The holidays are over. The votes, popular and electoral, are counted. All that’s left is the inaugurating.
Come noon on Jan. 20, Donald J. Trump will become the 45th president of the United States.
The boisterous New York businessman’s journey to the Capitol steps, beginning with his ride down the Trump Tower golden escalator in June 2015, has been, to put it mildly, tumultuous, not in the least for the nation he is now set to lead.
His campaign saw a country at odds over issues long-fought and others long-thought-settled, or at least pushed out of mind. It exposed wounds and exacerbated old ones, not least along racial and ethnic lines.
The typical interregnum between presidents might see the beginning of a “healing phase” — the period when winners and losers, Republicans and Democrats, preach a return to unity after an election that oftentimes exaggerates and accelerates tensions, leaving people to see themselves not only as members of different parties but different nations with different visions of what constitutes a good society.
“The healing,” said the Rev. Robert Franklin of Emory University, “is in part to correct that polarization, not to allow that to become our new normal.”
“Recognizing that our economy works best, our social interactions work best when there’s a measure of what some of the old commentators used to call ‘a kind of friendliness,’ a willingness to cooperate with one’s neighbor as essential to the American experiment,” he told NCR.
This past semester, Franklin, who holds the James T. and Berta R. Laney Chair in Moral Leadership in Emory’s Candler School of Theology, taught a graduate-level course focused on presidential elections through the relationship between politics and religion, including how the latter can play a role in post-election healing.
Two days after Trump’s election, his students, each of whom had been assigned to volunteer with a campaign, began sharing ideas for mending national divisions. Some suggested a joint statement from both Trump, the Republican winner, and Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate, modeling how vicious opponents can still come together as Americans.
Franklin, who last taught the class in 2004, sees the power of a public ritual in reconciliation. A president publicly meeting with people who didn’t support him is an important starting point in the process after any election, he added, even more so this time after many felt disrespected, disillusioned or endangered by the Republican candidate’s campaign.
After the contentious 2000 election, George W. Bush met with clergy and community leaders unsupportive of his campaign, including Franklin. The meeting served as a trust-builder, Franklin said, and allowed the sides to share their desires in resolving the nation’s social and economic problems.
“I hope that [Trump] has that capacity, that kind of magnanimity that we sorely need,” Franklin said.
The closest visual of such a ritual came Nov. 10 in the post-election meeting between Trump and President Barack Obama, the first time the political adversaries had ever spoken. But it was Obama in comments afterward to the press urging unity: “Most of all, I want to emphasize to you, Mr. President-elect, that we now are going to want to do everything we can to help you succeed, because if you succeed, then the country succeeds.”
Trump did strike that same tone in his Nov. 9 victory speech: “Now it’s time for America to bind the wounds of division; we have to get together. To all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to come together as one united people. … I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans, and this is so important to me.”
Beyond that, the forecast so far for reunification efforts led from the top appears dismal. While he has met with a few notable critics, including Silicon Valley executives, Trump largely has returned to the polarizing rhetoric of his campaign.
“I’m not president yet, so I didn’t do anything to divide,” Trump told NBC’s “The Today Show” following his selection as TIME magazine’s “2016 Person of the Year.”
His cabinet and administration appointments have also done little to signal his openness to building a broad coalition, instead mainly choosing Wall Street executives and early loyalists to his candidacy. Ironically, his pick of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state has united environmentalists and several GOP senators in opposition.
And after promising on Election Night to reach out to those who didn’t support him, Trump tweeted on New Year’s Eve: “Happy New Year to all, including to my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly they just don’t know what to do. Love!”
People march to Trump Tower following a rally in support of immigrants’ rights Dec. 18 in New York City. The rally, organized by the New York Immigration Coalition, was held near the United Nations on International Migrants Day. (CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)
A mid-December USA Today/Suffolk University survey concluded that Trump has had little success in uniting the country, with equal cohorts (38 percent) alarmed and hopeful of his coming presidency. His approval rating, 41 percent, trails his unfavorable rating (46 percent; 55 percent in a Dec. 9 Pew Research poll), his portion of the popular vote (46 percent) and those of the previous four incoming presidents.
If Trump is unable to become a reconciler-in-chief, the role falls to others.
“The political polarization is so extreme and comes from such deep, entrenched places that it’s no longer for the politicians to be leaders on dealing with it. ... It’s really up to we the people to do this work,” said Social Service Sr. Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, a Catholic social justice lobby in Washington.
Franklin said, “We sort of have as religious leaders and participants, I think, this distinctive opportunity and contribution to social capital to be able to bring people together. And that’s what I’m urging us to do now.”
The roots of division
Addressing divisions first requires acknowledgement of those that exist.
Despite the Trump camp’s claim of a “landslide” victory and a mandate from the voters, the election results show the contrary: Trump lost the popular vote by 2.8 million, with 45 percent of eligible voters refraining from casting their ballot at all; his Electoral College victory ranks 46th among the 58 U.S. presidential elections.
Exit polls show the country split by this year’s presidential candidates across geography, gender, age, race, college education, religion, and views on prominent issues. On the national economy, of the roughly third of Americans rating it in good or excellent condition, more than three in four were Clinton supporters; the remainder who ranked it not good or poor were predominantly Trump supporters.
Perhaps nothing illustrates the divide more than views of Obama. A Dec. 15 Pew Research survey found his election nearly across demographics as the second-most significant event in Americans’ lifetimes, trailing only the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But when broken down to what events made people most proud and most disappointed, his election ranked second (14 percent) among most prideful, and first (11 percent) among most disappointing — more than school shootings like Columbine and Sandy Hook, and more than the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam combined. Trump’s election followed Obama’s in the most disappointing events at 10 percent.
One area of agreement: the need to address jobs. Nearly half of Americans listed it as the nation’s top priority in the USA Today/Suffolk poll, almost triple the second-highest priority of combating terrorism.
At least one root of the divisions can be traced to the lack of trust Americans hold in institutions impacting their daily lives. Since 2006, Gallup has found confidence in Congress, public schools, banks and organized religion all drop by double digits. The military remains the most trusted institution (73 percent), with the medical system (39 percent) and the presidency (36 percent) making incremental gains over the last decade.
As for the media, the poll showed just 20 percent of Americans trust television news or newspapers, meaning that four out of five people reading this sentence, and this story, do so with a skeptical eye for its veracity.
Exit polls showed 62 percent of voters believing the country was on the wrong track.
Disappointed, not surprised
The outcome of the election, while disappointing, was not surprising to Campbell, who spent the summer with fellow women religious encountering voters on the Nuns on the Bus tour. This year’s campaign, with the theme of “Mend the Gaps,” took the sisters through what proved to be decisive states in Trump’s victory: Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania, among them.
Though she didn’t sense a great deal of Trump support at the Republican National Convention, “the people who felt pushed out, pushed down, discounted did.” She noticed the storyline of being a winner was “really magnetic” for a lot of people, especially among those who felt they haven’t won in quite some time.
The importance some voters placed on this election was illustrated in the results of a December PRRI poll, where four in 10 Americans said it was the last chance to stop the country’s decline, a sentiment held by two-thirds of Trump voters. Overall, 57 percent of Americans reject that view.
Much of the post-election analysis spotlighted the anxieties of the white working class. While far from the only demographic in the country feeling left out, the election has served as a reminder of the importance of listening to one another, Franklin said. That’s often where the mending of divisions begins.
“The learning piece is a recognition that there are experiences in America that I know little about,” he said.
In some ways, Franklin said, the election was a response to the Black Lives Matter movement, with refrains of rural white lives and blue-collar lives matter, too.
Robert M. Franklin is the James T. and Berta R. Laney Professor in Moral Leadership at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. (Photo courtesy of Emory University)
But the bubbles that keep people tone-deaf to the plight of their fellow citizens cuts both ways, preventing rural communities that feel overlooked from encountering and understanding the issues facing the diverse populations of more urban areas.
Jesuit Fr. Joseph Brown, a professor of Africana studies at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, said the past half-decade has seen more people recognizing the rifts in American society and their peers’ pains, in part thanks to social media. The problem, though, is that for many people the divides have never been hidden, but ignored and discounted.
“We have seen evidence that the pain is unbearable, and that some people who have decided to be blind or chosen to be blind or think blindness is their birthright, are now having to wake up and say, oh, we didn’t realize it was as bad as you said,” he said.
The divides, Brown said, are not new developments but are structural in nature, ingrained in the country’s history, which has left many feeling left outside the full ideal of the American experience. Now more than ever, he said, the church must reaffirm the biblical ideals of standing with the orphan and stranger and loving your neighbor as yourself.
“When will ‘We the people’ actually include everyone?” he asked.
The ‘best last chance to get help’
Mending divisions can’t begin without first a desire to do so. In her conversations this election season, Campbell sensed little enthusiasm for such work.
“What we found over and over is people are frightened, people are afraid, and they feel like nobody has their back. And as long as they’re afraid, no, they’re not interested in uniting because they need to protect their families. And protecting their families is the most important thing for them. So until they can let go of some of that fear, I don’t see that they will come together,” she said.
The purpose of the Nuns on the Bus tours has been to hear those pains and fears. With that aim, NETWORK has begun shifting away from the policy weeds in discussions with political leaders and toward taking the stories — and problems — they hear from real people directly to their representatives in Congress.
“Pope Francis is right: If we want to build peace, we have to tell the story. … Those of us who care about those that are left out have not been as good of storytellers,” Campbell said.
Others are seeking to expand those efforts, as well.
In August, Interfaith Worker Justice launched a project aimed at raising up the voices of Western coal miners where unions are less prevalent but shuttered mines and layoffs are. In conversations with miners, Ian Pajer-Rogers said, he encountered people ready to reluctantly vote for Trump; they weren’t racist but rather viewed him as their “best last chance to get help.” They held little faith in Washington to address the suffering they felt and knew little of current federal programs looking to assist them.
“If there’s one thing that came out of each of the miners’ mouths as far as what Washington could do or what the country could do it was: ‘Just listen. Come visit us, see what’s going on and listen to us,’ “ Pajer-Rogers said.
Despite similarities in the miners' concerns across disparate groups, with workers involved in the fight for a $15 minimum wage and in Black Lives Matter, Pajer-Rogers said it’s tough to see these groups merge their causes without increased rollbacks in rights.
“I think there’s a great tradition in this country that when things go bad, we come together. And I think we’re in for some bad times the next four years,” he said.
Brown finds hope in history, that each time civil rights are undone, an organized resistance emerges. Days after Trump’s election, people in cities across the country took to the streets in protest of what they saw as a candidate who created a space for xenophobic, demagogic and misogynist ideas, and excluded many from his vision for the country. Two large marches are already planned for Washington, first a march of women a day after Trump’s inauguration and another by climate advocates for his 100th day in office.
Such demonstrations are part of a healthy democracy, Franklin said, as public expressions of anger and disappointment. They continue participation in the debate beyond the voting booth, rather than “violent acting out or simmering in despair or silence.”
Brown also finds hope in the form of young people. The diverse groups that gathered in support of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation — with Native Americans, faith groups, environmentalists, Black Lives Matter members, and veterans — showed the power a unified coalition can wield.
“If I can get up and go halfway across this country in order to stand in solidarity with some people about a pipeline and water rights, then this is a different world,” the Jesuit said.
The interaction, he added, allowed them to leave silos and exchange contact information and ideas. To fortify a movement.
These signs of people becoming aware of gaps in the system and threats to one another gives Campbell hope, too, and also signal further to her the need for people of faith to stand with the modern-day lepers, starting with the immigrant and the Muslim.
“That’s what Jesus did. So we need to stand with them if we’re going to be Gospel people,” she said.
[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story misspelled Ian Pajer-Rogers' last name.
Just $5 a month supports NCR's independent Catholic journalism.
We are committed to keeping our online journalism open and available to as many readers as possible. To do that, we need your help. Join NCR Forward, our new membership program.
Looking for comments?
We've suspended comments on NCRonline.org for a while. If you missed that announcement, learn more about our decision here.