Healing the wounds caused by a bruising election and winning over skeptics has been a challenge for each incoming president, but after a particularly divisive campaign season, presidential scholars and political strategists say Donald Trump faces a steeper climb than his predecessors in mending the fractured electorate.
As President-elect Trump prepares to take office he confronts a country in which 55 percent of voters have a negative opinion of his victory, according to a Pew Research Center poll released Tuesday. The legitimacy of his victory also continues to be called into question by protesters who note he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes.
On a daily basis the deep rift between his detractors and his supporters is on display outside of Trump Tower, where shouting matches often erupt between the competing camps lined up along Fifth Avenue.
Meena Bose, a political-science professor and director of the Peter S. Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency at Hofstra University, said that given Trump’s unconventional rise to the White House, the nation is in “uncharted territory” in terms of how it moves forward from the election.
“Inauguration Day will be important for the country moving forward, but I think there will be a special challenge in 2017 with bringing unity,” Bose said, referring to the president’s Jan. 20 swearing-in ceremony. “The inaugural address is typically the time to address moving past campaign divisions and focusing on the values that unite us as Americans, but I think there’s a special challenge in doing that given how divisive the election was, and I’m not sure in some ways, that some of his political opponents will ever get there.”
Trump has acknowledged the nation’s division — when he was dubbed “President of the Divided States of America” on the cover of Time magazine, the real-estate mogul took issue with the label, calling it a “snarky” move by the editors. But he did not dismiss the notion that he will soon preside over a deeply polarized nation.
“I mean there’s a lot of division,” Trump told NBC’s “Today” show after the magazine hit stands on Dec. 7. “We’re going to put it back together and we’re going to have a country that’s very well-healed.”
Trump’s transition advisers point to his meetings with a handful of Democrats and former foes as evidence of his outreach, including meeting with former Vice President Al Gore on the issue of climate change, and meeting at Trump Tower with Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), a staunch supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.
While Trump has not yet named a Democrat to a cabinet post, which several presidents have done in a show of bipartisanship, he recently offered to renew President Barack Obama’s appointment of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, the Manhattan federal prosecutor who has led the charge in multiple New York corruption probes.
“It sends a hopeful message that he wants to work together,” JuanPablo Andrade, a Smithtown Republican, who serves on Trump’s National Diversity Coalition, said of the efforts.
Andrade, in a phone interview from Palm Beach, Florida, where he joined Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort for a round of transition meetings, said he expected the president-elect to win over critics “once he takes office, once he shows what he can get done.”
“His first 100 days in office, his first joint address of Congress, all those will be opportunities for the public to see that he’s going to work with all parties and all states,” Andrade said.
Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic national committeeman from Great Neck and a prominent Clinton supporter, said “the nation is desperate for a leader that wants to unify us” and Trump has “a very unique responsibility to begin the process of healing the divided country.”
“It begins with changing his tone, it begins with focusing more about what unites us a country than trash talking Hillary Clinton, or wasting his stature as president attacking Alec Baldwin and the cast of SNL,” Zimmerman said, referring to Trump’s twitter posts against Baldwin’s impersonation of him on “Saturday Night Live.”
Zimmerman said “Democrats have a responsibility, too,” noting party leaders “have to pick and choose our battles” to avoid more years of partisan gridlock.
“We can’t behave the way Mitch McConnell did when President Obama was in office; we have to show more credibility than that,” Zimmerman said of the Republican Senate majority leader who blocked Obama’s Supreme Court justice nominee, Merrick Garland, from a confirmation hearing.
Zimmerman said he was optimistic that Trump could find common ground with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the incoming Senate Democratic leader, whom Trump has lauded on Twitter.
Schumer has voiced support for Trump’s infrastructure spending plan, saying it “looks good.” In an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last month, he also said that while Democrats will fight to preserve key legislation backed by Obama, such as the Affordable Care Act, there are also items on Trump’s agenda that Democrats might be able to support.
“Surprisingly, on certain issues, candidate Trump voiced very progressive and populist opinions,” Schumer said. “For instance, getting rid of the carried interest loophole, changing our trade laws dramatically, a large infrastructure bill.”
As for those who arrive at the corralled-off section for protesters across Fifth Avenue from Trump Tower, both anti-Trump protesters bearing homemade signs and his red cap-wearing supporters say it will take time to see if both sides can find common ground.
Makeda Wilson, 21, a first-time voter from Queens, held up a sign that read “AHHHHH” in big bold black letters. She said that if Trump could not hear her angst from his high-rise offices and apartment, she hoped he could read her frustration.
“I’ve only been here a couple of hours and I’ve seen quite the divide,” Wilson said. “I’ve seen arguments breaking out in the middle of the street . . . I’m not sure if we can answer how do we come together as a nation, when emotions are running high right now.”
Trump supporter James Row of Kensington, Brooklyn, recently stood near the protest area, saying he was there to represent Trump’s perspective.
“It’s going to take a while,” Row said of Trump’s prospects of winning over his detractors. “Donald Trump’s message is for all Americans, even those who don’t agree with him. The hysteria people are feeling is at a fevered pitch right now . . . but in time I expect more civility will return to the public discourse.”