CAPE BRETON ISLAND — The first sign of what Rob Calabrese would come to think of as America’s unmooring began last year, just after Donald Trump won his first presidential primary and Calabrese published a $28 website that he’d designed in 30 minutes. “Hi Americans!” it began, and what followed was a sales pitch for an island where Muslims could “roam freely,” and where the only walls were those “holding up the roofs” of “extremely affordable houses.”
“Let’s get the word out!” Calabrese wrote, adding a photo of an empty coastline along the Atlantic Ocean. “Move to Cape Breton if Donald Trump Wins!”
It was meant as a joke – but seven hours after Calabrese linked the site to the Facebook page of the pop radio station where he works as a DJ, in came an email from America. “Not sure if this is real but I’ll bite.” And then another: “It pains me to think of leaving, but this country is beyond repair.”
And then more. Within 24 hours, there were 80 messages. Within a week, there were 2,000, and many used the same words: “nervous” and “terrified” and “help.”
“The United States is losing its mind,” one person wrote.
“So ashamed of half of my country I could curl up and cry,” wrote another.
I desperately want to move my daughters to the safety and sanity of Canada
“This is no longer the America I have loved for all my life,” email No. 3,310 read. “I am a hardworking man and could contribute much to any country that gives me a chance.”
It was somewhere around email 4,230 that Trump was elected president of the United States, and just before his inauguration came email No. 4,635.
“Looking to immigrate to Cape Breton area from Colorado,” it began. “I am a skilled paralegal and my wife is an attorney.”
Calabrese read it, wondered briefly about the people who sent it, and waited for the next one to come in.
“What do people see on the horizon to be this afraid?” he said.
* * *
The email was written by Jimmy Gantenbein and Cathleen McEwen from their living room sofa in Loveland, a town 50 miles north of Denver. A month later, furniture from that living room had been stuffed into the garage. Paint buckets lined the hallway. They’d been in touch with a real estate agent. Soon they planned to have their home on the market.
“Can you hand me a nail?” Cathleen, 61, asked as she fixed up the bedroom.
“Here you go, Cat,” Jimmy, 54, said.
They’d bought this home at the start of their marriage – the second for Jimmy, the third for Cathleen – and 17 years later they knew the place nearly as well as they knew each other. They had a view of the Rocky Mountains from the bedroom. Afternoon sunlight warmed the carpet where their old poodle liked to curl up. Two right turns and a left took them to the local Safeway.
“We’re going to love it here,” Cathleen remembered saying on one of their first spring nights, after a neighbour’s 50th birthday party ended with outdoor cartwheels. They lived on a cul-de-sac with two other homes, and Cathleen spent a few years on the city council. They made friends with Democrats and Republicans. When Cathleen’s son, an Army reservist, returned from Iraq in 2005, 150 people showed up at the local veterans’ hall for barbecue and beer.
There was a short period when they rented out the home and moved to a more commercial part of the city, hoping to improve their business. But they returned as soon as they could, and even as they aged, and faced some health problems, and their business slowed, this place remained the closest thing to a constant in their lives.
I haven’t been very good at peacemaking lately. It’s making me a worse person
“We can’t have a conversation with anybody,” Cathleen said. “We try to engage, but it’s usually . . . ”
“Disastrous,” Jimmy said.
“Yeah,” Cathleen said. “I haven’t been very good at peacemaking lately. It’s making me a worse person. You know, if you can’t rise above it. But I can’t totally resist.”
She went on: “I don’t know what to do constructively. It’s a crisis of purpose.”
And so, they were thinking of leaving. It’s not that they had never thought of moving – they’d talked before about finding a cheaper place as they aged – but when Trump came along, that’s what pushed them. To where, though?
Just move closer to your grandchildren, Cathleen’s son, an accountant in Tulsa, Oklahoma, said. Just don’t leave the country, Cathleen’s daughter, a doctor in Toledo, Ohio, remembered telling them. “Don’t give up so quickly. Now more than ever, good people need to fight for what matters.”
But Jimmy and Cathleen didn’t see it as giving up. Instead, they felt America becoming so off-kilter, so “angry” and “bigoted” and “regressive,” that they thought maybe the moment required an absolute break. “I don’t recognize the country I was born in,” Cathleen said. “I was born into a narrow-minded, anti-intellectual country. It took me 61 years and one election to figure it out.”