As Donald Trump prepares to take the oath of office, the prospect of his presidency inspires the hopes of millions of Americans, the doubts and fears of millions of others. In effect, Trump will inherit leadership of many Americas, each sharing pride in country but conflicted in expectations of where we are headed and how the next president should govern. Those views are rooted in personal experiences as well as politics.
In a blue-collar town in Pennsylvania, a former labor union chief who voted for Trump hopes creating jobs will be the new president’s top priority.
In Southern California, a naturalized immigrant and his daughter, who grew up in the U.S., disagree about whether Trump will be a president who lifts people up.
In Nebraska, a couple keep their hopes and uncertainties in check to avoid antagonizing friends on both sides of the political divide.
To glimpse the country Trump will lead as the 45th president, Associated Press reporters and photographers traveled to three corners of the U.S., each unique in its own right.
Their “Postcards from Trump’s America” offer a window into what people are thinking at this pivotal point in the nation’s history.
Nebraska county divided down the middle
LINCOLN, Neb. — A block from Nebraska’s Capitol, with its unique one-chamber, nonpartisan Legislature, is the lobbying office of Bill Mueller and Kim Robak, who embody the make-it-work spirit of this city: They’re husband and wife, Republican and Democrat.
And though neither was a Donald Trump booster, they are trying to remain positive about his presidency and even hope it might make hyperpartisan Washington, D.C., a bit more like Lincoln.
“Wouldn’t it be cool if it could actually work?” says Robak, with a trace of the peppy small-town girl she once was before rising through the political ranks to serve as her state’s lieutenant governor. “I’m not holding my breath, but if we could actually break the gridlock? That’s what the voters want.”
“It’s not starting off in that direction,” says her less-optimistic-sounding husband, as Republicans in Congress gear up to repeal the Affordable Care Act. “You should have listened to MSNBC this morning. It’s white and black, good and bad, God and the devil — and if you’re in the other party, you’re the devil.”
Lancaster County, home to Lincoln as well as the politically diverse Mueller-Robak family, is among the most evenly split on political lines of any major county in the nation. Hillary Clinton won here by only 310 votes out of 132,569 cast.
And yet, in the polarized America that Donald Trump takes the helm of, this place has somehow risen above the divisiveness, or at least learned how to live peacefully in opposition. Democrats and Republicans reside amiably side-by-side in farmhouses on gravel roads, old brick buildings converted to condos in the city center, or subdivisions of prairie-style houses in between.
They speak cautiously about their expectations for the Trump administration. Maybe it’s their low-key Midwestern attitude, or that people are simply exhausted after the grueling campaign of 2016.
“A lot of the quiet is because no one is exactly sure what’s going to happen,” says Ari Kohen, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, who contrasts the ideological diversity of his students with the blanket liberalism of those he taught on the East Coast. “People keep asking me what’s going to happen, and I keep telling them no one knows.”
That uncertainty crosses party lines.
“We’ll find out pretty soon if it’s going to work or not,” says Eddie Kramer, 29, before tucking into eggs and hash browns with his wife, Abby, at a firehouse-themed cafe in town.
If it works, the Kramers, who both work for insurance companies and voted for Trump, hope their health insurance bills shrink. The monthly premiums for them and their two children increased about $50 last year, and they had to pay $80 for required medications after their 7-year-old’s tonsils were removed.
Still, they’ve tried to keep the Trump talk down since Election Day.
“We have a lot of friends on both sides,” Abby Kramer says. “We try to keep our opinions to ourselves because we don’t want to offend anyone.”
With its population of 277,000, Lincoln is a big city for Austin Wendt, a computer science major at the university. He’s from the agricultural town of Columbus, Nebraska, 78 miles to the north. “It would be an understatement to say I was raised Republican,” he says.
On Election Day, Wendt watched the returns with friends, some Trump supporters, some Clinton supporters. He expected to have a nice drink while watching his candidate, Trump, lose. Instead, his Clinton friends melted down.
Wendt wants Trump to follow through on his promise to stop illegal immigration to help Americans reclaim jobs he believes have been taken by immigrants. “We have these laws in place and they’re not being carried out,” he says.
But he’s conflicted: One of his closest friends at the university is a student from Brazil who’s gotten a job with Microsoft but fears losing his work visa if Trump follows through on his campaign promises. Wendt himself has a programming job lined up after he graduates this spring.
Across town, Suliman Bandas teaches English as a Second Language, his students immigrants and refugees from Iraq who say they feel safe in a town that, so far, tolerates difference. But Bandas, a refugee from the Sudan, worries about America’s reputation as “a country of refuge, a country of protection” under Trump.
“It should not be up to a president to change a country’s value and principle,” he says.
Vincent Powers is also looking ahead warily. The outgoing chairman of the Nebraska Democratic Party, he thinks “it’s going to be worse than anyone imagines.” He’s not worried for himself; he’s a successful plaintiff’s attorney and expects to benefit from Trump’s proposed tax cuts tilted toward the wealthy. He is concerned for immigrants and those who depend on the Affordable Care Act or government aid.
But Powers finds solace in his hometown and his friends and neighbors, many of whom voted for Trump. “The thing about Nebraska is, we don’t have mountains, we don’t have any oceans. All we have is people,” he says.
“We have a great quality of life, and I’m not going to let politics sap the way I approach life.”
2 views: Trump ‘scary,’ or ‘give the guy a year’
PLYMOUTH, Pa. — Towns along the Susquehanna River are filled with people whose grandparents worked in coal mines, garment factories and small manufacturing companies. But those jobs are long gone in Luzerne County, and Wilkes-Barre, the county seat, has seen its population drop by more than half. Dozens of public officials have fallen to scandal.
All of which helps explain how Ed Harry — who, at 70, has spent most of his working life as a union president and a Democratic party activist, running phone banks for candidates and even serving as a delegate for Bill Clinton in 1992 — became an unlikely apostle for Donald Trump.
When the billionaire businessman and reality TV star entered the presidential race, “I laughed, like everyone else,” Harry says. Then he took note of Trump’s opposition. “The R’s said they hated him, the D’s wanted no part of him, the lobbyists didn’t like him. China came out against him, India came out against him, Mexico came out against him.
“And I said, ‘I think I might have a candidate.’”
Harry, who had grown disillusioned with what he saw as Washington’s broken and corrupt politics, switched parties, publicly endorsed Trump and resigned his labor post. He expects the new president to renegotiate trade deals and reduce corporate taxes, which he believes will help lure back manufacturing jobs. And he is not alone.
In Luzerne County, Trump crushed Hillary Clinton by 20 points — in no small part because lifelong Democrats like Harry believed she was the candidate of Wall Street, ignoring the working class while taking its vote for granted. As Trump enters office, these largely older, white, blue-collar voters want him to keep his promise on manufacturing jobs, rebuild deteriorating roads and bridges, crack down on illegal immigration and “drain the swamp.”
“There’s no hope the way things were,” Harry explains. “It had to be something different.”
And listen to Tom Pikas, who is also counting on Trump to bring change. The 61-year-old Wilkes-Barre native remembers a time when you could easily get a decent-paying job right out of high school. He worked in a shoe factory, then for an electrical contractor, and downtown Wilkes-Barre pulsed with life. “This used to be a nice town,” Pikas says.
More recently, Pikas has toiled in a series of temp jobs, the last one paying $8 an hour. Now looking for work, he found himself at the unemployment office this month, enrolling in a jobs program for seniors. The waiting area was packed.
He has faith that Trump will find a way to turn things around, but also counsels patience. “Some people expect he’s gonna do miracles the first month,” Pikas says. “No. No. You gotta at least give the guy a year.”
At a bar up the street, William Chase, 55, a construction foreman recovering from surgeries to his back and both knees, says most of the people in his circle are as hopeful about the future as he is.
“I want to be proud of my area again,” he says.
But just 90 minutes or so down the road, one hears a very different set of voices.
In the wealthy Philadelphia suburbs, where million-dollar homes are advertised for sale and luxury cars fill the parking lot of an organic grocery, the pocketbook issues raised in Luzerne County take a back seat for many.
As Inauguration Day draws near, many people in Chester County — Pennsylvania’s richest, where Clinton won by roughly 9 points despite a Republican majority — remain unsettled by Trump’s volatility, demeanor and offensive comments about women, immigrants and others.
“He kind of frightens me,” says business owner Keely Comstock Shaw, 34, who voted a straight Republican ticket, except for the top office.
“I see him as really breaking all the rules, throwing them all aside, and that’s what is scary to me,” adds Kate Young, a 43-year-old Democrat and stay-at-home mom who lives in West Chester, a bustling college town.
The 2016 election compelled Young to become politically active for the first time. Upset her candidate won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College vote, she joined an organization that’s fighting to end gerrymandered legislative districts.
Young predicts Trump will ignore global warming, roll back environmental protections and create a hostile environment for women and minorities. She also doubts he will be able to produce the manufacturing jobs that voters in places like Luzerne County say they want, citing the rise of automation.
“If that’s what people were hoping to get,” she says, “I just think the world economy is moving in a different direction.”
In Reagan country, change brings complex outlook
WESTMINSTER, Calif. — The week after Donald Trump was elected president, Dr. Mai-Phuong Nguyen and two dozen other Vietnamese-Americans active in liberal causes gathered in a circle of folding chairs, consoling one another about an America almost beyond comprehension.
Now, days before Trump takes the oath of office, Nguyen sits in a restaurant booth in Orange County’s neon-lit Little Saigon and studies perhaps the most confounding face of the divide exposed by the election — her father’s.
“All I know is, if a man makes $100 million he is really something,” Son Van Nguyen, 76, says of Trump.
Here in a county transformed by waves of newcomers, the elder Nguyen — a government translator airlifted from South Vietnam with his family in 1975 as Communist forces pressed in on the capital — built a new life as a record-setting life insurance salesman, watching people strive and struggle.
“And I know a lot of people out there sit there and wait for welfare,” he says, explaining his hopes that Trump will rein in such spending and create jobs.
“But he is trying to prevent other people from coming in and enjoying some of the same things you came here for, Dad,” says his daughter, a 47-year-old physician who pushed for health care reform and fears Trump will take away the medical coverage it extended to millions of Americans. “If he does wrong, are you going to support him?”
Their disagreement is a reminder that for Orange County, just as for the rest of the country, there has never been a moment quite like this one.
When Hillary Clinton won this county of 3.2 million in November, it marked the first time the county had backed a Democrat for president since Franklin Roosevelt. Best known for Disneyland, and long a hotbed of conservatism in a blue state, it was the largest county in the country to flip.
The shift was expected eventually. Orange County’s citrus groves turned to tract housing decades back to welcome a mostly white influx from Los Angeles and Midwestern states. Today, though, Santa Ana’s quinceanera shops reflect a county that is a third Latino. One in 5 Orange Countians is Asian.
The hopes and anxieties stirred by Trump’s inauguration spotlight even more complicated tensions.
Most Vietnamese traditionally voted for Republicans, viewed as opponents of communism. But many of their adult children, also refugees, see Trump as rejecting American ideals and people like them.
Local Republicans, who once embraced the John Birch Society and recently erected a statue of Ronald Reagan in the park where he launched two White House bids, long espoused a muscular conservatism. Most voted for Trump, but not without soul-searching.
At Jimmy Camp’s house, a “No Trump” sign made by Camp’s son still hangs in the window. Heading out to feed his family’s goat and potbellied pig, Camp recalls his start in Republican politics three decades ago — knocking on doors for candidates to earn cash.
Camp played guitar in a rock band then and embraced platforms calling for government to stay out of people’s lives. He’d always loved the outdoors in a county that stretches from the ocean to the Santa Ana Mountains. After meeting county native Richard Nixon, he read up on the disgraced president’s often forgotten chartering of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Camp became one of the state’s busiest Republican political consultants. Then, last summer he emailed fellow Republicans, renouncing his party membership because of his disgust with Trump.
“If you go through and look at everything Jesus said in the Bible, this guy is opposite of it,” says Camp, 52, a pastor’s son.
Camp, who has friends from Iran and Egypt, cringes at a president who would castigate Muslims as supposedly tied to terrorists, though he doubts Trump will fulfill his most extreme rhetoric.
“I hope he doesn’t drive us off a cliff,” Camp says. “I hope that we survive the next four years. I think we will.”
Others voice confidence in Trump.
Gloria Pruyne says her family had reservations about Trump’s morality early on. But the conservative activist ended up knocking on more than 500 doors to get out the vote. Now Pruyne, 78, says she wants Trump to install a conservative Supreme Court justice, revoke an Affordable Care Act she blames for a $500 increase in her family’s monthly insurance bill, and back Israel.
“We’re looking forward to a radical change with this president,” she says.
With the inauguration approaching, Ron Brindle has no plans to remove the 5-foot-square portrait of Trump from his oil well fronting a main road in Huntington Beach. Brindle bought this land for his tree nursery business more than 40 years ago. Today, it is surrounded by tract homes, many owned by Asian families.
“Now I don’t have anything against any of them, but what happened to the country?” Brindle says.
The first thing Trump should do, he says, is close the border so Americans no longer have to foot the bill to care for foreigners. But Brindle also hopes Trump will reach out to skeptics.
Steven Mai is ready to listen. Mai, a 42-year-old registered Republican, rejected Trump for criticizing the Muslim parents of a slain American soldier.
But Trump will be his president, Mai says.
Still, if Trump really wants to lead, he should come to places like Orange County, says Mai’s wife, Tammy Tran. Maybe then, the couple say, Trump will understand his responsibility to the many Americas.
“I just hope he’s going to be the president that my parents were thinking,” Mai says. “If he can be a good president, then we all benefit.”