“We meet on democracy’s front porch, a good place to talk as neighbors and as friends,” George H.W. Bush said from the expansive West Front of the Capitol moments after taking the presidential oath in 1989. “For this is a day when our nation is made whole, when our differences, for a moment, are suspended.”
That is the imagined ideal of Inauguration Day, a time of coming together in the spirit of national unity. It is a theme that President-elect Donald Trump sounded shortly after accepting a concessionary phone call from Hillary Clinton on the night he won the presidency — “Now it is the time for America to bind the wounds of divisions,” he said. — and likely a sentiment he will express again when he takes the oath Friday.
It is customary for incoming chief executives to do so as they speak to the country for the first time as its leader. But after a rancorous campaign that exposed the raw nerves of partisans on both sides, that was fought over elemental questions of character, honesty, temperament and national identity, and that saw the Russians interfere in the process, Trump’s America is as deeply divided as it has been in years and has no signs of a reconciliation on the horizon.
The condition is hardly new. Lest anyone forget, Trump reminded everyone of that in a Thursday morning tweet.
“It wasn’t Donald Trump that divided this country, this country has been divided for a long time!” Stated today by Reverend Franklin Graham.
Embedded in the political system today are partisan and ideological differences so deep and abiding that it likely would take a supreme effort on Trump’s part — and a willingness of his opponents to respond in kind — to see it changed.
The divisions have been widening. As important is the fact that passions have intensified. A sense of goodwill toward political opponents has largely faded. Now it is common not just to disagree but to ascribe the worst in the other side.
This has left a mark on President Obama. He will leave office with higher approval ratings than at any time since the early months of his presidency, but he has the distinction of being the president with the most divided approval ratings of any recent president, according to data from the Pew Research Center.
It is a reflection not just on the president but also of the deepening partisanship of the public over the past two decades. Data published by Pew shows the degree to which former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were also highly polarizing leaders.
The Gallup organization has asked people whether they believe the country is united or divided. Two months after the 9/11 attacks, 74 percent said the country was united. By the beginning of the 2004 election cycle, 45 percent described the country as united. Last fall, in the wake of the 2016 election, just 21 percent thought so.
The United States are not united politically. Based on election results, some red states have become redder and some blue states bluer. But the voting patterns are but one measure of the state-by-state divisions that exist.
Pollster V. Lance Tarrance examined data from Gallup surveys and found a series of issues on which attitudes in states that went for Trump differ significantly from states that went for Clinton. Those issues include abortion, the promotion of “traditional values,” climate change, government regulation and whether refugees going into Europe and North America represent a threat to U.S. interests.
Partisanship is perhaps the single most important indicator. Last summer, there was speculation that Trump’s candidacy, which was splitting the Republican Party, might result in an increase in ticket-splitting, after a series of elections in which split-tickets were at historic lows. In the end, that did not happen. As Jacobson noted in a recent paper, “For the first time, every Senate contest was won by the party that won the state’s electoral votes.”
Partisanship and election results color attitudes about the state of the country. Over most of the past two presidencies, majorities have described the direction of the country as seriously off track. But changing presidents can change who says this.
In the Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week, 63 percent described the state of the country that way, only slightly better than the 68 percent who said so last July. Beneath those numbers was a dramatic shift in the perceptions of Democrats and Republicans.
In July, 49 percent of Democrats said the country was on the wrong track and 45 percent said things were going in the right direction. Today, only 19 percent are positive while 74 percent are negative. Republicans have gone from 8 percent positive to 45 percent positive, from 90 percent negative to 50 percent negative.
Trump is the inheritor of conditions he did not create. Still, the campaign just concluded made things worse in at least one important way: Trump starts his presidency with a deficit unlike his most recent predecessors. As the Post-ABC poll and other surveys have found this week, he will be sworn in with the lowest approval ratings of any incoming president in at least four decades.
Trump’s post-election statement for unity and any calls for healing on Friday represent bookends of a transition in which a series of other comments, tweets and actions have done the opposite. Democrats say they can point to little as evidence that Trump truly wants to make the country whole.
Former Obama White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said in an email that, with the exception of being conciliatory toward Obama, Trump has done nothing of consequence to bring the country together. “He extended exponentially more olive branches to [Russian President] Vladimir Putin than the Democrats in Congress, Hillary Clinton, or the majority of the country that voted for someone else,” he wrote.
Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist and former adviser to 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney, offered a more charitable assessment, pointing not only to Trump’s visit to the Oval Office but also his consideration of Romney as secretary of state.
Madden said the Romney meeting sent a signal to a divided Republican Party that Trump was “serious about surrounding himself with the best people.” He argued that any skepticism that Trump was cynically playing Romney was outweighed by the “calming effect” this had on many Republicans. The tone of his language when he met with Obama “helped him as he transitioned from presumed long-shot candidate to president-elect.”
Anita Dunn, who also served Obama as White House communications director, said the nature of Trump’s campaign offers the best hints to how he will govern. She wrote in an email: “When you win, and you win against the odds, and you win in the face of implacable opposition, you often feel like taking advice and being told how to do things by the people you just vanquished is about Number 101 on your list of 100 most important things to remember.”
The question is: How important binding a divided nation will be to Trump once he becomes president? Will he seek to unify the country, and if so how? Or will he decide there is little he can do and then govern a divided nation the way he sought and won the presidency — by accentuating those differences? The ultimate answer will not come on Friday, but clues will emerge soon after, as the 45th president and his adversaries begin to engage over his and the Republicans’ agendas. Actions, not words, will tell the tale.