By Adam Geller & Matt Sedensky
Days into an administration that promised to govern by upheaval, Donald Trump’s White House has been the target of massive protests, defied reporters who questioned fact-challenged statements and issued a blur of lightning-rod executive actions. The speed and depth of it all have left many Americans apprehensive: Even some who longed for a shake-up are unsettled by a sense of chaos it has unleashed.
“We’re in a very fragile state right now,” said Margaret Johnson of Germantown, Maryland, who runs a small translation business. “We don’t know what’s coming next. The country’s divided. There’s a lot of fear. And I think we’re kind of at that point where things can go any kind of way, and it’s really hard to say which way they’re going to go.”
That uncertainty finds an echo in Pastor Mike Bergman’s church in Adrian, Missouri, 40 miles south of Kansas City, where many congregants count themselves as conservatives and embrace the new administration’s order cutting off funding to international groups that provide abortions. But as church members consider another order — restricting refugees and pausing entry to the U.S. from several Muslim-majority countries — worries about security are tempered by concern about the needs of refugees and whether Trump’s rhetoric is widening the gulf between Americans, Bergman said.
“There is worry about how deep the divide is going to run. There is worry about some of the political rhetoric … about how all that is going to cause the divide in the community to deepen and more bitterness to spring up between the people of our country. I wouldn’t say we’re really optimistic right now,” he said.
Trump is hardly the first president to take office promising wholesale change in the face of substantial skepticism. But Kevin Boyle, a professor of American history at Northwestern University, said the new administration has put itself at the center of an extraordinary political moment.
Boyle hears echoes of the Ronald Reagan era in Trump’s attempts to alter the role of government; this administration’s willingness to play on division rather than serve as a calming influence is reminiscent of Richard Nixon. The mass protests since inauguration day are reminiscent of some of the upheaval of the 1960s. Still, Boyle said, the tensions swirling around Trump’s administration are unique.
“I cannot in my adult life think of a moment that compares to this,” he said. “The level of tension between these two competing visions of the country needs to be resolved in some way or another.”
Trump’s actions have unsettled Suzanne Kawamleh, 24, a graduate student born in Chicago to parents who emigrated from Syria. On Saturday night, Kawamleh said, she joined protesters outside the terminal at O’Hare International Airport to protest the executive order stopping Syrian refugees from entering the country. The next day, she told a crowd gathered at the county courthouse in Bloomington, Indiana, about how her relatives had fled Syria by boat and ended up in a refugee camp before finding refuge in Germany.
Last year, Kawamleh said, she and her father were taken off a flight for questioning when they returned from Lebanon to do relief work in a refugee camp. But that scrutiny, she said, pales with Trump’s executive order, which forced a family friend from Syria who had flown to the U.S. to visit a sick relative to return to the Middle East on Saturday.
“Immediately after the order, everything changed. There wasn’t a chance to plead your case,” she said. “It seems like everything is very in flux. People don’t know what’s going on.”
Over the last week, teacher Dee Burek has led discussions with the seventh- and eighth-graders in her debate and journalism classes about Trump’s first days as president. Students were dismayed when they read about false statements by White House press secretary Sean Spicer and by an interview with Trump adviser Steve Bannon in which he compared himself to Darth Vader.
When one girl compared Trump to Dolores Umbridge — a character from the Harry Potter series who provokes a student revolt after issuing a series of harsh decrees — classmates nodded in agreement, Burek said.
“As a teacher I’m trying to present both sides, as I always have to, and when I deal with the children and I’m reading articles to them (about the Trump administration), their faces are in shock,” said Burek, who teaches in Allentown, New Jersey. “They just keep coming back to, ‘We’re America. How could this happen?’ And I say I just don’t have the answers.”
Many Americans say that Trump’s moves since taking office are exactly what the country needs. Nonetheless, they are taking note of the pushback.
Juan Villamizar, a 52-year-old flooring business owner in West Hartford, Connecticut, said he supports Trump’s executive order restricting refugees and immigration from seven countries as a way to protect Americans from terrorism. But while he believes the country is headed in the right direction, he is disheartened to see a negative response to Trump’s actions.
“I just think that the people of this country, the citizens of this country, need to take a really deep breath and read the Constitution,” he said.
During the presidential campaign, Brenda Horvath strapped a giant “Hillary for Prison” sign to her Logan, West Virginia, front porch, and another that read “Make America Great Again” beside it. She isn’t opposed to Trump’s plans, but thinks the new president could do a better job at presenting his plans with compassion, in a way that doesn’t alienate and offend so many. She believes Trump is off to a rocky start, but believes he deserves more time to get on track.
“You can listen to the wrong people and do the job wrong. I’m hoping and praying that he’ll start listening to the right people,” she said.
Yatziri Tovar, a 24-year-old college student in New York who emigrated from Mexico as a toddler, saw the response to Trump in a different light. Though troubled by the initial days of the new administration, she was encouraged to see the activism it has spurred and the people of many backgrounds who have spoken in protest. She felt a duty to speak, too, addressing a weekend rally that she helped organize as a member of an immigrant advocacy group, Make the Road New York, which drew an estimated 30,000 people.
“It’s a moment that has a lot of confusion, it has some scary times, but at the same time it has become a time of unity,” said Tovar, a part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which President Barack Obama instituted to allow young people brought into the country illegally as children to stay and obtain work permits.
Others hold the protesters, not Trump, responsible for the discord.
John Fusaro, an immigration officer in Dallas who voted for Trump, said the media and protesters should ease up.
“They’re trying to sow seeds of doubt and keep stirring the pot,” he said. “They’re just not giving him a chance.”
Fusaro said the upheaval represents a “new normal” of constant protests. While he’s dubious of the protesters’ message, the presence of a niece in their ranks reminds him of the wide gulf in Americans’ political views.
“She’s standing against Trump, out there yelling and stuff, and I’m honestly thinking you don’t know the whole picture. I sent her a message: Give it time. It’ll sort itself out.”
So far, he said, she hasn’t responded.