Scenes from a Divided State
On the weekend Donald Trump became the forty-fifth president of the United States, everyone called for unity—so long as the other side would just agree with them.
On Friday, January 20, 2017, the morning of the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump, Marsha Isbell and Bette Burton—Texans of some life experience and friends since kindergarten—greeted the dawning of a new political era in America with mimosas and champagne.
The two were sitting at the end of the tiled backroom bar at the Original Ninfa’s on Navigation, where the Harris County Republican Party was hosting an inauguration watch party. “This morning, the lady on the news said, he’s not a politician. He’s a peopletician. I like that little phrase,” Isbell said. “He’s not taking a salary,” Burton chimed in. On the television hanging above the bar, Trump was signing his first orders as president. “They’re here to look out for the well-being of the people,” Isbell said. “We’ve talked to some of the little servers around here,” motioning to the bartender. “They seem to be excited too.”
It’s easy to be magnanimous in victory, and easier still after migas and a few rounds, so it’s not particularly surprising that the crowd at Ninfa’s was feeling copacetic, even at the end of what they saw as an eight-year run of tyranny. Was Ninfa’s, the legendary Tex-Mex restaurant in Houston’s predominantly Hispanic Second Ward, a peculiar place to ring in the era of Trump, who made building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico his leading platform promise? Possibly. But in the age of “normalization,” why not? Plus, presidential inaugurations mark a moment of inversion more powerful than almost any other we experience in life. In America, every eight years, give or take a term, our political system flips on its head, with vast and unknowable consequences for nearly everyone on earth. And while many countries get the transfer of power done quickly, Americans have almost two and a half months between the election and the inauguration to prepare mentally and emotionally for the changes to come.
Houston GOP events usually have more than their fair share of silver-haired businessmen, but those who assembled for the breakfast buffet on Friday morning counted among them representatives of the odd coalition that constitutes Trump’s base: traditional Republicans, political neophytes, and a youngish cohort of predominantly white men with Make America Great Again hats and Infowars swag. Many of them hadn’t been to a Harris GOP event before. They shared their excitement, they drank, they waved the little flags at their tables, and they posed with two cardboard cutouts of Donald Trump and Mike Pence set up against a wall outside.
To a person, they were emphatic fans of Trump. But they differed markedly as to why. Rachelle Pierce, who says she started getting involved with national politics because of the Benghazi attack, took turns with her friends posing with the cutouts in her shiny gold-painted Make America Great Again (MAGA) trucker’s hat. Her husband was a veteran, and she had had trouble finding a job in her field, “doing education through museums,” for which she had a Master’s degree.
Now she was filled with hope. “It’s a very happy day, and I just pray that he sticks to his word,” she said. “I don’t think he’s gonna go rogue, but you know, you never get exactly what you think you’re getting.” But she had an accompanying wish: That Trump would be a uniting, bipartisan president, just as “Bill Clinton worked across the aisle,” she said. “I’m hoping that he works with Democrats and Republicans, that he works with everyone. That he speaks to the American spirit. Because we are all so different.”
Camden Wagner, 26, came to the inauguration party in a knock-off MAGA hat, a red Trump Is My President T-shirt, and an American flag sport coat. This had been his first presidential vote— he hadn’t participated in the past election—and there was little doubt for whom he’d cast it. “Trump is the man,” he said. “If he does half of what he promised, I’ll be happy.” But Wagner too said he agrees with Republicans on some issues, Trump on others, and the left on others still, and that his preference was for an ideologically ambiguous government.
There were a number of hardened conservative activists at Ninfa’s too, many of whom began participating politically in earnest after Obama’s first election. Heather Harris and Jamie Jamison, two Republican precinct chairs from southeast Houston, sat on a bench together at the front of the restaurant after the festivities had concluded, basking in the day’s events. After listening to Trump’s speech, a brief affair that was decried by some as grim (the first inaugural address in history, according to the Washington Post, to feature the words “carnage,” “wind-swept,” and “tombstones,”) Harris, who was wearing a large heart-shaped American flag-brooch, was feeling “very optimistic and hopeful that things are going to change and change for all Americans.” She continued, choking up: “While this is a day we rejoice in, it’s not a day we triumph in. Because we feel that this is best for the nation. Not over other people.”
Harris and Jamison were both Cruz supporters originally, and Jamison was a delegate for the senator from Texas in Cleveland. But they’ve come full circle on the Donald. Harris admits to some disappointment in Trump’s remarks about women. But for her, Trump is like King David, who did “an awful lot of bad things, and yet he was mightily moved by God for the nation of Israel,” she said. “I have the same faith in Trump. I believe that he can also be used regardless of his history, his background.” Their hope is not that he proves more conciliatory, but that he fights like hell for their movement.
For many conservative activists, this weekend was the end of one of the most significant chapters of their lives—the successful conclusion of eight years of grassroots opposition to the Obama administration. That fight means more than usual for Harris and Jamison, who got engaged during the Obama-Trump interregnum. They’re chairs of adjacent precincts, and met at a meeting of the South Belt Republicans in their corner of Houston a while back.
Their political struggle has been instrumental in their lives, more so than most, and yet they still can’t understand why Trump’s opponents are fighting him — particularly, the marches that had been planned for the following day. They have a right to protest, but, “I’m hoping that many who mourn this day will get over it,” Harris said. “This is who we have now. Let’s pull together to make this nation great again. Division is not what America is about.” How would she have felt if someone had told her that in 2009? “I was very sad in 2009, but I wasn’t out protesting.”
Jamison, a soft-spoken man in a blue MAGA hat, is sharper. “Suck it up and move on. That’s the way I look at it.” The women organizing protests, he says, are “misguided. If they’d see the things that’s going on in the Republican party for women,” they’d open their minds. “They’ve got to go with it.” Harris said she hoped that protesters would understand “the sense of patriotism coming back” under a Trump administration.
In 2009, it took thirty days for meaningful public opposition to the new president to start in earnest, launched accidentally by CNBC correspondent Rick Santelli. In 2017, it took less than 24 hours. On Saturday morning, an estimated several million people marched around the country, including more than 50,000 protesters who gathered at the Capitol Building in Austin, the largest Texas offshoot of the women’s march. The growth of the tea party started suddenly, but it was thereafter a slow, steady burn. This was a bang—the largest protest, by one accounting, in Texas’s history.
The crowd flowed down Congress Avenue, heading south, then west on Sixth street, returning back to the Capitol in a one-and-a-half-mile loop, short enough that the front of the march had reached the Capitol before the end had left it. From above, the marchers were tightly packed enough to resemble a river, one that ran for some two hours. For Austin liberals, accustomed to small gatherings on the Capitol’s south steps that struggle to attract media attention, it was a profound shock.
— Aaron Chamberlain (@elmachuca) January 21, 2017
A group of women pulled along a giant effigy of Trump in a red wheelbarrow, his head made from paper mâché over a barrel, red horns protruding from his head, tiny hands on sticks manipulated by his tenders. Endless signs, from the standards—“smash the patriarchy,” and “women’s rights are human’s rights;” quotes from Tina Fey and Parks and Recreation; one sign that read “my neck, my back, my pussy grabs back,” in reference to a Khia song; a Trump piñata on a pole with a sign that read “Dick on a Stick”; and of course a guy in a Guy Fawkes mask whose sign read simply “I love my mom.”
Signs plastered the Confederate Monuments on the south lawn. The 1862 No. 303 cannon on the west side of the Great Walk served as a hook for a sign that read “Happy women = happy world.” Many in the crowd were men, and there were a great number of families. Kids played in the fountains, and a platoon of strollers rolled down Congress.
The tea party never attracted crowds like this, but it was politically effective because it was tenacious, and because its activists kept working month after month. For the women’s march to have been judged politically meaningful, the same will have to happen. That remains to take shape, but organizers believe the movement has potential because of the great number of new people—particularly white women—who may not have felt politically threatened enough to engage in this kind of activism previously.
One marcher in a group of middle-aged women in sunglasses and solid colors, who declined to identify herself but shouted over her shoulder that she had come from Dallas, and declared that she was “marching to support the dignity and respect of all people,” adding that “it’s my first [protest] since I was in college here back in the late sixties.” For her, the election had been a radicalizing event. It had been “like being hit in the gut.”
Katie Grohe, 22, who graduated from the University of Texas last year, said, “I think I would have had an overwhelming feeling of guilt if I hadn’t come.” Election night, she said, was “f—in’ awful.” But a major part of her disappointment had been “that so many white women voted for him. I felt really gross about it, that I’m part of the demographic that helped him get elected,” and that guilt manifested as a desire to engage more.
For some protestors, there was a process of readjusting to the new meaning of being an American. Up on a ridge behind the reserved parking spot for the Chaplain of the Texas House sat Asael Infante, a first-generation immigrant from Mexico. He was meditating silently in rainbow suspenders on a tie-dye blanket with a sign that said “we will not be silenced. Infante is now a citizen, but several members of his family aren’t, and now seem unlikely to be anytime soon. “I never thought there would be a day that I’d feel like I might have to keep going north,” to another country, he said. “I had an aunt that passed away a few years ago. She waited 12 years for immigration reform, and she died before she could become a U.S. citizen.”
“I’m a dual citizen, and I have some resources to be able to move around, but there’s some people that just can’t,” he said as Wendy Davis began to speak, telling the crowd that she was wearing the pink sneakers from her 2013 filibuster. “I don’t think people understand that [immigration] is not about wanting to get to another country or getting a nice car. It’s about survival.” He hopes that the immigrant experience is universal enough—“diversity is what makes America great, and it’s always been great”—that with more outreach and communication opponents of immigration might eventually take a softer view.
He returned to meditating.
I turned to the woman next to him, Alice Frank. She was covered in white body paint, boots, and a onesie pulled down to her waist, with a torso inscription reading “We are not integers 1-10. We are infinite,” and a sign that read, “This earth is made for the beauty you are. We are here to protect it with you.” I asked her why she came out to the march. “Because vulnerability is something so sacred on the planet,” she said. “I think the planet is made for this beauty that is ephemeral and not easily discussed, but I think it is the feminine. It’s the thing that needs protecting. And the feminine is in us all, not just women. It’s all of us. It’s sacred. And we have to align our politics with that which we are.”
Suddenly we return to earth. “In every single movie there’s always the really intense part where the worst possible thing could happen, and the darkest time happens. Like Indiana Jones hates snakes, and he ends up in a snake pit,” she said. Trump, she says, is the snake pit. “It’s in order for us to become the hero that we are. So I don’t feel afraid. I feel like this is a really awesome moment.”
Frank continues. “I didn’t think it was possible for Trump to win.” The fact that he did speaks, she thinks, to a deeper problem of empathy in the country. “I think we really need to ask each other: How are you? And what do you need? And how can we help?”
Did the folks at Ninfa’s need help? They seemed quite sated. Those of all political stripes in America tend to believe that the other side is just missing something—that there’s a puzzle piece or some critical information they haven’t yet received, that their beliefs are not as deeply held as the right beliefs. We feel that way because we are the center of our own worlds, and our beliefs constitute our personal universes. Other people’s views never seem completely real. We yearn for oneness, for unity, but on our terms.
Rachelle Pierce wants Trump to link arms with Democrats. Jamison and Harris think the protestors ought to be team players for Trump, but they won’t. And many at the march, and on the left generally, either frame their demands as universal principles that turn out to not be universal, or express a desire to “turn” Trump’s base.
Typically, barring war or national catastrophe, a president’s approval ratings are never higher than they are around the inauguration. With the upheaval of an election and a change in power, people want to feel a sense of belonging and solidarity, and they’re willing to give new leaders the benefit of the doubt. But then those feelings drop away and a new president’s poll numbers drop with them. Politics is about entropy more often than it’s about oneness. Which means the state of national discourse is more likely to deteriorate than improve from this point on. With the two camps further apart than we’ve seen in modern times, there’s one thing we can probably all agree on: we’re in for quite a ride.