There may never in American history have been a president who tried harder to unify the country, and got as little credit for it from his opponents, as Barack Obama. Despite being unfailingly thoughtful and always insisting political disagreements weren’t personal, Obama was portrayed by Republicans as some kind of spittle-flecked rage monster whose only goal was to set Americans against each other. They attacked him for not being enough of a unifier while simultaneously accusing him of intentionally trying to destroy the country.
Well now we’re going to see what it’s really like to have a president who wants to divide the country. Donald Trump and the people who work for him are giving new meaning to the term “sore winner,” and there’s no reason to think they’ll change anything once he’s actually in the Oval Office.
On Thursday, President-elect Trump went to Ohio for a rally, as part of what is being billed as a “thank you tour” of states that he won in the election. Consider what Republicans would be saying if Hillary Clinton had won the electoral college, then proceeded to visit only the states that had supported her. They would say it showed what a hateful, out-of-touch divider she was, caring only about the Americans that were already in her camp and doing nothing to reach out to the other side.
Yet despite the fact that Trump lost the vote by over 2½ million votes, I’ve seen barely any appeals for him to reach across the aisle, not enact too ambitious an agenda, or try to understand the experiences and feelings of the 72 million (and counting) voters who didn’t want him to be their president.
He certainly didn’t do that Thursday. As we’ve seen before, Trump had a somewhat conciliatory text written for him on the teleprompter, which had some words about the whole country coming together. And then, as he often does, he went on his own extemporaneous assault, lashing out at the news media, Republican Party leaders, his primary opponents, anti-Trump protesters and, of course, Hillary Clinton — to which the crowd responded with that oldie but goodie, chants of “Lock her up!”
On the same day, Trump’s top aides were at Harvard for a public postmortem with officials from the Clinton campaign, which devolved into a shouting match. Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, took deep offense at Clinton communication director Jennifer Palmieri’s suggestion that the Trump campaign became a platform for white supremacists. “Do you think I ran a campaign where white supremacists had a platform?” Conway asked incredulously. What a crazy notion, when the campaign’s CEO came from a white nationalist website, her candidate routinely retweeted white supremacist messages, and he was endorsed by the KKK. How could anyone have gotten that idea?
But Conway’s key message was essentially the same as her boss’: Suck it up, losers. “Hashtag he’s your president. How’s that?” she said. “Will you ever accept the election results? Will you tell your protesters that he’s their president, too?” When it was over, Matthew Dowd, a strategist for George W. Bush, tweeted, “What we learned tonight from Trump’s speech and Trump campaign at Harvard is they have not an ounce of graciousness or humility amongst them.”
So what does this portend for the Trump presidency? Does Trump have it in him to reach out beyond his core supporters? I think some of the keys to foreseeing the shape of his presidency lie in the lessons he took from his campaign. He got away with things like not releasing his tax returns, and that taught him that he can subvert and violate those kinds of norms without consequence. And he also learned something important about appealing only to his base. Most analysts — myself included — thought it would be impossible for him to find enough “missing” white votes to overcome the Democrats’ advantage among nonwhite and urban voters. We were wrong about that. His message of resentment, anger and fear turned out enough of those voters for him to move past Clinton in key Midwest states and win an electoral college victory
From that, Trump will almost surely take the lesson that he doesn’t need to reach out to anybody; he can win by appealing only to his rabid base. And that’s what he’s inclined to do anyway. As we know by now, Trump is uncommonly thin-skinned and vindictive. He’ll never generously welcome in someone who has opposed him; if you were against him, the only way you can win back his favor is to engage in a public ritual of supplication and humiliation, as the likes of Chris Christie and Ted Cruz did — and that’s after he’s taken his revenge on you.
There’s no reason to believe Trump thinks any differently about the majority of voters who opposed him as he does about his vanquished rivals. If there’s one thing we should understand about Trump by now, it’s that he is who he has always been and he isn’t going to change. On a regular basis he’ll be reinforcing his supporters’ belief that people who didn’t vote for Trump are the enemy, and Democrats’ belief that the president is actively trying to vilify them and undermine their well-being.
You can argue — and I have before — that it isn’t really within the president’s power to make us all come together as one (the only thing that really does is an external threat). But a president can certainly make the divisions in our country worse. How much worse? We’re about to find out.