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Jamie Stiehm: Ohio, and Both Sides of the Political River

From Cincinnati, I look across the Ohio River and I sigh.

The winding river divided America for so long between free and slave states, North and South, Ohio and Kentucky. Runaway slaves crossed to freedom on the other shore. This was the most contested land and water before the Civil War.

An apt symbol of how deeply divided America is now and again.

Some are excited by the prospect of President Donald Trump reaching a nuclear summit deal with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

Others are still shocked over Trump’s raucous, rude display at the G-7 summit of industrial democracies, held in Canada. Trump lashed out at the young striking host, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, like the grumpy old man next door. Which is pretty much what Trump is to Trudeau.

Trump rained fury on friends and allies, threatened a trade war and then stalked out early without signing a joint statement. For unknown reasons, Trump acted hostile to classy German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a seasoned world leader. Then he hurried to court the pariah Kim for a photo-op and a handshake promise to negotiate.

It’s the start of a “terrific relationship,” Trump says.

If you found the scene confounding, then count yourself out. Trump is not trying to please the American people. He plays only to his white base, especially on trade, race and immigration. He’s also a master of populist rage on the news media and the national anthem, ripping the national fabric further.

Americans on the other side of the river, we have no place in Trump’s world. The way he treated our allies — churlishly — is how he sees critics at home, with a hard glint in his eye. Common ground is gone. You are either on one side or the other.

While in Cincinnati, I heard Jose Antonio Vargas speak to the National Society of Newspaper Columnists on his status as an immigrant. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Vargas, 37, is speaking out about growing up in the United States since age 12 and suddenly becoming a man without a country, who authorities could arrest at any moment.

“I’m packed,” Vargas said. But he added: “I’m not illegal.”

He meant that, as a human being, he does not deserve to be called “illegal,” as so often happens. His forthcoming book is Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen. And his future is up in the air.

When Vargas raised the plight of parents separated from their children in roundups of immigrants, a new low, my mind called up the Fugitive Slave Act.

This was the inhumane law that slave catchers could cross north to a free state to capture, and return to a master as “property,” an enslaved man or woman who escaped. This outraged a common sense of decency, causing towns and cities to protect the escaped slaves in their midst.

Cleveland’s Old Stone Church bells rang to warn runaways that slave catchers were close. This law to placate Southern slave owners helped hasten the Civil War, brewing on both sides.

Enslaved mothers tried to escape with young ones. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the classic 1852 novel, a fleeing Eliza crosses the dark and frozen Ohio River, holding her child. The story was based on a true account. The novel helped open the public eye to the dark side of slavery.

Across the South, slave masters were all the more defiant, even as the public view of “happy plantation life” was sinking. Their hot-headed leaders started the Civil War.

I swear, it feels like the angry 1850s all over again. Half on one side, half on the other, nothing in between. Trump has turned us against each other.

Nick Clooney, Cincinnati’s news sage, also gave a talk that left me bittersweet. (You can see how his son, George, takes after him.) At 84, he said, he grew up with the New Deal — and a sunny sense of optimism. But for the first time, Clooney feels his own American “unquenchable optimism” fading fast.

This state is seen as a political bellwether. In November, we’ll see what side of the river Ohio is on.

Jamie Stiehm writes about politics, culture and history as a weekly Creators Syndicate columnist and regular contributor to U.S. News & World Report. Follow her on Twitter: @jamiestiehm. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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