Last fall, Oprah Winfrey spoke with 14 Michigan voters, seven of whom voted for Donald Trump. Winfrey sat down with the voters again to get their thoughts on Trump’s first year in office.
One year into Donald Trump’s presidency, Americans remain divided, often unwilling to listen to what the other side has to say. It’s happening in families, among friends and at the workplace. We witnessed that schism first-hand last fall when we went to Grand Rapids, Michigan, and gathered 14 people – seven who voted for Mr. Trump, seven who did not – for a wide-ranging discussion about politics, policy and the president himself. To mark President Trump’s first year in office we decided to repeat the experiment. We never intended to go back to Grand Rapids. But then we learned that, after disagreeing on virtually everything, our group stayed in close touch. Members from opposite sides of the divide actually became friends, organizing outings and talking every day in a private facebook chat group. All of that made us want to go back.
Rose: Can we please come together and at least give this president a chance?
This was the group when we met them in downtown Grand Rapids six months ago. Fourteen passionately partisan strangers.
Now, they greet each other like old friends. Lauren Taylor, a liberal community organizer, and Tom Nemcek, a staunch libertarian and supporter of President Trump, couldn’t be farther apart politically. But they took the initiative to bring the group together. Tom, a gun rights advocate, took members of the group shooting. It made such an impression on Laura Ansara, she bought her own gun and joined the NRA.
Matt Wiedenhoeft – a Trump supporter who teaches economics and coaches a hockey team at Grand Valley State University – invited them to a Saturday night game.
And nearly the entire group turned out for what they call a team-building workout organized by Jennifer Allard, a lifelong Republican who says she couldn’t bring herself to vote for Donald Trump. Wesley Watson, a community health activist, was there. So was Daniel Skidmore, a conservative and first-time voter. And Maggie Ryan, a lawyer and self-described independent.
Oprah Winfrey: When we first met, there were some of you who had said, you know, you’d never been in conversations, certainly engagement, with members of the opposite side, political side. So has that changed for you now?
Jennifer: Yes. Because now I’m looking at them as people, not as you’re Trump or not Trump. This has been an incredible experience and an education for me.
“I feel like he cares more about me than the last president did.”
Frank Luntz: This never, ever happens.
A few weeks ago, we re-assembled the group— a cross-section of voters selected for us by conservative pollster Frank Luntz.
Frank Luntz: I was surprised that they stayed together because there was every reason, based on the conversation, that they would pull themselves apart.
Oprah Winfrey: Yeah.
Frank Luntz: But what I liked about it is that they came to respect each other, appreciate each other, and live each other’s lives to some degree so that they could empathize. That was a laboratory.
They may know each other a lot better now, but their political views have not changed, especially when it comes to President Trump.
Oprah Winfrey: How many people here voted for him? Just to remind everybody. And how many of you would vote for him again? You would vote for him again?
Laura: Yeah, my 401(k)’s up 35%. My house is up another $31,000, yes.
Daniel: I feel like he cares more about me than the last president did. He cares about issues affecting my day-to-day life more. Like, the tax cuts. That’ll increase my bottom line.
Daniel: Better than nothing.
Oprah Winfrey: So the tax plan, do you feel, are you gonna personally benefit from that?
Daniel: Yes, I will. I calculated I’ll benefit from it.
Oprah Winfrey: Tom, you said the quote that was so memorable the last time, I love him more and more every day. Do you still feel that?
Tom: I do.
Oprah Winfrey: Do you still send a check every time he does something that you approve of?
Tom: When he fulfills a campaign promise, yes I do.
Oprah Winfrey: And Matt, you said something the last time like, he speaks for us or speaks like us.
Matt: He speaks like everybody else does. This guy’s straightforward. I’m bringin’ jobs back. I’m worried about America first. And that’s what I’m gonna do. And guess what? He’s kept every promise he started because he said it.
Tom: What he means is he doesn’t speak like a politician.
Wesley: Over the last few weeks our president have made comments about Haitians and…
Maggie: S*ithole countries, I mean?
Tom: Were you guys in the room? Were you guys in the room? Were you in the room?
Kim: Oh my goodness.
Tom: Okay, because there’s three people who were in that room who said he never said this.
The room was the Oval Office, where in a meeting about immigration, the president reportedly used profanity to describe Haiti, El Salvador and African countries, while praising Norway.
Oprah Winfrey: Who here believes that he made the comment about, quote, “s*ithole countries?”
Oprah Winfrey: You think he made the comment?
Paul: Yeah, I think he made the comment. Yes. I think all presidents have made a comment behind closed doors that wasn’t reported–
Oprah Winfrey: You think all presidents have used the term s*ithole?
Paul: Yes, I do.
“I don’t agree that it is okay to tweet the way that he does, getting in a war with North Korea, ‘My button’s bigger than your button.'”
Tim: Okay, can I just say something? It’s not about the swearing. Okay? I expect every politician to say that. It’s the fact that he demeaned an entire race or a country. And if our president, who we – I respect the office, and I expect and demand better actions than that.
Maggie: My relatives came from Ireland and that was for a long time considered to be a s*ithole country. It’s, obviously Irish people aren’t discriminated against now, but, like, they were for a really long time. And you can’t say something about a country that then applies to all the people coming from it.
Oprah Winfrey: Okay?
Matt: I can see him using the language. But you guys at times you need to look at the man you’re talkin’ about. This man looks at one lens, through one lens and all. It’s an economic lens. He did not look at this as people in those countries, in my opinion.
Jennifer: And that’s unfortunate.
Matt: He did not say the Haitian people or the people of Africa. He said, “Those countries.”
Oprah Winfrey: Come on, Matt. If you’re talking about… Matt, if you’re talking about the country, you’re talking about the people in the country. When he’s talking about Norway or Norwegians, he’s talking about Norwegians.
Matt: Sometimes I think Trump, just met with Norway and that was the first thing he thought of, ’cause, he said some things that are weird.
Oprah Winfrey: Okay, so polls are showing that respect for the United States is eroding around the world. Do you care what the world thinks of the United States?
MULTIPLE PEOPLE: Yes. Yes. Yes.
Matt: How many people believe China’s sittin’ at home right now and they’re like, “Man I wonder if I make this decision will it hurt the U.S? Will the U.S. people like this decision?” Do you think China asks that question? The only country in this world that asks that question is us.
Tim: I work with global students that wanna come to the United States. Well, ever since Trump got elected in 2016, the numbers of incoming global students have gone down. They do not feel safe. That’s a shame.
Laura: What are they afraid of?
Tim: They’re afraid of how they’re being, they’re gonna be treated. I mean look turn on the news.
Laura: I feel safer now than I ever did the last eight years of Obama. Oh my God.
Oprah Winfrey: How do you feel safer? Tell me how you feel safer?
Laura: Well, I feel like I can say Merry Christmas to anyone I want wherever I want.
Jennifer: You could anytime!
Tim: You could! Spare me the fake outrage!
Jennifer: Obama always said Merry Christmas.
Maggie: I don’t think Laura has fake outrage but like, I do think some of the things that you believe, I don’t think really make that much sense. Like, I don’t think Obama’s a Muslim.
Oprah Winfrey: Let her finish telling us why she feels safer.
Laura: Safer means that I’m not gonna have regulations after regulations after regulations that are gonna outdo my budget. I don’t make any money. I’m poor. So when I mean I don’t make, I probably make less than anyone at this table. You know, my heat bills go up. My electricity goes up. I guess it makes me feel economically safer that Trump’s in office.
Oprah Winfrey: There have been some members of Congress, including Republicans, questioning his stability and fitness for office. What do you think of that, and do you believe he has the temperament to be president?
Matt: We see one side of him outside of the office. We don’t see what happens in the office. And what we see coming out of the office is results. So his temperament and his intellect’s gotta be high enough to create results.
Lauren: Mmmm, what– what results?
Matt: What results? The economy, Supreme Court Justice, 90 plus regulations taken off.
Matt: ISIS being defeated.
Jennifer: I believe that he does not have the temperament. I do agree the economy is great, but I don’t agree that it is okay to tweet the way that he does, getting in a war with North Korea, “My button’s bigger than your button.”
Oprah Winfrey: Is that an incident that you think speaks to him not being fit to be president?
Jennifer: Yes. Yes. I think it’s a crazy game, it’s an ego game, and I just want a president who cares more about America than his own ego.
Tom: Trump is a counter puncher. Kim Jong Un came out with his, “Hey, I’ve got the nuclear button.” Trump is a counter puncher. He’s gonna say, “Guess what? Mine’s bigger than yours.” It’s just who he is.
Jennifer: I know but it is like playground antics of “My dad can beat up your dad.”
Oprah Winfrey: This is what’s really interesting to me. What I got from the group the last time and actually has helped me in listening to, you know, all reports in the media is that, you allactually hear things differently. That you are listening in a different way.
Lauren: We do hear things differently. We say things differently. We can hear it in different ways, but that doesn’t mean we’re gonna agree. I’m never going to agree that bullying, kicking a sleeping bear is a good idea. If that bear is gonna wake up and blow your country up if you threaten it, for God’s sake, find a better way.
Kailee: I just don’t know how you can read some of those tweets and see how far apart they are from each other, sometimes only minutes, and think that you’re dealing with someone who’s competent and rational and intelligent. To me, they’re just, they’re, all he does is bully people. That’s literally all he does–
Tom: But that’s because you hate him.
Kailee: I don’t hate him.
Tom: You do hate him.
Kailee: I don’t agree with his beliefs. That doesn’t mean that I hate him.
Tom: You passionately hate him.
Kailee: I’d argue that you hate liberals.
Tom: I do.
Oprah Winfrey: Why do you hate liberals?
Tom: I think that their tactics are divisive, and I think their tactics are destructive to this country.
Lauren: Us? Us liberals who are at the table?
Tom: No, I’m saying that, that–
Oprah Winfrey: Liberals, you’re, you’re generalizing.
Tom: Correct. We had a discussion online about the inheritance tax. And it was it was pretty interesting, that who thinks that all of the money that your parents saved all their lives should go to the government?
Jennifer: Yeah, I, and I agreed with you.
Tom: I know you did. I know, ’cause we saw our parents struggle and go from poverty to save and all the struggles, all the eating at home, not eating out, not going on vacations, not going to the movies, not doing any of those things so that they could save and have a nest egg. And then some people think it’s okay, “I want that money to go to the government because they can spend it better.”
Maggie: Just as a comment. The inheritance tax kicks in, used to kick in at $11 million, and so by the time that you get to that–
Tom: For a couple.
Maggie: OK. $5.5 million. By the time that you get to that amount of money.
Tom: What does the government do to deserve the money that your parents scraped together their whole lives and saved?
Lauren: Whoa, anger.
Tom: What did? What does the government do to deserve that?
Lauren: Do you feel bullied right now?
Maggie: Well, I think that Tom is aggressive in how he talks, but over time, in America, we have become more unequal. And one of the ways to make it so that we become more equal is to make sure that the richest people pay more in taxes when they die.
As heated as their arguments got in person. It was just as bad in their online forum. The issue that nearly broke up the group: the “Me Too” movement.
Jeff: There were some tense moments in that group. Let’s be honest there were some really tense things.
Jeff Vanderwerff is a fourth generation farmer and loyal Republican. We visited him this past fall. With 2,000 acres to oversee, he doesn’t have time to get together with the group, but is active in their facebook thread.
Jeff: You know what sometimes you just need to hit the mute button and walk away for a little while. You know, some days it seems like it’s really productive and we could actually discuss issues, discuss policy, ideas, how they impact us. And some days, it kind of descends into the family living room. But it is what it is.
Tom: I think that’s a reflection of the passion that all of us have.
Voice: Right it’s true.
Tom: We all have passion.
And it gets most heated when they are online. Unlike most Americans who use social media to connect with like-minded people and reinforce their opinions, this group uses it to hear each other out. At least that’s the idea, and one reason Matt Wiedenhoeft named it – somewhat optimistically – “America’s Hope.”
Matt: I named it ’cause the fact that it was still going and everybody was participating. My thought was that if we can legitimately get 14 people to discuss this, why can’t that grow to 28, to 56, and just continue to compile and compile?
Oprah Winfrey: Were there times, I’m addressing this to you, when you thought the group would break up. You wanted to quit. Is there one incident in particular or discussion that stands out?
Matt: Yeah, absolutely there was a time when I was gonna walk away and I thought the group would be done at this point.
Oprah Winfrey: Was this the debate about sexual harassment?
GROUP: Yes. Yes. Yes.
Wesley: I believe it was the comments when Trump made about the female senator. He basically said that she would do anything for endorsement.
GROUP: Yeah, Yes. Yes. Yes.
The spark – as is often the case — was a presidential tweet using language that left just enough room for interpretation.
Oprah Winfrey: The exact tweet was: “Senator Kirsten Gillibrand would come to my office quote ‘begging for campaign contributions not so long ago. And would do anything for them.'” How could that start the kind of debate that would make everyone want to leave the group?
Matt: It’s how, how you hear it and how you interpret it.
Oprah Winfrey: So you interpreted that comment from the president as meaning what?
Matt: She was willing to do anything at all costs to get the endorsement. Not sexually. Never considered that. That never even entered my mind.
Tom: Me either–
Oprah Winfrey: And it didn’t enter your mind?
Jennifer: But I think it’s a male-female thing, though.
Matt: I asked my wife, my mom, my sister. None of them…
Rose: It didn’t enter my mind.
Oprah Winfrey: It didn’t enter your mind?
Rose: It didn’t.
Oprah Winfrey: Did it enter your mind?
Kim: It did not enter my mind.
Oprah Winfrey: It did not. That he was talking about…
Kim: That it was about sex.
Wesley: It entered my mind.
Tim: It did mine too.
Wesley: It entered my mind, ’cause he has a behavior of saying outlandish things like this. So-
Jennifer: And, and that’s the thing, if he had not spoken about women in the past that way, then I would have perceived it just like you did.
Matt: The problem I had wasn’t the comment or the way, the fact that you guys interpreted it differently. It’s the fact that you wanted me to denounce it or I felt the same way.
Jeff: Matt, I’ll, I’ll differ with you slightly, is I read it and I kinda went [chortle] because I, in my mind I knew exactly what he was saying.
Oprah Winfrey: Okay, I want you to clarify. You said…
Jeff: Unfortunately, I thought, “Okay, he’s probably making that in a sexual innuendo-type manner.”
Oprah Winfrey: You felt that?
Jeff: That was how I, that was how I read it. That’s my opinion.
In a tense online argument about that tweet – and the larger issue of sexual harassment— Lauren Taylor repeatedly challenged some of the conservative men to “condemn” the president’s “treatment of women.” It did not happen.
Jeff: It was similar to a later discussion about Roy Moore. And it was damned if you do and damned if you don’t, because you know, did I think the comment was appropriate? No, I didn’t think the comment was appropriate. Did I think the whole Roy Moore situation was appropriate? No, it was completely inappropriate. But the problem was I felt sitting in that group like the gun was pointed at me and it was “You will denounce,” as a Trump supporter “You will throw him under the bus and walk away or you condone everything he does.”
Matt: This is what I’m talkin’ about.
Jeff: And that was what made you say “This is what, what are we doin’ here?”
Oprah Winfrey: So, for those of you who are not Trump supporters, can you hear what Jeff just said? Can you hear that?
GROUP: Yeah. Yes. Yes. Yeah.
Oprah Winfrey: You hear that? What Jeff and Matt have said?
Lauren: Can I respond to that? That was me, who needed to hear from you that you would side with women. I think that, the way it was heard by you was that I wanted you to denounce Trump. I don’t think you should have to denounce a person that you believe in, but I do need to know that men will take sexual assault and abusive language and the treatment of women really seriously. And when the women in the group are saying, “Please will you let us know that you understand this? Please will you stand up with us,” and get no answer, we were ready to walk away too.
Oprah Winfrey: But would you agree with his assessment and his assessment that you were requesting that they either denounce what he had said or—
Lauren: Yeah. I didn’t want you to denounce Trump. I’m so sick of trying to get people to denounce Trump. When women come out and say they’ve been sexually assaulted or Me Too, take us seriously. And when you say that you need proof, tell us what that means. What proof would be good enough for you to actually assure us that you care?
Matt: Then vice versa. You need to tell us what you mean by standing up, because I have a daughter. And if somebody ever touched her, I think you know what the outcome would be. If somebody, if sexually abused my mom, my sister, you, and I knew about it, you know what the outcome would be. I’m always standin’ there. So the assumptions that men don’t stand with women, we don’t know what more we can do. We don’t know. I mean tell us. You, I mean literally. I’m not necessarily gonna go march with ya.
Jennifer: Why not!
Wesley: I think we can lead by our actions.
Oprah Winfrey: I don’t think a lotta women are asking for you to march. They’re just asking to be heard.
Matt: And I’m willing to listen.
Jennifer: I think that for me, it wasn’t so much about Trump, as Lauren said. It’s the bigger issue. I’m a “Me Too” and so that is very hot button for me. Now, had you talked to me like you did right here, I would have said, “Okay, that makes sense.” But again, we’re on a thread that’s moving really, really quick. And things are being said, and people are, like, just looking at it misinterpreting. And that’s what keeps happening. Is we’re misinterpreting each other
Oprah Winfrey: One person who hasn’t been touched by the movement is the president himself. During the campaign, we are all aware that some 20 women accused him of inappropriate sexual behavior. There was the Access Hollywood tape of course. What do you all think about that?
Lauren: Makes me rage.
Wesley: It’s a reflection of the people.
Oprah Winfrey: Maggie?
Maggie: I think probably part of the reason that the Me Too Movement is happening is because we elected somebody who so many women said sexually assaulted him. There was a videotape. To me, it’s just, it’s horrible. I don’t think people who do that should be in power.
Lauren: It’s disgusting.
Jennifer: And it sends a message to everybody else. That’s the problem. It sends this message that it’s okay. And it’s not okay.
Oprah Winfrey: Do you think the president is held to a different standard when it comes to this issue of sexual harassment?
Daniel: The question is, are these accusations credible? There’s been multiple reports of foundations funding lawsuits. Like, they encourage women to take up lawsuits against President Trump.
Oprah Winfrey: Okay, I want to hear what Tom has to say about this.
Tom: I think they should. I think they should bring their case to court if they have evidence that he did this, bring it to court.
Frank Luntz: You are their voice. You will be heard.
Conservative pollster Frank Luntz, who first assembled the group for us, joined us for our second roundtable.
Oprah Winfrey: Is there anything that was said by the group that stood out to you? Any words or phrases that we should be listening for? Anything in particular?
Frank Luntz: The word that stood out was actually denounce. That you have to denounce a politician if they said something. You have to denounce. Sure, people should be held accountable. But denouncement is divisive. And denouncement is the kind of political correctness that so many people reject today.
Oprah Winfrey: Did the conversation that we hear, is it representative of conversations happening across America, because you’re all over…
Frank Luntz: There’s no difference around that table than what you would hear in any place of work, in people’s dining room tables, even in college campuses across the country. It’s the same kind of give and take, the same kind of frustration and anxiety, the difference is that the people in Michigan really want to listen to each other.
Oprah Winfrey: What do you all think you’ve accomplished with this group?
Lauren: I don’t have access to Trump voters outside of this group. In fact, during the election, I pretty much deleted everybody, who believed in the values that Trump espoused. So this group has helped me to understand perspectives that I would not have had access to. And so I’ve been able to take that out to my friends who don’t have access to Trumpers, and they come back and say, “Hey, I really learned a lot.” That’s huge. Because everybody wants to feel understood, but it’s quite a different thing to want to understand. And I think most of us have gotten that out of this.
Jennifer: Yeah, I agree.
Oprah Winfrey: What have you gotten out of it?
Matt: Heartache. (laughter) Dead phone batteries. This is a good group of people. You guys really are. And I understand everybody’s set in their ways. It’s, it’s, it’s not the 80% that we will never change that we’re just never gonna agree on 80%. So 20% we need to figure out a way to come together on.
Jeff: You know, I think if we really get down to it, those of us that are on the right side of the equation, we’re not always, what, we don’t always want to be defined by Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. And the folks on the left, they don’t always want to be necessarily defined by Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi.
Jennifer: Not at all.
Jeff: Because there are positions that those groups hold that aren’t real congruent with what a lot of us think sometime.
Tom: Agreed. One hundred percent.
Lauren: That’s right.
Jeff: And you know, maybe that’s our fault for letting the parties go the way they have and the platforms that have been created. But ultimately it’s gonna be up to us if we want to fix it or not.