BELLINGHAM — In this small, unremarkable town on the Rhode Island border, days seem to unfold with soothing normalcy. High school lacrosse players run drills in the afternoon sun. A late-waking rooster crows at Wenger’s Farm, near a roadside sign declaring Jesus is the way. Toddlers squeal with joy at the local Dairy Queen, where the long-reigning matriarch, named Tina, lets them spiral their own soft-serve cones behind the counter.
But there is a deep and tense divide here, just beneath the surface, straining relationships in recent years and subtly rearranging public discourse. In a town where people shy from conflict — where, as one business owner explained it, “we need each other too much to spend time arguing” — this unacknowledged split is like a high-voltage line. Almost everyone agrees it is better left buried.
“People avoid talking about it,” said Jan Krause Greene, a writer, peace activist, and grandmother who moved to Bellingham five years ago. “It’s the first time in my life I’ve avoided talking about it. . . . I don’t bring it up unless I’m in a safe space.”
The taboo topic, of course, is politics, and more specifically, President Trump, whose 2016 election uncloaked a chasm between voters all over the country, but here especially so. In Bellingham, residents turned out in force at the polls that day, mostly unaware of the rift within their ranks. When the votes were counted, Bellingham emerged as the most closely divided town in Massachusetts, a mere 26 votes out of almost 9,000 deciding the race locally in favor of Donald Trump.
For a time, people tried to talk about it. Arguments flared; Facebook friends were un-friended. Soon, unspoken rules were laid down, and an uneasy quiet descended. Last month, as House Democrats launched an impeachment inquiry and talk of quid pro quos and subpoenas scorched the airwaves, folks in Bellingham stuck to what was safe, at least in public: the unseasonably warm weather. The imminent closing, after 26 years, of their local farmstand, beloved for its sugar-crusted apple cider doughnuts.
Innocuous topics prevailed even in places that might seem to tolerate a freer discourse. Like the Uplift barber shop for men, located behind the Dairy Queen, in a strip mall anchored by a Hindu temple and a pole-dancing fitness studio, where classes include “PeeWee Polers” and “Polish Your Sexy.” Nervously, the barber shop’s owner told a reporter that he hasn’t heard a whisper of politics there: because his customers just want to get along.
“We talk football,” he said. “And women.”
A few doors down at Rubber Chicken Comics, the claim was the same: no debates. “Except about who’s stronger, the Hulk or Superman.” (Owner Jay Pillarella endorsed the latter, and said he thinks the absence of political talk in his store reflects a craving for escapism.)
No one seemed very eager to talk about why they don’t talk — or what happens when they do. A tight-lipped bartender at one local tavern smiled knowingly when asked about Trumpian conflict among her regulars but declined to say more. (The bar’s owner did not return phone calls.) At town hall, one official quickly veered off the record after mentioning tensions between red- and blue-minded employees. “They’ll know who I’m talking about,” demurred the official.
The avoidance is a way to protect themselves — from awkward silences and strident personal attacks — and to protect the fabric of their town, the oft-frayed and sometimes complicated bonds that hold a place together and make it feel like home. But their silence is not without regrets. Many residents mourn the loss of something they once took for granted, the good-natured but lively political wrangle.
And one thing is clear: Each side blames that loss on the other’s intolerance.
Donald Russell, 89, a Trump supporter in a straw hat and suspenders, recalled being chastised “up one side and down the other” by a woman he had never met who asked his opinion one day at the senior center. (“I respect your opinion, but you don’t respect mine,” he said he told her.)
Meanwhile, members of the Democratic Town Committee still remember how startled they were, one day at Market Basket during the run-up to the election, when a passing Trump supporter grabbed their pro-Clinton sign and destroyed it in front of them.
Press people here on their politics, though, and a fascinating range of more nuanced views emerge. In the crush of retirees who pack the Honey Dew Donuts on Main Street each morning for coffee and gossip, William Kutcher, 82, a retired union construction worker, sits with his newspaper. He voted for Trump because he wanted a change, weary of a system that seemed rigged against the little guy.
Now, Kutcher says he has begun to doubt his choice, dogged by the sense that “things aren’t working out right.” At Honey Dew, though, he keeps his misgivings quiet, wary of the diehard Trump supporters who might descend upon him.
Two miles away at VFW Post 7272, post commander Patrick Pisani has shifted the opposite way. Pisani, 74 — a Marine Corps veteran wounded in Vietnam — didn’t vote for Trump or Clinton in 2016. Unconvinced by either one, he says he cast his ballot for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate who won nearly 6 percent of the vote in Bellingham.
But after seeing Trump in action for three years, Pisani is on board, ready to support the president in 2020.
“Trump wants to make the government smaller, and that’s what I want,” said the retiree, who worked as a corrections officer for 30 years. “Most people want to think for themselves. That’s what the Founding Fathers intended, and that’s what the veterans fought for.”
Unlike most of the other regulars at the veterans’ club, Pisani doesn’t hesitate to argue politics. “I get passionate, I get upset,” he says. “I enjoy it. But you get to the point where the rock is not breaking. So you leave the rock.”
Rocks — those broken and those left — litter the history of Bellingham. There is little evidence that native people found the stony, swampy place livable, and English settlers passed through it without staying, according to a local history by Bruce Lord. Eventually, persistent farmers carved out more than 40 hard-won dairy and poultry farms. At Center Cemetery, a historic graveyard, 18th- and 19th-century stones stand ramrod straight, with little adornment.
“She hath done what she could,” reads one plain marker, a six-word monument to practicality.
Town historians recall a simpler time, dirt roads and skating parties on Silver Lake, where the roasted potatoes, plucked hot from a bonfire, tasted better than any food on Earth. Then came Interstate 495, and a mid-century boom in population. The town once skewed Democratic, said some elders, but today most voters here are unenrolled in either party.
Kay Page, a onetime Democrat, switched to unenrolled years ago in order to support a specific Republican candidate, a local selectman who was running for state office. Now, the Council on Aging chairwoman says she doesn’t feel wholly aligned with either party, though after seeing friends stop speaking to one another in recent years, and being blocked on social media by friends who didn’t like her views, she is not inclined to discuss the details.
Instead, Page longingly recalls the civil political discourse of her Midwestern girlhood, and says she mourns the passing of a time when people listened and kept open minds.
“You can talk about differences in religion or culture, to a point,” she said, “but with politics, people have become so angry.”
Still, there remain a handful of safe havens in this town, where the two sides meet and disagree in peace.
At Kelly Salamone’s Bellingham hair salon, people of mixed beliefs still talk politics — and improbably, perhaps, liberal clients have kept coming, though Salamone openly supports the president. The genial, blue-eyed stylist credits her long, close relationships with her customers; they in turn say they feel comfortable in the salon’s friendly, familiar atmosphere, where jars of zucchini relish sit for sale by the register and talk typically meanders from their children to the latest celebrity headlines.
There was one liberal client who never came back, after a salon debate turned heated. Salamone still feels badly about that. But she has not banned political discussion.
“If you’re a Red Sox fan and I’m for the Yankees, are we not going to be friends?” she said. “It’s one part of me. It doesn’t make up my whole person.”
(One of her clients, listening in, quickly protests: “If you were for the Yankees, we would not be friends.”)
Salamone’s client Cheryl Gray admits that, in her shock and horror after the election, she considered finding a new stylist. “I didn’t understand how anyone could support Trump,” Gray says. “It made me question how well I knew her.”
In the end, though, Gray decided to stay the course. From time to time, she even talks politics with Salamone, probing her preferences to try (unsuccessfully, as yet) to understand them.
“Even though I’m sure I’m right and she’s wrong” about Trump, Gray says, “she’s still the same kind, loving person she’s always been. And she does a great job on my hair.”
Gray doesn’t have a prediction about 2020. But she knows that, whatever happens next November, she will keep on going to the stylist whose politics she cannot comprehend.
“If, God forbid, Trump was reelected, I bet she would give me a hug the next time she saw me,” Gray said. “Because she would understand how upset I was.”