Photos: Ben Baker
Last November, Donald Trump was elected our 45th president, the leader of our nation—but you could say he became the leader of two nations. These United States are about as disunited as can be, split in half by two sets of very different, deeply held beliefs. In fact, in our 241-year history, we’ve rarely been so polarized. (The Civil War does come to mind....) It’s not just that we don’t see eye to eye on the issues, or that we differ along geographic, ethnic, or gender lines. It’s that our differences—and our disdain—seem to prevent us from even engaging with anyone who disagrees with us. Yet if we have any hope of healing our divisions, this is exactly what needs to change. That’s why I recently found myself at a diner in Maspeth, New York, ready to spend a Sunday morning talking about the state of our country with ten women I’d never met. They came from all walks of life. Their opinions ranged from hyperliberal to ultraconservative. Some of those opinions were shouted. Some were expressed through tears, and still others through song. (I’m not joking: At the end of our conversation, one of the women in attendance, Allison, who had played Diana Ross on Broadway, started singing “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)”—and the rest of us wound up holding hands and singing along. It was that kind of day.) And what these women discovered after two hours of candid, compassionate discussion was what Maya Angelou knew all along: We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.

Oprah: Thank you, everybody, for giving up your Sunday—Sundays are special, so I appreciate that. We’re meeting today because I want to hear how you’re feeling about what’s happening in our country. Where do you think we’re going, what makes you hopeful, what keeps you up nights? Let’s go around the table. Tell me who you are, where you come from, and who you voted for.

Sheila Menge: I’m married to my husband 33 years. I have two boys: One is in college, and the other is finishing up high school. I’ve worked at a steak house in Jersey for 18 years. I come from a big family—11 brothers and sisters. Mom and Dad came here from Ireland. I voted for Trump. I guess that should do it.

Sarina Amiel-Gross: I live in Long Beach, New York, and I’m a widow with a 19-year-old daughter. I work as a paralegal in Manhattan. I also voted for Donald Trump.

Allison Semmes: I’m 30 years old, from Chicago. I studied music all my life and I’ve been in a couple of Broadway shows, so I feel like I’m living my dream. I’m an artist, and that’s the power I feel I have in this world. I voted for Clinton, but I still think we have the power to shape what’s really going on.

Alicia Perez: I live in the Bronx. I’m married and have a small child at home. I also have a stepson. I work in the insurance industry, and I recently lost 80 pounds. I love spending time with my family, traveling, and being informed of what’s happening. I voted for Clinton.

Anum Khan: I’m 27, born and raised in Queens, living in Brooklyn. I got married in September. I spent a few years in Egypt, part of it as a Fulbright scholar. I work for the New York City Department of Education. I voted for Clinton.

Dawn Jones: I am a military brat—though my dad would correct me and say I was brought up in the military. I moved around my whole life, then married a Marine and moved around again. I’m dedicated to veterans. I happen to be a breast cancer survivor. I’m very passionate about healthcare. I voted for Trump.

Star Walters: Let’s see. I have a wonderful son, whom I raised as a single mom. I remarried a New York City fireman. I have two beautiful grandchildren. I’ve worked my whole life, since I was 14. I keep myself healthy; I did a triathlon recently. I’ve always tried to set an example for my son: If something doesn’t sound right when it comes out of your mouth, it’s not right. If it doesn’t feel right, it’s not right. You have to move; you have to do; you have to help others; you have to bring people together. I’m passionate about that. I voted for Trump.

Julie Fredrickson: I’m 33. I’m a small-business owner. I just got married three months ago. I grew up in Colorado. I consider myself to be a conservative. I’m not registered with any party, but if I were, it would be the Libertarians. I’m definitely a bit off the political charts. I voted for Hillary.

Sharon Beck: I’m 59. Remarried, very happily—six-year honeymoon so far. My daughter moved to Israel two years ago. My degree is in electrical engineering. It was a while ago, but I worked in the field. Now I’m involved in computer and Internet consulting, but I have been a political activist for about 20 years. I ran for state assembly in New Jersey. For the past year and a half, I worked for Trump as a volunteer; I started a group called Zionists4Trump because Israel is very important to me.

Patty Lammers: I’m 60 years old. I’m single, always have been. I’m on my second career. My first, I ran learning and development for a major financial services organization. Now I go in and fix people-related problems in companies. I’ve been doing that for about five years and love it. I voted for Donald Trump. It wasn’t an easy decision, but I think it was the right one.

Oprah: There are more Trump supporters than Clinton supporters here. I’m curious as to why you all voted for him. What was the compelling reason, Patty?

Patty: For me, it was about the issues. I’ve been concerned about the economy, and I keep listening to the reports: “The economy is improving!” But I have a financial background, and I’m looking at the numbers thinking, Who’s smoking what? These numbers aren’t something I’d be proud of.

Oprah: When did you finally decide it was going to be Trump?

Patty: Maybe three weeks before the election. But I was always a “Never Hillary” person. I’d listen to her, and what I was hearing was 20th century. We are now in the 21st century, and we need new ideas. I wanted decisiveness.

Oprah: Sharon, how about you?

Sharon: I have a profound love of legal immigrants. The idea of people jumping the line—it’s not fair to the people who go through all the effort. Also, I feel that Trump understands who the enemy is, and Hillary didn’t.

Oprah: Who do you define as the enemy?

Sharon: Those who’d like to kill us.

Oprah: Okay. How about you, Sheila?

Sheila: Trump touched my heart by talking about things that affected my family. He talked about the things that good people—and we’re all good people here, every person at this table—are concerned about.

Star: I voted for Trump because he surprised me. I was never all in his camp—I liked Carly Fiorina. I would’ve loved to see a woman president. But when Trump called the terror attacks in France and California for what they were, I saw that he’s informed on so many levels.

Oprah: But what was it specifically that he said? An aha moment is something you are already feeling yourself—so what was the “Aha!” with Trump?

Star: For me, it was about the economy. I’d worked my whole life, and then I lost my job. I couldn’t find another one for several years—so when he went to Michigan, to Detroit, where many people are so poor, that meant something to me. You’d hear Obama tell us how good things were, and I’d look at my community and think, What is he talking about? I knew my experience. I had to take such a cut in salary to get a job again, and it cost too much to participate in their health insurance.

Julie: That’s how I came to vote for Hillary, ironically. I’m a small-business owner. I think a lot about the cost of insuring my employees, making sure they’re fairly compensated. As a Libertarian, voting for Hillary was not where I expected to land. But in assessing the two policy positions, I felt that Hillary had a stronger sense of what needed to happen. I never got a clear answer from Trump on what he wanted to do, other than “make things better.” I think we can all agree we want things to be better. With Hillary, I saw more plans. With Trump, I never got any answers.

Sarina: I don’t agree with that at all.

Oprah: Go ahead, let’s disagree!

Sarina: Trump was always telling people exactly what he was going to do. If you went on his website, he explained each position—paragraphs, whole pages on each. Hillary was out of touch with reality. Her foreign policy, along with Obama’s, destabilized the world.

Oprah: You believe Trump will make it safer?

Sarina: Yes.

Sheila: I feel that, too. I think he said what everybody has been thinking for a long time. He’s talking about creating jobs, keeping jobs here in the United States. We give everything away.

Dawn: I agree. National security is very important to me because of how I was brought up, being in and around the military, and understanding the importance and the sanctity of those who are privy to that information. The effect it has when it’s mishandled—that’s really scary to me.

Oprah: You’re talking about the emails?

Dawn: Without bringing up every little thing, yeah, I’m talking about the emails.

Oprah: The emails were pretty big. That issue bothered you.

Dawn: Sure did.

Oprah: Okay. Tell me the word or phrase you think best describes Trump.

Alicia: Before he ran, I did admire his leadership skills.

Dawn: Fearless.

Anum: Aggressive.

Julie: Demagogue.

Oprah: Allison, why were you “with her”?
Photos: Ben Baker
Allison: I wasn’t with Trump, therefore I was with her. I was open to the idea of Trump running for president—he’s a strong businessman—but I felt Hillary had a sense of diplomacy that is needed. We’re not the only country on this planet. We need to be able to speak to world leaders we don’t agree with in a diplomatic way.

Alicia: I was never really for her, either. I was more of a Bernie Sanders person. But the way Trump handled himself, the way he speaks—about immigrants, the economy, foreign leaders, ISIS—scared me.

Oprah: He said a lot of hurtful, divisive things. Can we all agree with that?

Star: If you look at the coverage of Trump, I’d say 80 percent was negative. It added to this narrative that he’s...

Dawn: A bad person.

Patty: The Big Bad Wolf.

Oprah: You think the media did that? Because as Sheila said, Trump was just saying what many were already thinking. Weren’t the divisions already there?

Sheila: No, not like this. All this division between us and them, black and white...

Oprah: Listen, black kids have been getting shot by police forever. We just didn’t have the cameras to show it. What did you think of the things he said about women?

Star: I think Hillary calling us deplorables was worse.

Oprah: Calling people deplorables is pretty bad. But when you heard the tape where Trump’s using the P word, that didn’t have an impact on you?

Sarina: Not at all. It was a private conversation, and I’ve heard men say far worse.

Star: It was cringeworthy, I’ll say that.

Oprah: But not worthy of not voting for him.

Patty: No.

Oprah: You don’t think what he said speaks to his character?

Sarina: What about Bill Clinton?

Patty: Exactly!

Oprah: I’m not trying to compare them. I’m asking whether Trump is a misogynist.

Sarina: He’s clearly not. The person who built Trump Tower, that project manager, was a woman—in the ’80s, when it was unheard of. He doesn’t care what your sex is. He doesn’t care what your color is. He doesn’t care about anything other than “Can you do the job?” That’s the American dream, and he’s given it to so many people.

Oprah: Okay. Those of you who voted for Secretary Clinton, are you afraid?

Julie: Can I curse? I’m fucking petrified. I’m a conservative and a patriot. And Trump has, on numerous occasions, threatened core values I hold dear. You cannot say that one group of individuals has less rights than anyone else. I’m sorry, you can’t say that. You can’t say that we need a Muslim registry; that’s un-American. He has threatened freedom of the press. He wants to open up libel laws. He has talked about search and seizure, by bringing back stop-and-frisk.

Anum: Which has not helped New York City.

Oprah: Anum, are you afraid as a Muslim woman?

Anum: I am. I have cousins who are terrified of traveling outside the U.S. because they’re afraid they might not be allowed to come back. That’s a legitimate fear.

Sarina: But are they citizens?

Anum: They are.

Sarina: Then why would they have any fear? You listen to the press, you listen to the media, and you let them fearmonger you.

Oprah: Okay, everybody take a breath, have a sip of tea. Anum, tell us, why are they afraid?

Anum: Because they already get searched at the airport. They already get stopped because they have Muslim-sounding names. Right? For someone who doesn’t have a Muslim name, you’ll never know what that feels like. It’s a scary time, and you don’t understand that because you have white skin. [Begins to cry] It’s a terrible time for us.

Oprah: Are you afraid of being deported? Are you afraid something will happen to you or somebody in your family?

Anum: The hate crimes—they’ve gone up.

Alicia: And they’re using Trump’s name in those acts.

Oprah: Yes, and those are just the acts that are being reported. Also, did you all notice that the people crying at this table all voted for Clinton? What can you who voted for Trump say to quell their fears? They’re afraid that so many advances in civil rights, in human rights, in reproductive rights, are going to go ten steps backward because of Trump’s administration. Anum’s fear is real. Her fear is real and undeniable, and she represents hundreds of thousands of others. What do you say to that?

Sheila: I don’t think there’s anything we can say to change it.

Julie: No, there is. There are several things Trump could say to make me feel better. And I say that as the most likely person to have voted for him: I’m a white, conservative, married born-again Christian from Colorado who owns a business. If anyone was going to vote for Trump, it would’ve been me, right?

Oprah: Lordy, yes.

Julie: What I need to hear from Trump is that he believes in the Constitution the way I do. He constantly says things that suggest he doesn’t have a firm grasp on the documents. And I need Trump to come out against the hatred. My husband is Jewish, and with the rise in hate crimes, the emboldening of people—I’m afraid for him.

Sarina: What I see are fringe lunatics acting on their own.

Julie: Then he needs to disavow the assholes!

Sharon: He has!

Oprah: What do you think the Founding Fathers would say about what’s happening in 2017?

Star: “Take a breath, everybody.”

Sheila: “Work together.”

Oprah: What are you seeing in your communities? What’s the vibe like?

Alicia: I live in the Bronx, and I see many people afraid that they will be judged based on their ethnicity.

Oprah: I see you on the brink of tears, Alicia.

Alicia: I feel for everybody. I see people rushing to get their paperwork in, dealing with their immigration situation. I understand that because I’m an immigrant, too. It’s scary.

Anum: The community I live in is mostly black, and they’re also scared. They’re not represented at all in his policies, in what he speaks about. We, as in minority groups, are not represented.

Patty: Personally, I feel hopeful for the first time in a long time. And most people I know feel the same.

Sharon: I have a lot of good expectations for the economy. I think there are going to be more jobs. I think people who are looking for lower-level jobs will be pleasantly surprised by all the new businesses that are going to be developing, all the new opportunities. And I feel a lot more secure about the state of our foreign affairs.

Julie: I’m scared. I think a lot of business owners are. I don’t want the president to be weighing in personally and threatening union leaders, like with Carrier. I don’t want this to be a kleptocracy. I don’t want us to become Russia. I’m proud of America. We work hard, we stick together, we’re a diverse nation. There’s no world in which I should be able to tell the president, “I’m going to take some jobs away. What are you going to give me not to?” That’s not democracy. That’s not capitalism.

Star: When Barack Obama became President Obama, I hadn’t voted for him, but I prayed for him. I wanted him to do well. That’s how we do well. I think the people in my community—we’re a diverse crowd, ethnically and otherwise—are starting to feel that. Slowly they’re saying, “He is our president. Let’s make the best of it. Let’s wait and see.”

Dawn: I’m hopeful. I’ve heard Trump and his people talk about helping the urban communities, helping fight crime there, and giving people opportunities they didn’t have.

Allison: I come from the artistic community, and I come from the South Side of Chicago. The feeling I see among my fellow artists is one of empowerment. While Trump has polarized this country, there’s a feeling that now we should get to work on the community level. Because there are communities that will be overlooked. Let’s not lie and be fuzzy about this and say, “Oh, he cares about urban communities.” No, he doesn’t. I listened to what he said. He knows exactly what to say, but I see through the smoke and mirrors. I see the character of this man.

Oprah: And you don’t like what you see?

Allison: No, I don’t. But in spite of that, I’m going to pray for him, lift him up so he can have the best mind to lead this country. But I’m not putting all my eggs in his basket. I think the work really needs to be done on a local level.

Sheila: I feel hopeful. I think my community feels hopeful. I hope we all come together, do what needs to be done, and help the people of this country to move forward, as opposed to this struggle back and forth about who should have power. The power needs to be for us, the American people. At the end of the day, we have to realize that we can do so much more by working together.

Oprah: In the heart of each of us, when we’re at our kitchen table or sitting with our family or playing with our dogs, we all want the same things. How do we use that commonality to heal this divide? Sheila, I see that hit a nerve for you.

Sheila: [Crying] I just wish we all could find some peace. It breaks my heart. I didn’t ask to be born white. I’m here as a human being. Everyone is my family. I don’t understand why we can’t just see people for who they are.

Oprah: What are your tears for? We’re all crying now because you’re crying, but what are your tears for?

Sheila: We can’t seem to come together as human beings.

Oprah: What can you do in your own life to narrow the divide?

Sheila: Be kinder to people, more understanding; think with my heart, not my head; and understand that people are coming from all different places.

Oprah: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about our divisions?

Sheila: I am optimistic. I think it can get better if we all do the right thing.

Anum: It’s hard for me to be optimistic and hopeful when what I’ve seen isn’t showing that. I’m not just talking about mainstream news. I’m seeing this on the ground. That’s what I want you all to know and understand: that there are people who don’t look like you who have a lot to lose.

Alicia: I also have a fear that some of us will be forgotten. I understand that he says he’ll make it good for everybody, but I have a fear that it’s not going to happen. I feel the inner cities will be forgotten. What keeps me up at night is that Trump is in his tower, and he is not connected to the people on the ground. He can’t relate.

Sarina: But he picked Ben Carson to run HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development].

Oprah: Ben Carson! Come on.

Sarina: We can all agree that it’s an outside-the-box choice, but Carson grew up in an inner city. He understands.

Oprah: I grew up in an inner city!

Anum: I guess I can just walk into any office without experience and ask for a job now!

Sarina: My point is that sometimes to fix a problem, you need someone who’s not in the middle of it to have an objective view, to have new ideas.

Oprah: That I do agree with. How about the rest of you? Are you optimistic or pessimistic?

Patty: How can we not be optimistic? We have so many different views here. Maybe a little more on one side than the other—but we’re reaching out.

Star: Right, we’re hearing one another. We’re listening.

Oprah: But a lot of people in the country are not.

Sharon: The Talmud says that anyone who does anything in anger, it’s as if they’re worshiping idols. What that basically means is, when you’re angry, you can’t see straight.

Oprah: That’s true.

Sarina: Anum, I’m not negating your fear. It hurts to know there are so many people who are so frightened. I have a little quote at the bottom of my emails that says, “Be kind to everyone because everyone is fighting a battle.”

Oprah: But there’s also the adage that says evil triumphs when good people do nothing.

Julie: I would hope that we could all do our part to reach out to those who are afraid. I have a Muslim friend. I have gay friends. I have transgender friends. I reached out to all of them after the election.

Oprah: What are the rest of you willing to do? Are you willing to think differently about where we are as a nation, and where you are, and what your role is?

Sharon: Now is the time, the opportunity, to hold all our elected officials responsible for everything.

Dawn: I hope people can have discussions like this, can talk without name-calling.

Sheila: I feel we should all live in purpose. Calling people names serves no purpose.

Allison: We need to stop the bullying that goes on.

Star: Right. The world we live in now is so aggressive.

Oprah: We’re a reality TV–based culture. We’ve been conditioned to believe that the in-your-face Housewives/Survivor format is the way to behave. And about name-calling: Many Trump supporters have been called racist or misogynist. How does it make you feel when you say you’re a Trump supporter and people think, Well, you must be a racist?

Star: It’s horrible.

Sheila: I didn’t want to put anything on my front lawn that said Trump because why am I going to invite this into my life when it’s my right to vote however I want?

Oprah: Do you think there’s a misinterpretation of who the Trump voter really is?

Star: Yeah, an underestimation.

Dawn: It’s heartbreaking. It hurts to be called racist. It’s devastating, and people get sick of being called that. That’s how you get the silent majority.

Oprah: In 100 days, do you think we’re all going to be feeling better or worse?

Dawn: Should we meet here in 100 days to find out?

Star: I think we should have a follow-up!

Sharon: That’s not a bad idea.

Oprah: We might need to order more food. Okay, in 100 days, feeling better or worse?

Sheila: I think we’ll have reached a place of contentment.

Star: Moving toward better. We’re not going to be there yet. But we’ll be making incremental progress toward something better.

Patty: Definitely better—spiritually, emotionally. We’ll see forward movement, particularly on the economy.

Julie: Possibly better, but it’s hard for me to see it happening. Every new cabinet appointment was a hit in the gut for me."

Anum: Me, too.

Dawn: Better.

Sharon: Better. I just hope the media shares the truth.

Allison: I think we’ll be stronger. You know, this is the closest I’ve ever been to actual Trump supporters.

Oprah: Just wait till you go back to your artists’ community, like, “Guess who I met today!”

Allison: [Laughs] And I think we’ll be feeling stronger. We need to embrace civil discourse and learn how to speak with one another, raise issues in a way that encourages people to listen. We are so quick to put labels on people. If you think about this whole political season, there were the Jewish folks, and the black folks, and the Hispanic folks, and the white folks, and the female folks, and the millennial folks. Can we stop labeling people and understand that we all have value?

Oprah: No, we’re not going to stop. We live in a society that likes to label. But what we can do is strive to be people of conscience.

Allison: I think we need more empathy. Radical empathy.

Oprah: Radical empathy. Yes. This thing we’re doing right here—this discussion—is big. What if this happened in every community?

Allison: Yes! We need to do that with every group we’re scared of.

Dawn: Yes, absolutely.

Sarina: And I think we have to give Trump the benefit of the doubt. Yes, I’m a Trump supporter, but that doesn’t mean I’m stupid about him. Believe me, if he doesn’t do what he sets out to do, I will be the first to hold his feet to the fire. Do I think he’s going to be able to change everything? No! He’s human. So are we all.

Star: We don’t know his whole vision yet. But I’m very optimistic. I think we’ll be okay.

Patty: And if not, in four years, we can vote for someone else.

Oprah: That’s true. Thank you, ladies, for coming.

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