Is There Hope for a Divided America?

Tales from the Better Angels Bus Tour

Magazine Issue
November/December 2017
Protesters arguing

Before November 2016, I was a standard liberal in politics: an Obama-loving, Planned Parenthood–supporting, immigrant-friendly, big-business-wary Democrat. Hillary Clinton was to be the apotheosis of a tide of history toward women’s rights—and minority rights would hopefully follow in her wake. Republicans and conservatives, I thought, would either become moderate or the victims of inexorable demographic shifts in the political Blue direction. Donald Trump would turn out to be a scary and comical footnote in political history.

But as Yoda would put it, “Wrong was I, and on every count.” Not that I didn’t do my small best to ward off such an outcome. During the campaign, I wrote a Citizen Therapist Manifesto against Trumpism, which garnered some 3,800 signatories and a fair amount of national media attention. The manifesto declined to diagnose Trump but called him a threat to American democracy and to the principles of healthy human relationships that psychotherapy stands for. Unfortunately, I was shouting in an echo chamber, unable to persuade even the handful of conservative therapists I knew of the disaster I felt their vote would bring. In their view, four to eight more years of Democrats would be the sure-fire disaster.

Although depressed after the election, I was troubled by the “Not My President” signs that seemed to echo the initial response to Obama’s election (“Not an American”). I was also troubled by the emotional polarization I was seeing in families and among friends. My clients were reporting cutoffs from relatives. In one case, an adult son called his Trump-voting parents to say they were no longer his parents. I heard from Hillary-voting wives who’d threatened to divorce their husbands if they voted for Trump, and now had to decide whether to follow through. Family Thanksgiving became a battleground or a time of stressful silences. I’m old enough to remember every election since Eisenhower (“Luckies taste sour just like Eisenhower!”), but this was new territory.

During this tumult, I discovered a new professional mission—to work on healing the divide among ordinary Americans—or in couples therapy terms, to prevent a long-term civic divorce. I was still as opposed to Trump as ever, but I knew the anti-Trump battle would be well-staffed, while the struggle to bridge the bitter divide among our fellow citizens could easily fall to the wayside. Whether Trump is impeached or serves out a full term, or (gasp!) two terms, we’ll still have to live together as Americans. We tried divorce once (read: the Civil War), and we’re still fighting a custody battle for the American soul. So I decided to start a membership organization called Citizen Therapists for Democracy, thinking the healing we could contribute to would take place in our offices. That’s our main territory, after all, not the community.

But then came a phone call from David Blankenhorn, founder of the start-up nonprofit Better Angels, which focuses on political and affective polarization in the country, and tries to counter the decades-long trend toward viewing people who differ from us politically not just as uninformed or misguided, but as ill-motivated and dangerous. In fact, there are currently far more people who’d oppose a son or daughter marrying someone of the other political party than someone of another race.

I’d worked with David on a project that brought together gay-marriage advocates and religious-liberty advocates to search for understanding and common ground. For that work, I’d called upon the group-process training I’d received in graduate school, and had continued to hone as I dedicated part of my therapeutic career to bringing people together for community-based projects in healthcare, social services, and parenting. Unfortunately, graduate opportunities for cross-training in therapy and group facilitation vanished in the 1980s, making therapists far less prepared to be useful in our communities.

Back to David’s call. He told me that when he’d talked to his colleague David Lapp, a Better Angels leader, shortly after the election, they saw a stark contrast: Blankenhorn’s Manhattan neighborhood was in shock and grief after the election, while Lapp’s community in Southwest Ohio was practically dancing in the streets. (Lapp is a conservative who didn’t vote for Trump or Hillary.) They realized that if there was ever a time for Better Angels to try something bold on political polarization, this was it. So they decided to invite 10 Hillary supporters and 10 Trump supporters from Southwest Ohio to spend a weekend together seeing if they could meet each other as concerned Americans and not as enemies.

My first reaction was excitement: This is what the country needs right now, for starkly divided people to break bread and talk together! But when I asked David about the plan for the weekend workshop, he admitted he didn’t have much of one, beyond getting Reds and Blues together. I froze, thinking how disastrous this could be without the right container for a volatile conversation. I quickly checked my calendar to see if I was free that weekend and then tentatively asked if my help might be useful in designing and facilitating the weekend. Indeed, although that’s what David had been hoping for, after hanging up the phone, I wondered what I’d gotten myself into.

This was in December of 2016, and the weekend was a big success, leading to a report to the nation signed by that Ohio group, an NPR interview that resulted in a deluge of invitations from around the country to bring our Better Angels workshops to local areas, and plans for a subsequent Ohio weekend workshop with a new group that was filmed for a forthcoming documentary. We had little funding, but the two Davids and I also decided to do a summer bus tour called One America, where we’d travel from the Midwest through New England, and then south through Mid-Atlantic states and Virginia.

We brought four kinds of dialogue format on the tour, all with the intent of seeking to understand and not to persuade: an evening three-hour workshop, a day-long workshop, a weekend workshop, and a two-hour skills workshop. The central cast on the tour were me; David Blankenhorn; David Lapp; Ciaran O’Connor, our social media Millennial; my wife, Leah, who handled workshop logistics; and for one week, Kouhyar Mostashfi, a previous Ohio workshop participant and Iranian-American, who took time off work to help coordinate with local organizers. Our bus driver, Nick, was a Tea Party Republican who started out as a skeptic and came around as a booster of Better Angels. Local volunteers found workshop venues, recruited participants, and offered housing for our team in their own homes and those of neighbors. It’s about as grassroots as you can get.

The Tour Begins

We launched the tour with a bang: a Fourth of July concert in Southwest Ohio featuring quintessentially Blue and Red musicians: Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, and Mary fame) and Richard Lynch (a country music star who’d founded a local county Tea Party). Yarrow was a big supporter of Better Angels, and Lynch had donated the concert venue, his Keepin’ It Country Farm. A striking scene greeted me as I arrived: Bob, a liberal white man who hates Trump, and Joe, a conservative Latino man who loves Trump, were selling admission tickets together. Angela, a liberal African American woman, was selling lottery tickets, while Julie, a Republican woman dressed like the American flag, greeted people. Kouhyar gave me a hug as he set up tables. All these people had participated in our earlier Ohio workshops and are now depolarized citizens.

I was nervous about how the “nondepolarized” guests would respond to songs from the other side. Yarrow, who performed first, didn’t hold back on the freedom protest songs, and Lynch, in a cowboy hat, didn’t hold back on songs about truck drivers and “real” Americans. But somehow it worked, thanks to the integrity of both singers.

As Yarrow said during his act, “I’m going to be me, and I hope you accept me. You should be you, and I’ll accept you.” At the end, Yarrow and Lynch both sang “Puff the Magic Dragon,” with all the children on stage, and then “This Land Is Your Land.” Music transcended politics, and the Better Angels tour was underway on a high note, an experience of group harmony we’d have to call upon when things got hard along the way.

The next evening, we arrived at the Elks Lodge in Lebanon, Ohio, for our first three-hour workshop. Although I was nervous, I started to find my groove as I went over the ground rules. “We’re here to explain our views and listen to others, not to try to convince others to change,” I told the participants. “We’ll speak for ourselves and not try to represent an outside group. We’ll stay with the spirit of each exercise and not editorialize when the question on the table is what we learned from listening. And we’ll give the facilitators permission to intervene when one of us veers off from the task at hand.” I asked for a nonverbal assent from group members after I read each ground rule, which I got in the form of nodding heads.

My job as lead facilitator was to steer the agenda, creating a space for sharing while also setting limits and boundaries. Looking back, I can see that my experience as a couples therapist was helpful in this sense. Good couples therapy involves creating a safe environment for people to say what’s on their minds and in their hearts—and it requires the ability to intervene quickly and authoritatively the moment one partner interrupts or speaks for the other. That ability to be both permissive and limit-setting was crucial to the success of these workshops.

To start, we plunged into the fishbowl exercise, where one group sits in a circle to answer questions while the other sits outside the circle to observe and listen, and then the groups switch places. At this early stage of the tour, the questions I posed to the fishbowl mainly focused on what people liked or didn’t like about Trump, and what concerns they had about their own party.

This first group of Reds were mostly strong Trump supporters. They said they’d voted for him because he’s a businessman, not a politician, and because of his tough stance on immigration. As for reservations, they don’t like his tweets, and a couple of Reds said they were afraid that his ego would drive us to war. As much as I disagreed about their support for him, I was glad that they expressed their views in a calm, nonantagonistic way for the Blues to hear without the pressure to respond.

Then came the first dicey moment of the tour and my first facilitator mistake. A man sitting just to my left went on at some length about why the federal government has no authority in the Constitution to create any social or healthcare programs. As I listened, I found myself getting annoyed at how long he was talking and how dogmatic he was about returning the country to 1789. So instead of letting someone else speak next or just paraphrasing his point, I asked what the implications were for Social Security—should it then be abolished? He immediately flared up at me, saying that I was putting words in his mouth.

This was one of those moments when being a therapist helped, as I’ve learned to see a client’s direct anger at me as a potentially connecting moment. In this case, I immediately realized that this man was justifiably upset with me for asking a question that was actually a challenge. I stayed calm, leaned toward him, admitted I’d misunderstood, and asked him to clarify. I then paraphrased what he said, and breathed a quiet sigh of relief when he calmed down. I heard later that this man had been bounced out of leadership in the local Republican Party for being too divisive. But later in the evening, he told the group that he’d learned a lot in the workshop and uttered what would become one of the key lines from the tour: “You can’t hate who you know.”

A second difficult moment was harder to recover from, when a Republican woman talked about working with black people in Kentucky who were mired in welfare because they were given “a handout but not a hand up.” I worried about how the one liberal African American woman present felt about that statement as she listened on the outside of the fishbowl. I approached her at the break as she sat alone. Although she shrugged that she’d heard these things before and wasn’t surprised, she was clearly feeling some distress. I found myself worried about how people of color in Blue circles were going to feel in these workshops. (Later, several told me that it takes a thick skin, but that it’s worth it.)

In their fishbowl, the Blues gave the standard reasons for opposing Trump: his character, his lack of policies and understanding of foreign affairs, his views on immigration and women and minorities. They delivered these critiques in calm tones, and were pretty open about their reservations regarding their own party: big money, no positive agenda (just resist), career politicians who’d stopped listening.

The participants were mostly positive at checkout: proud of themselves for having a civil conversation. Many saw common ground in wanting the best for the country. Personally, I felt the workshop was reasonably successful, but nowhere near the level of the two evening workshops I’d done in my home state of Minnesota. No one here, for example, left gushing about having more hope for the country. Maybe Minnesota isn’t America, I thought, and these bus-tour workshops will be tougher sledding.

The next day’s workshop, in Dayton, proved my concerns valid. The participants seemed tense on arrival, with most of them heading straight to the table instead of mingling and chatting. This group of Reds strongly opposed abortion, using language like “baby killing,” but they were also clear about their reservations regarding Trump. When the Blues took their turn in the fishbowl, a Middle Eastern immigrant woman started with a passionate speech about how Trump hates immigrants and she fears for her safety. This spurred a vehement blast from another woman about Trump’s despicable character.

The emotional decibel level was completely different from the strong but pleasant sharing of viewpoints in the Red fishbowl. Other Blues took slaps at the Red position on abortion by noting that Blues care about the whole of the life cycle, not just before birth. I found myself hoping that things would even out when I asked the Blues about their reservation about their own side, but alas, they were tame on self-criticism, not going much beyond wishing their leaders could explain liberal values and policies better.

I found myself irritated at the Blues, as well as with a Red who dismissed climate change because she’d heard that the global temperature increase would only be 1.5 degrees—too small to make a difference, in her mind. Reminding myself that my job as a moderator is to keep the group on track, not to give editorial opinions or correct people, I managed to let my frustration pass.

Fortunately, a positive moment came when a Blue healthcare professional gave a moving statement about how she’d been able to treat a large group of cancer patients after Obamacare and was now worried that they wouldn’t be able to stay in treatment under the Republican plan. Another Blue said she’s personally pro-life and sometimes feels she doesn’t fit in the Democratic Party. These comments were helpful to the Reds, some said later, as it helped open up some ground for understanding.

But when I asked the final question of the day—what each group had learned from the other in the fishbowl—the Middle Eastern woman launched into another tirade about Trump and his supporters. She was gearing up for an extended speech and violating the ground rule everyone had accepted—that we focus on the question on the table and not do freelance editorials. Failing to enforce this boundary would lead the workshop down a rabbit hole of attack and defense, rather than toward the deep listening and learning we were aiming for. But here I was, an older white male professional, having to stop an immigrant woman from expressing her beliefs and feelings. Although it was tough for me, I accessed my therapist ability empathize and set limits at the same time.

I called her by name and said, “I know right now you’re speaking from deep in your heart about what troubles you about the country. And I’m afraid I’m going to have to stop you, because right now we’re focused on a different question. I know how deep this goes for you, and I’m sorry to have to steer you back.” I said this with a blend of empathy and authority honed over decades in couples therapy when emotionally dysregulated spouses start attacking each other in a session. As much as I could, I tried to show in my expression, I get your pain—and I can’t let you do this right now. Fortunately, she took my direction well. But the feedback from the written evaluations at the end of the workshop were the flattest I’d seen: some people loved it, some hated it, but most found it mediocre.

Afterward, my colleagues were tired and downtrodden as we sat together to process what had happened. I tried to normalize things by saying that some workshops will go better than others. In my journal entry that night, I reminded myself that the workshop structure protects against full-group meltdowns but can’t safeguard against stereotyping messages and occasional outbursts. I also realized we were seeing the limitations of a three-hour workshop, as opposed to the full-weekend workshops we’d had such great success with. If something goes south, there isn’t enough time to recover. I began to wonder if we could really pull this off. And if I was struggling, how could I expect less-experienced colleagues to lead these groups?

On the Road Again

The next day, after strong coffee at the houses of the locals who were hosting us, our spirits rose again. We enjoyed each other’s company on the bus as we looked at the rolling fields and small towns we passed. David Lapp spent his time on the phone with organizers of the next workshops, and Ciaran created Twitter and Facebook posts with photographs from the events. Nick, our bus driver, teased us about our liberal idealism, regaling us with stories of politicians he’d driven across the country, including John Boehner (whom he adores) and Newt Gingrich. A sense of teamwork was developing, and a thrill of being on a real bus tour across the country, probably the closest I’ll ever get to the feeling of being a musician on the road.

In Nashville, we got to try a one-day version of the Red/Blue workshop, which begins in the morning with a stereotypes exercise, created years ago by family therapist Dick Chasin, that involves each side meeting separately to generate the top four common but false stereotypes of their own side. Then they come up with what they believe about themselves instead, while asking if there’s any nugget of truth in the stereotypes before presenting it all to the other side.

We did this exercise several times during the tour, and here’s what most often came out. Reds see Blues holding these stereotypes of them: racist, antiwoman, xenophobic, uncaring, Bible thumpers. Blues think Reds see them as: baby killers, arrogant, big-government lovers, unpatriotic, “snowflakes.” This exercise gets all the worst stuff out on the table right off the bat, giving people the opportunity to say, “This is what others think of us, and here’s how we really see ourselves.” And when people own up to the possible kernels of truth about the stereotypes (not all groups do this well), it’s powerful.

Another big advantage of the day-long workshop is that people have lunch together, and I could tell from the Nashville participants’ laughter that they were loosening up with each another as they ate their sandwiches and crunched on chips. In the afternoon, the fishbowl exercise went far more smoothly than in Dayton, leading us nicely into the final exercises of the day: generating questions for the other group and sharing in Red/Blue pairs what action steps they were going to take based on their experience of the workshop. Collectively, we felt a sense of real momentum. A Christian and a Muslim said they were going to visit each other’s faith community, and most people signed up to work on a document describing their experience of the day in ways that might benefit the broader community.

Given the level of enthusiasm we witnessed, the Better Angels team was excited, even as we reminded ourselves that this was just one group, with a number of anti-Trump Reds, and that we may be seeing the result of a strong self-selection effect among the kind of people coming to these events. Because my wife and I needed to go home from the tour for five days, I spent the rest of the evening preparing my colleagues to be lead facilitators.

Revising Our Approach

When Leah and I rejoined the tour, we learned that the three-hour workshops were running into trouble. Some Blues were so pissed at Trump that the Reds never recovered from their venting, and some Reds were so turned off to liberals that they were hard for less-experienced facilitators to contain. This again reminded me of couples therapy: if there’s too much uncontained reactivity early on, you’re lucky if you can get partners back to ground zero by the end of a session. So you have to manage sessions in a way that limits emotional dysregulation and attendant hostile/defensive behavior.

So we decided to revamp the three-hour workshop to start with the stereotypes exercise (something that gets negativity out in a constructive way), followed by a fishbowl exercise that focused on two questions: why do you think the values and policies of your side are good for the country, and what are your reservations or concerns about your own side? We now realized that the Trump-saturated questions we’d been asking had come right out of the December workshop in Ohio, when focusing on why people had voted for Trump or Hillary made more sense.

By the time we arrived in Ithaca, New York, we were tired and looking forward to freshening up, but there was no running water in the Airbnb we’d rented. Things got worse in the morning when we discovered that the site for the all-day workshop was a daycare room with tiny tables and chairs. Fortunately, we were able to raise the table legs. Still lacking enough adult chairs, we put in an emergency call for the local coordinator to bring or rent chairs. Later, the septic tank for the one toilet got overwhelmed, rendering it unusable, and the repair person treated us to loud pumping sounds at the end of the workshop.

I tried not to see a metaphor in this—which was good because the workshop group was exceptionally articulate and well-informed. They got into the spirit of the day with the stereotypes exercise, and by lunchtime were fully on board. In fact, for the first time, I started to really take in the Red perspective about how government bureaucracies gravitate toward overregulation. Although I’m still a liberal, I found myself appreciating the value of the limited-government perspective they articulated; in another era, Thomas Jefferson was saying the same thing. I could suspend, at least temporarily, my counterarguments (say, about the inability or unwillingness of some states to address important health and social policy issues), and absorb what the workshops were about: listening to how others describe themselves, and seeing if there’s common ground. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t expected to be affected in the same way: my identity as a citizen was shifting away from polarization.

I was particularly touched when a local party official added this nugget during the stereotypes discussion: “We Republicans aren’t that good at looking at history and our part in problems like race and gender. We tend to stick with the point that things are better today.” Then two young Republican women, though holding back among outspoken men in their group, did a nice job of agreeing with their fellow Reds that Republicans are the party of opportunity—in that they want to guarantee opportunity, not outcomes—but that opportunity isn’t always equal for women and minorities. It was similarly effective when the Blues began to challenge each other on their party’s rigid and often elitist sense of what’s right for all of America.

I realized that the major movement in these workshops came when each side showed humility and vulnerability. As in couples therapy, breakthroughs happen when each partner owns a piece of the problem, rather than assuming the high ground from which to point out the other’s flaws. That’s why in the Better Angels workshops we always ask paired questions: how does your side make America better, and what are your concerns about your side? Almost always, the other group softens, rather than pounces.

A personal highlight for me happened over a meal at the end of this workshop. A liberal man invited me, now that the day was over, to say whether I’m a Red or Blue, since he hadn’t been able to tell. A woman sitting next to him said she also couldn’t tell. Seeing my job as advocating for both sides to bring out their best selves, as I do as a couples therapist, I was thrilled to hear this. If I’m evenhanded in facilitating workshops, my politics shouldn’t be obvious. Although I did tell them I’m a Blue, I took the uncertainly of these two people as a sign I was doing my job.

The Lawn Signs

With our new workshop design in place, we had several productive workshops after Ithaca, including one in Virginia, where a conservative Christian woman and a gender-transitioning young man served as exemplars for a productive dialogue around divergent views. But fatigue was setting in for our crew, as we took to staying up late to process what we were experiencing. Nonetheless, we had one workshop to go, in suburban Philadelphia.

The backdrop for the Philly workshop was a community controversy over liberals putting up lawn signs after the inauguration that read “Hate Has No Home Here”—which rankled conservatives as an accusation that they were haters. We didn’t plan to address this issue directly but to let people bring it up in the stereotypes and fishbowl exercises. As people poured in, I reminded the local organizer that we weren’t prepared to do a large-scale community dialogue on the controversy, which would’ve required advanced interviewing and a carefully designed specific process, not our generic three-hour workshop.

It turned out that we had 30 observers (most of the them worked up about the lawn signs) in addition to 18 participants, and indeed the issue came up in the opening statements from some Red participants about why they were attending. I told the group that we knew about the sign issue and hoped the workshop would help to move that issue along indirectly. The Reds looked glum, and their mood didn’t improve even after the Blues commented that they could see how the lawn signs were feeding the stereotypes of their group being judgmental and self-righteous. I hoped that would be enough.

But during the break, the head of the local county commissioners pleaded with me to help them with the sign conflict more directly. I told him I didn’t see a way to do it constructively in the time we had left (about 75 minutes). To my surprise, however, David Blankenhorn interjected to say he felt strongly we should do it. “But I don’t know how,” I told him, as five Reds, including the head of the local Republican Party, cornered me and urged me to try.

I relented but emphasized that I wouldn’t address it in a way that made Republicans the victims and Democrats the perpetrators. “Why not?” one of them retorted. “That’s how it is.” I replied it would be destructive to frame it this way. “If you want me to address this issue,” I added, “then I’m going to do it in a way in which everyone learns.” I had two minutes to decide what to do, aware of the volatility of the issue and the size of the crowd—a total of 48 community members.

I decided to do a fishbowl exercise with Reds in the middle first. I told the Blues in the outer circle of chairs that their job was to learn how the other side experienced the signs, and I reminded the 30 observers on the perimeter that they were welcome to observe but not participate verbally or nonverbally. Then I asked the Reds to talk about the signs and the larger context as they experienced it. They did it well, with emotional stories of their kids being bullied for having Trump-voting parents, their Trump lawn signs being stolen and defaced, and neighbors shunning them. The large number of “Hate Has No Home Here” lawn signs felt like fingers pointing at them every time they walked or drove through their neighborhood.

I just listened as they each talked in turn, feeling their sense of embattlement and their worries for their children. I only had to intervene once, when a man got agitated and said it was completely clear that the signs were an attack on Republicans in the neighborhood and that whoever started this—she was in the room, the meeting organizer—should be run out of town.

I sat forward in my chair and spoke calmly and firmly: “I’d like you to dial it down, Doug. That’s inflammatory language that’s not going to help this situation.” He calmed down immediately and mumbled something about just wanting the community to be unified, which I affirmed. Whew! This reminded me of moments in couples therapy where someone becomes emotionally dysregulated and then abusive. The therapist’s challenge is to be firm, but without showing stress or anger or fear, so that the person can regain self-regulation. At least in therapy, we have a prior relationship with the person melting down, and we don’t have dozens of observers.

The Blues in turn emphasized that their intention with the signs was to make a values statement in the aftermath of the Trump election, when there was so much hate speech and behavior in the country, some of it local. Several of them added that they now realized how the signs were taken by Republicans, and felt sad to hear the stories. One woman said she’d take her sign down—whereupon some of the Red observers sitting behind me burst into loud applause. It was a critical moment—calling on my inner Sister Zita from fifth grade Catholic school, I stood up, wheeled around to face the applauders, reprimanded them sternly for breaking the ground rule of the fishbowl, and insisted that there be no more reactions from observers. Looking a bit sheepish, they sat back in the chairs and remained silent. After all, clients as well as community members tend to know when you’re setting firm limits for the common good as opposed to just wanting to be in control.

Back in the Blue fishbowl, two women of color—Asian and African American—talked about the hate they’ve received since the election. I listened intently, and heard gasps around the room at the words that had been hurled at them, like “Go home, chink.” Despite my sympathy for the Reds who felt accused by the lawn signs, what these women had experienced was in another league of toxicity. I was glad at the end of the meeting when a number of participants reached out to them.

As we neared the end of our time, I decided to expand the circle to include all 18 participants and ask what they’d learned from listening. Good things came out about seeing the other side’s experiences and intentions more fully. David Blankenhorn made a pitch for a couple of Republicans and Democrats to come together to continue this conversation and find a way forward, and there were nods around the circle. To finish, I asked everyone for two checkout words. Mine were national and hope, with the former being about how this community was a microcosm of the country, and if the people in this room could benefit from this discussion, there was a lesson for us all.

When it was all over, I felt physically and emotionally depleted. Later that night, over a few drinks, I told the group that my original fantasy was that the final workshop would be like the last leg of the Tour de France, with a ceremonial ride into Paris. It turned out to be the biggest hill on our tour, but we climbed it.

The next morning, our host and the workshop organizer told me over coffee that she was mainly feeling disappointed and angry at the Reds. Like other activist Blues, she was struggling between wanting to beat the snot out of Republicans for voting Trump into office and relating to them as fellow concerned citizens. (And that was before Charlottesville and the neo-Nazi march and violence.) I wondered if we were creating expectations no one could meet in the Age of Trump. When I followed up with her months later, she said the sign controversy was still plaguing the community.

Thus, as with therapy, miracles are scarce. Tackling a specific community conflict without weeks of preparation may have been a mistake, but I felt it was worth trying. A few weeks later, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a Blue woman’s op ed, referring to her experience. “With the possibility of directly responding removed, I found my ability to listen greatly improved,” she wrote. “I heard my Republican neighbors talk about how their Trump signs had been stolen or defaced, how their kids were bullied for being Trump supporters, how neighbors stopped speaking with them after the election. Their pain was clear. It was a struggle at times to just sit and listen, but it was also an odd relief to know that it was the only option. My defenses were lowered, and I could focus and genuinely hear all of what my neighbors and community members were saying.”

Although we didn’t heal America or any part thereof, our One America Bus Tour made me bilingual for the first time in my life: I can now speak both Red and Blue. I remain appalled by Donald Trump in every possible way, but I’m no longer appalled by everyone who voted for him or who didn’t support him but remain loyal Republicans. As a therapist, I’m trained to understand people locked in conflict, but the challenge in the public arena is that I’m part of the conflict. I do have a dog in this fight, and I’m scared for the future of our democracy because of Trump and Trumpism. But the experience of moving so far outside my personal comfort zone and meeting so many people with a different view of the world left me more hopeful that my fellow citizens don’t really want a civic divorce and, if offered the right container for conversation, will choose to access the better angels of their nature.


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PHOTO © Justin Sullivan

William Doherty

William Doherty, PhD, is professor of family social science and director of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project at the University of Minnesota. He’s the author of the forthcoming book, The Ethical Lives of Clients: Transcending Self-Interest in Psychotherapy