez. If not for the ditch, you’d assume the two cities were one, a single urban sprawl blanketing a valley between two desolate mountain ranges. Only when we headed west did the border become distinctly visible, a straight brown line jutting into the scrub desert. I could see a metal fence that divided the two countries and, near it, the white S.U.V.s of the American agents on patrol. My colleague, the photographer Tomás Munita, leaned out of the copter to take pictures.
I had been in contact with United States Customs and Border Protection but never thought to mention my aerial tour. A few hours after we landed, an agency spokesman emailed me. He was friendly but anxious: Agents reported seeing someone taking photographs from a helicopter tracing the border. Was it us?
I had gone to El Paso often as a national correspondent for The Times, and I always liked the atmosphere there. Everybody seemed to know everybody else. El Paso is isolated from most of Texas, yet Juárez lies no more than a long baseball toss away. There is a fluid give and take between the two sides, even as the disparities are stark: Juárez has frequently ranked among the most violent cities in the world, while El Paso routinely rates among the safest municipalities in the United States.
My helicopter ride had come about in typical El Paso fashion: I called a state senator, who connected me to the county judge, who nudged a local businessman to organize the trip. They saw it as a good opportunity to help rebut the 2016 election narrative that the border was a lawless, out-of-control sieve through which illegal immigrants flooded north and wreaked violence upon unsuspecting Americans. The county judge, Veronica Escobar, had grown wearily accustomed to the assumptions made in other parts of the country. “One of the first questions people frequently ask is, Will I be safe?” she told me. “You can tell people that deportations are up and that in-migration is down from Mexico. You can tell people that the border has never been safer. You can provide people with as many statistics as possible — and it doesn’t make a difference.”
Escobar, a Democrat and El Paso County’s highest elected official, grew up here and considers the city an unlikely oasis of tolerance. She is Mexican-American; the city’s police chief is African-American. We had dinner my first night in El Paso, and when I mentioned something Pat Buchanan said to me — he dared me to drive around El Paso with a Trump bumper sticker on my car — she laughed. But she worried that El Paso was changing. Even some of her own relatives, people who had moved away from El Paso, have posted pro-Trump, anti-immigrant messages on Facebook. Fear and anger overcame the facts on the ground, she said.
“How did America get that way?” she asked. “I don’t know. And it’s heartbreaking.”
I was starting my journey in El Paso because six months earlier I was across the border in Juárez, on the outside of America, looking in. As a correspondent based in Rome, I also cover the Vatican, so I traveled with Pope Francis’ retinue on his trip to Mexico in February. His final stop was Juárez. As he prayed for migrants at the border’s edge, I stared through the fence into the United States. Snipers were posted on rooftops; police cars with flashing lights blocked an overpass; agents watched from horseback or peered across the border with binoculars. Presumably some of this was to protect the pope, but I flew back to Italy startled by this show of force, this demonstration of American power and anxiety.
Soon after setting out in my rental car from El Paso, I saw just how thoroughly the Texas border had become militarized. Since I left, the number of Border Patrol agents nationwide had roughly doubled, to more than 20,000, a vast majority of them stationed along the 1,989-mile border with Mexico. They have motion detectors, helicopters, cameras, fixed-wing aircraft and drones at their disposal. Their boats ply stretches of the Rio Grande. Texas state troopers have also been dispatched to “secure the border.”
The El Paso County sheriff, Richard Wiles, who has criticized the buildup, told me that so many troopers were present that they often had little to do besides enforce traffic laws. “It is a waste of money,” Wiles said. “It was a response to the rhetoric that the border is unsafe. And that is wrong.” (A new study by the Border Network for Human Rights found that troopers have been disproportionately stopping Latino motorists in many border counties, including El Paso.) At a convention of the Texas Republican Party this year, Gov. Greg Abbott falsely stated that the Islamic State was “running through the border.” In April 2015, the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch asserted that the Islamic State had a training camp in Mexico, near El Paso. Again, there was no evidence to back up the claim.
Safety feels like a tenuous concept right now, when a malcontent can detonate a homemade bomb in Chelsea or suicide bombers can blow themselves up outside a soccer stadium in Paris. But so much of the safety rhetoric around the border blends legitimate concerns — especially when it comes to smuggled drugs, money and weapons moving in both directions — with political opportunism. The rate of people being apprehended while trying to cross the border from Mexico declined in 2015 and is now at its lowest point in more than 40 years. And even as President Obama pushed for immigration reform, his administration approved high numbers of deportations.
One afternoon, I pulled up to a checkpoint on Interstate 10, about an hour or so east of El Paso, near the town of Sierra Blanca, Tex. A Border Patrol agent in a bulletproof vest asked if I was an American citizen while a dog sniffed the rental car for drugs. Less than an hour later, a Texas state trooper pulled me over on State Highway 90 in Presidio County for failing to use my blinker while changing lanes. The road was so quiet that a jack rabbit hopped across. The trooper asked if I was an American citizen, checked my passport and sent me on my way with a warning. Traffic enforcement.
I had forgotten how big the people are, how big the cars are, how much fried food can be stacked onto a single plate. Everything seemed larger than I remembered, even the night sky. Driving along the 610 Loop in Houston, I saw a cigar shop named SERIOUS CIGARS that was easily triple the size of my grocery in Rome.
“This country is huge,” Tomás said one day. “It is like 50 countries all together.”
Tomás, a Chilean, has traveled the world, but this was his first long tour across the United States. On seeing one rural road sign, he asked what it meant to “adopt a highway.” Another day, another road sign: “Hitchhikers May Be Escaping Inmates.” Tomás was startled by how thoroughly so many American cities emptied out at night. In Colorado Springs, we attended a rodeo where the announcer made a long soliloquy praising our military for defending our freedom at home. Tomás had embedded many times with American forces in Afghanistan. He liked the soldiers, but he didn’t understand how sending troops to other countries, particularly Iraq, kept Americans free at home.
Before the rodeo, I met two ranchers, Rob Alexander and Bill Craig. The air smelled faintly of horse manure as we sat on a plastic cooler drinking Coors. Alexander, 53, explained that the rodeo was a fund-raiser for ranch hands, who often lacked health insurance or a safety net to help out in emergencies. Ranching families had taken a hit in the past two decades, in part because trade agreements led to the consolidation of many cattle operations and an increase in imported beef from South America. Craig, 35, is a fourth-generation rancher, but he said land is now so expensive and profit so meager that he could never afford to start a ranch from scratch today. They talked like men whose lifestyles and values were endangered.
“Something is wrong,” Craig said. “Watch the TV. The moral compass is so far out of whack in our country right now.”
At the University of Texas at Austin, I met Lisa Moore, a professor of English and women’s studies who is one of three plaintiffs suing to overturn a new state law allowing students to carry concealed handguns on campus. Born in Canada but a resident of Texas for 27 years, Moore is a naturalized American citizen who is still a bit baffled by her new country. “That is the weirdness of the United States to me: Everybody is always talking about their rights,” she said, while identity in Canada derives from the idea of the social compact.
Moore is a gay, married mother of two children who teaches courses on L.G.B.T. literature. “Campus carry” infringes on free speech, she argues, by inhibiting her ability to provide a safe learning environment. What if a student becomes enraged by the subject matter and pulls out a Glock?
American gun manufacturers produced 3.3 million guns the year I left for China, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. By 2014, the number was nine million (supplemented by 3.6 million guns imported into the country). According to some recent estimates, there are now roughly as many guns as people in the United States, maybe even more. To many foreigners, the American infatuation with guns is an inexplicable, if defining, national trait. On a taxi ride in Beijing once, the driver, upon discovering I was American, shaped his hand like a pistol and began shooting imaginary bullets.
At a firing range outside Austin, I met six guys shooting semiautomatic rifles. Several of them worked for Defense Distributed, the open-source organization in Austin that came up with a plastic handgun whose design can be downloaded from the web and produced with a 3-D printer. The State Department ordered the company to remove the design code, but the company is challenging that order in court. For Benjamin Denio, at the time a 36-year-old who worked in desktop support and did product testing at Defense Distributed, being able to produce your own plastic gun is a safeguard against the tyranny of the state. “The term I would use to describe the level of vitriol in the country,” Denio said, “is that it is the ‘cold civil war.’ ”