One Nation, Divided

The nation is still deeply divided over Donald Trump’s stunning win – and so is Congress.

The 2000 presidential election was a painful period for American democracy, as voters and candidates wondered whether the electoral system that was supposed to be a model for the world was, in fact, fatally flawed. A protracted recount in Florida left the nation without a clear winner until December, when a Supreme Court ruling stopping the recount made Republican George W. Bush the winner. Foes of the president-elect called the outcome rigged, and said Bush would never be considered a legitimate president. Demonstrations were held to support each side of the conflict. Making matters even more complicated, Democratic pickups in Congress left the GOP with just a three-seat majority in the House, and a 50-50 Senate. Since members of Congress are sworn in before the chief executive and vice president, Vice President Al Gore – who had lost the presidency to Bush – served as the tie-breaker in the Senate for 17 days. After Bush was inaugurated, technical control of the Senate shifted to the Republicans, since vice president Dick Cheney became the tie-breaker

There could hardly be, lawmakers and observers said at the time, a more toxic political cocktail for Washington. The nation’s decision-makers were being asked to operate with a president whose very election was disputed, an equally divided Senate and narrowly divided House, and a Supreme Court part of the country blamed for handing the election to Bush.

And yet, lawmakers and activists say, that period seems like a kid’s touch football game compared to the ultimate fighting championship bout shaping up as President-elect Donald Trump’s administration prepares to take office. The nation is still deeply divided over Trump’s stunning victory, while lawmakers on Capitol Hill are suspicious of the kind of relationship they will have with Trump – or indeed, if they will have a functional relationship with him at all. While Congress has tended to be more pragmatic than the public after a fraught election (as they did in 2000), this campaign has brought the culture wars to Capitol Hill, with scores of lawmakers being members of groups Trump insulted during his presidential bid.

“This has all of the potential for being the most divisive presidency in living memory,” second perhaps only to the Vietnam era, says Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va. “He got elected ugly,” Connolly adds, and the personal nature of some of Trump’s campaign rhetoric crossed a line that is hard to erase post-election. Trump made insulting comments about women, Hispanics, people with disabilities, Muslims and others during his campaign, while earning the support of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists.

But once in office, Trump will have to negotiate with an incoming Congress that is the most racially diverse in history, with record numbers of Latinos, African-Americans, Asian-Americans and women of color. The Senate will also have a historic 21 females in its ranks.

 “Donald Trump appealed to a white nationalist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, sexist, misogynistic bent of mind,” says Rep. Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat who is African-American, suggesting Trump should expect a cool reception from those members of Congress from aggrieved groups.
 “Some of the things said during the campaign were so offensive, so shocking and disappointing, that if there’s going to be healing, he’s got a lot of make-up work to do,” says Rep. James Langevin, a Rhode Island Democrat who is in a wheelchair.

Civil rights group and their allies, too, are wary as they watch a nation that clearly has not healed from the brutal campaign. The Southern Poverty Law Center recently released a report recounting 867 episodes of harassment or abuse of minorities, including children, during the 10 days following Trump’s election often by people invoking Trump’s name or campaign rhetoric. The report – which SPLC president Richard Cohen said was a “tremendous, tremendous undercount” of bias episodes – includes multiple cases of African-American children being told to sit in the back of the bus. A Washington teacher reported that children yelled “build a wall” and “if you weren’t born here, pack your bags” in the lunchroom and in her classroom. Women reported being sexually harassed by men who threatened – in Trump’s own words caught on an “Entertainment Tonight” tape – to grab their crotches. The words “Trump Nation” and “Whites Only” were painted on a church with a large immigrant population, while a gay man reported being pulled from his car by an attacker who said the “president says we can kill all you f—— now.”

The group called on Trump to do more to discourage such behavior. Trump, on “60 Minutes,” looked into the camera and said “stop” when prompted to denounce such activity. In a later interview with editors and reporters at The New York Times, Trump, asked about the so-called alt-right movement, said, “I don’t want to energize the group, and I disavow the group… It’s not a group I want to energize, and if they are energized, I want to look into it and find out why.”

But there is evidence that even those who merely vehemently disagree about Trump are not ready to make peace. A man on a Delta flight stood up in the cabin and went on a rant (caught on a cellphone video) about Trump, saying “we got some Hillary bitches on here?” The man was banned for life from flying on Delta again. In another episode at a Michael’s craft store in Illinois, a white woman called a black Michael’s employee an “animal,” and said she was being discriminated against because she voted for Trump. It was not clear how the woman thought Michaels employees were treating her differently or how they would have known her presidential choice.

Rank-and-file Americans predictably get upset if their candidate loses an election, but lawmakers and interest group leaders are in the business of putting those disappointments aside, hoping to make whatever deals they can with the president. But in the case of Trump, there is not a lot of optimism among the left.

Asked if civil rights and minority rights groups could work with Trump – or whether they would simply spend four years trying to thwart him, leaders said they were open but skeptical. “Mr. Trump is the president-elect. We are certainly not going to oppose him on everything simply for the sake of opposing him,” Cohen says, but the group will continue to call out Trump and his administration when warranted.

Adds Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, “we’re also reaching out,” but “we want to do both,” keeping the incoming administration accountable as well.

But Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, notes that Trump’s early appointments – including Stephen Bannon, the founder of Breitbart News, a site proclaimed to be the “platform of the alt-right,” a white nationalist movement, as a senior adviser – suggest Trump is not interested in reaching back. And while several groups sent a letter to Trump Nov. 18 asking him to denounce racist and bias-related behavior, “he has not responded,” Weingarten said.

Democratic members of Congress say they are willing to work with Trump on a couple of issues that appeal to them, such as early childhood education and infrastructure building and repair. But the mood on the Hill is far testier than after the 2000 campaign. In 2001 – even before the Sept. 11 attacks that brought in a new bipartisanship in Washington for awhile – Congress and the White House worked on major legislation, even passing the No Child Left Behind Act with Bush, Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and GOP Rep. John Boehner as the chief negotiators.

But Democrats believe they will spend much of their efforts fighting expected cutbacks in some domestic programs and reformations of such Democratic favorites as Medicaid and Medicare. The minority party is also gearing up for a fight over the future of Obamacare, which Trump and congressional Republicans have pledged to repeal.

And to get there, Trump will need to mend some fences on the other side of Pennsylvania Ave., Langevin says. “Because Donald Trump was such a divisive candidate, he now has a strong obligation, a moral obligation, to reach out and try to be the catalyst for that healing,” Langevin says. And even if Trump makes nice (or nice enough) with Democrats, he can’t expect the opposition party to let up. “I will not, and we will not, compromise our principles,” Langevin says. So much for a Trump honeymoon.


By Susan Milligan | Staff Writer

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