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After Trump's remarkable win, can national reconciliation follow?

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President-elect Trump has a critical role to play in setting the tone. But perhaps the road to healing starts with a million individual acts.

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    President-elect Donald Trump speaks during an election rally, on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016, in New York.
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    Protesters against president-elect Donald Trump march peacefully through Oakland, Calif., on Nov. 9, 2016.
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Updated at 12:37 p.m.

On the eve of Election 2016, the signs of discord were everywhere.

Clinton supporters frantically warned of an American democracy in peril if Donald Trump won. Trump supporters warned against electing “Crooked Hillary,” shouts of “Lock her up!” ringing out at every rally.

Lawn signs were defaced or stolen. Friends were “unfriended.” Couples in “mixed marriages” had to negotiate truces.

And yet Americans are by nature a hopeful people, and for some, the epic election of 2016 has presented an opportunity for learning and growth.

“It’s given us a lens into how differently friends and neighbors see the nation and the issues we’re facing,” says Parisa Parsa, executive director of Essential Partners, a dialogue group based in Cambridge, Mass. “The opportunity in that is to come together, and ask what that means.”

Not that the Clinton and Trump camps will be ready to link arms and sing Kumbaya anytime soon. Or ever. Republicans and Democrats, too, face divisions within their own parties – especially the Republicans. Coming to national consensus on any big topics may be a bridge too far for some time to come.

But the journey can be meaningful. Hashing out policy differences is what governing is all about. All Americans ask for is civility.

For Brian Williams of Valparaiso, Ind., it was reaching out to a beloved cousin whose Facebook posts clearly put her on the opposite side of the political divide. For Larry Seaquist, a retired Navy captain and a candidate for Washington's state legislature, it meant a conscious decision to run a campaign focused on policy and not personalities. Though he ultimately didn't win, the tone he set marks a different sort of victory.

And so bit by bit, a new normal will emerge, shaped by forces great and small – the new president, state and local leaders, community groups, individuals. 

"I pledge to every citizen in our land, that I will be president for all Americans, and this is so important to me," said President-elect Trump in his victory speech last night. "For those who have chosen not to support me… I am reaching out to you for your guidance and your help so we can unify our great nation."

Trump has a critical role to play in setting the tone, both rhetorically and in deed. He should immediately reach out to Democratic leaders, and seize upon areas of mutual interest, no matter how modest, analysts say.

Clinton, for her part, acknowledged the need to unite the country and called on her supporters to do their part. "We have seen that our nation is more deeply divided than we thought, but I still believe in America and I always will," she said in her concession speech on Wednesday. "If you do, then we must accept this result and then look to the future. Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead."

President Obama echoed her sentiments in a speech from the White House, saying, "We are now all rooting for his success."

Political observers also plead for perspective. America has gone through worse periods of social division – including outright civil war – and nasty presidential campaigns going back to nearly the beginning of the republic, they note. 

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President Obama addressed the nation on Election Day in a BuzzFeed video posted on Twitter. He told Americans that "no matter what happens, the sun will rise in the morning."
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A million individual acts

After a contest filled with toxic rhetoric, an exhausted nation looks for relief.

In the days around the election, churches opened their doors for hymn sings and quiet reflection. "Open for prayer on voting day,” announced the sign on a church in Salem, N.H.

Essential Partners encouraged people to share their hopes for the nation on social media using the hashtag #AfterNov8. 

Perhaps the road to healing starts with a million individual acts. Mr. Williams of Indiana tells the story of deciding to be direct and honest with his cousin at a family event. 

“I went and gave her a hug and said, ‘It looks like we have wildly different political beliefs, but I still love you and I hope you still love me!’ Williams writes on Facebook, shared here with his permission. “And she did – and the two of us decided there were many things we could agree on: We both love this country and we both think this election has gone on way too long!”

The moral of the story, he concluded, was that the campaign didn’t have to fracture his relationship with his cousin. “It’s up to each one of us,” he wrote.

Captain Seaquist, the Washington state legislature candidate, says that in his door-to-door campaigning and in phone calls the voters were “transfixed” by the distasteful Trump-Clinton spectacle – to the point where all other races were off the radar. But when he would introduce himself, he says, “You could hear the gears turn, ‘Oh yeah, there’s a legislature here.’”

In his own race, he was “extremely careful not to fuel the personal dimension” and was “very careful throughout to try to keep everything up on the policy level,” says Seaquist, a centrist Democrat running in a swing district near Seattle. He wrote campaign mailers, he says, that were “calmer and express[ed] confidence in the voter.”

But perhaps the most important voters to ask, “How can the nation heal?” are those who attended campaign rallies – because they are among the most engaged and partisan Americans of all.

What can you do personally?

In the weeks before Election Day, we talked to people at rallies featuring Trump, Clinton, and their running mates.

Is reconciliation even possible? If so, how? Whose job is it to lead the way? What, if anything, can you do personally?

Some voters reacted with stunned silence or rueful laughter. In the heat of battle, most warriors are focused on the task at hand, not how life can possibly return to normal – or even transform into something better.

Some saw a better future only if “their” candidate won. Clinton supporters believe Clinton will do more to create jobs and keep the country safe. Ditto Trump supporters on Trump.

“Quite frankly and speaking only for myself, I’m not sure the nation will heal if Hillary Clinton is elected,” said Rick Williams, the owner of a limousine service in Nashville, Tenn. He was attending a Trump rally in Naples, Fla., to encourage Evangelical Christians to vote.

“What keeps me awake is, is there a terrorist slipping in with refugees?” said Mr. Williams. “Are we killing unborn babies, especially in late term? What are we doing to my Second Amendment rights? Then the corruption…”

That said, Williams was prepared to live and let live when he got home to Nashville, where he served as co-chair of the Trump campaign.

“I don’t go through life treating people ugly ... no matter who you’re for,” he said. “A buddy of mine posted on Facebook, ‘Let’s all be kind to each other on Nov. 9.’ I agreed with him, and I know he’s for Hillary. We have to go back to living with each other.”

At a Clinton rally in Coconut Creek, Fla., two days later, campaign volunteer Brenda Williams had plenty to say about Trump supporters. Had she ever been to a Trump rally, just to see for herself? No. Did she know any Trump supporters? “Sadly, yes,” she said. Her son-in-law.

“We go back and forth,” said Ms. Williams, a retired college vice president. “But he’s young, he doesn’t know anything. He needs to be educated. Trust me, I will educate him.”

Brenda Williams is a volunteer for Clinton. Photo taken at Clinton rally in Coconut Creek, FL, on Oct. 25. Linda Feldmann/Staff

Is there anything the next president can do to help the nation heal? Williams’s answer was immediate: Make it mandatory for every community to have a commission on police-community relations.

“We need to do it at the grassroots level, and elevate up,” says Williams, who is African American. “Get everyone involved – I’m talking black, white, Hispanic, across the board. If we start with that, everything else will fall in place.”

Almost by definition, voters see the future through the prism of their own experience. At Liberty University, an Evangelical mega-university in Lynchburg, Va., freshman Brooke Aaron says that until “everybody comes to God,” the nation will never come back together again.

How does that happen? “You go out and spread the gospel” – and then you lead by example, she says. “You can say you’re Christian but if your actions don’t follow up, then they’re not going to listen to you.”

Delia Trost, a Lynchburg resident attending a Mike Pence rally last month, sees societal reconciliation coming from all levels.

“The next president, whoever that is, will have the burden of uniting this nation, like Obama was supposed to do and did not do,” says Ms. Trost, who immigrated to the US from Mexico many decades ago.

When asked what individuals can do to bring about more societal harmony, she stops short: “Can I tell you something? I already do that.” Calling herself “blessed,” Trost says she helps people with housing, food, and money, and by connecting them to jobs.

“That’s what we need to do in this country,” she says. “They’re begging for jobs. And this is white people, black people, Latinos.”

Top task for Trump: National reconciliation

After a campaign that has only exacerbated electoral divides along racial, economic, gender, and generational lines, the initial post-election period could be rough.

But there’s a potential path forward. William Galston, a scholar on governance at the Brookings Institution in Washington, believes the next president must immediately focus on an “agenda of national reconciliation.”

“The long and short of it is that this divisive election has made the preexisting polarization even worse,” says Mr. Galston, speaking before Election Day. “And I think the president-elect will have to work overtime from Day 1 of the transition to put the nation’s administration on track where something conceivably could get done.”

Galston sees three fertile areas for cooperation: investment in infrastructure, criminal justice reform, and work-family issues. But, he warns, any green shoots that germinate will need fierce protection.

Political observers also recommend that the next president reach out, immediately, to members of the House and Senate on both sides of the aisle – for a reset, of sorts. President Obama did not cultivate significant ties to Capitol Hill, and that deprived him of relationships that could have been useful in enacting policy.

Beyond the Civil War, the nation has gone through and survived other traumatic periods – including the Vietnam War, two impeachments, and a resignation. The history books, too, are full of acrimonious US presidential campaigns, going back to the election of 1800. 

A more contemporary comparison, the Vietnam War era – and the racial struggles that coincided with it – adds some perspective to today’s situation.

“This has been a very ugly and divisive election, but I don’t think it ranks up there with one in which you’ve got 500,000 Americans abroad and fighting,” says Thomas Schwartz, a political historian at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

But when a major war lies at the heart of societal conflict, that war’s end allows for an easing of tensions. Today, no single issue drives polarization. All policy matters, it seems, from the economy to national security to social issues, have been divided into one camp or another. The center has become perilously small.

Getting beyond 'tribes'

Perhaps the No. 1 way Americans can move beyond the “tribalism” that has come to define political life is simply to get to know people in other tribes.

“People who have at least one friend from the other political party are less likely to hate the supporters of that party,” write social psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Ravi Iyer in The Wall Street Journal. “But tragically, Americans are losing their proximity to those on the other side and are spending more time in politically purified settings.”

The writers offer advice to those willing to reach out. First, they say, separate your feelings about Trump and Clinton from your feelings about their supporters. Second, consider your goals; arguing with people won’t change their minds.

“But anything that opens the heart opens the mind as well, so do what you can to cultivate personal relationships with those on the other side,” the authors write. 

Anthony Izzo and Justin Rydlun, childhood friends who both support Trump, took that spirit of open-mindedness to Coconut Creek, Fla., recently when they attended the Clinton rally there. 

“I’ll be honest, I wanted to come out to a rally from the other side to see what’s their side of the story,” says Mr. Izzo, who finished college last December and is still looking for work. “It’s nice to see the discourse.”

Justin Rydlun (l.) and Anthony Izzo. Trump supporters at Clinton rally in Coconut Creek, Fl., on Oct. 25. Linda Feldmann/Staff

Izzo is no cookie-cutter Trump fan. He also likes Bernie Sanders, particularly his views on college and health care, which he says should be a right, not a privilege. But he voted for Trump because of his views on law and order.

Mr. Rydlun, an Army veteran now in college, calls himself a moderate Trump supporter – but he agrees with Clinton on education and climate.

“More people should try to understand the other side,” says Rydlun. “Before you’re a feminist or a member of Black Lives Matter, you’re an American. And I feel like, as more and more of these groups pop up, left or right, the more you distance yourself from everyone else.”

He concludes: “I would say people should listen more and speak less.”

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