When a triumphant Donald Trump finally took the stage a year ago to claim victory over Hillary Clinton, cheering from the crowd was Jesse Blanco – dressed in a blazer, bow tie and a “Make America Great Again” hat – ready for the president-elect to let loose like he had during so many rallies during the campaign.
But a very different politician showed up than the one who shocked the globe with his politically incorrect and unapologetic campaign.
Trump lavished praise on Hillary Clinton, laid out a centrist agenda focused on infrastructure projects and growing the economy and told fellow world leaders that he would “seek common ground, not hostility, partnership, not conflict.” Above all, he called for unity as he pledged to represent all Americans.
“Now it’s time for America to bind the wounds of division,” Trump said at about 3 a.m. on Nov. 9 in downtown Manhattan. “I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans, and this is so important to me.”
Blanco was surprised by Trump’s tone but liked what he heard.
“It didn’t seem like a stump speech, like the rallies he had been at. He was very composed,” said Blanco, a campaign intern who was then a University of Pennsylvania freshman and attended the party with his younger brother. “The crowd kind of wanted a more prideful speech, but he was very focused.”
The victory speech was a glimpse of a presidency that might have been.
Instead, one year later, Trump finds himself the most unpopular president in modern times amid criticism he has sought to divide more than unite.
He has resumed his attacks on Clinton, barred most of those who criticized him during the campaign from working in his administration and seen rapid turnover in his White House. When he has felt under attack, he has aggressively punched back, going after members of his own party, media outlets, the intelligence community, the widow of a soldier killed in Niger, the cast of a Broadway show and minorities playing professional football who have knelt during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and police abuse.
He has yet to introduce the sweeping infrastructure plan he promised or implement an economic plan, although he is hopeful that Congress will pass some tax cuts before the end of the year. He has repeatedly tried to implement bans on foreigners from several majority Muslim countries, tried to get rid of the Affordable Care Act that many of his supporters depend on for health insurance and commissioned prototypes for a massive wall along parts of the southern border despite a lack of funding.
Blanco wasn’t the only one thinking Trump’s victory speech was a sign he would be different as president than he was as a candidate.
“I remember thinking maybe, just maybe, all of the people who have been saying that he will change were right,” said Trump skeptic Andrew Weinstein who attended a gathering of “never Trumpers” at Lincoln Restaurant in Washington on election night. “Maybe, just maybe he’s going to heed their wise counsel.”
Weinstein – a former Republican staffer on Capitol Hill and now the head of a public relations firm – said Trump should have followed his victory speech by announcing that he was closing his Twitter account, reaching out to Republicans who had opposed him on the campaign trail and working across party lines to launch an ambitious infrastructure plan.
“He could have done all of those things out of the gate,” he said. “If he could have taken some simple steps like that . . . he could have changed the course of his presidency.”
Instead, Weinstein said, Trump has validated many of the concerns that he and others raised during the campaign about the former real estate developer’s fitness for office. He compared the president and his party to the fable of the scorpion and the turtle who are crossing a river together when the scorpion stings the turtle, causing them both to drown.
“That’s his nature,” Weinstein said of Trump, “he can’t help but sting.”
More than 700 miles west of Manhattan in the small Indiana city of Hammond, Carol Kitchens woke up at 4 a.m. the day after the election to prepare for work in a middle school cafeteria and learned Trump won and quickly searched for his speech online.
“I applauded that he held out an olive branch,” said Kitchens, an independent who voted for Barack Obama twice and then for Trump. “The American people really want that.”
Kitchens – like many people who voted for the president – is disappointed in the Trump presidency so far, but blames Congress for the lack of progress. She said she voted for Trump because she wanted to see a major change in Washington.
“But the Republicans and the Democrats are playing the same games that they always play,” Kitchens said. “I’m really disappointed.”
She cheered the passage of the Affordable Care Act in the memory of her daughter, who was diagnosed with cancer in high school, was kicked off her parents’ health insurance plan when she turned 18 and then couldn’t easily get insurance because she had a preexisting condition. She was surprised when Trump and Republicans followed through on their promise to repeal the health care law without composing a comparable replacement.
“If they really truly thought anything about their constituents, about the people who put them in office, they would fine-tune it, not get rid of it,” she said.
Kitchens said Trump appears to be learning more about the presidency and politics in Washington each day – and that she wishes his opponents and the media would stop nitpicking him. She’s hopeful that Trump can once again hold out that olive branch like he did in his victory speech.
“I am very hopeful for the United States. I am very hopeful for Donald Trump’s presidency,” Kitchens said. “I’m not expecting miracles, but I am expecting changes. Congress needs to get their act together and do something.”
After Trump’s victory party in Manhattan ended, Blanco caught a 6 a.m. train back to Philadelphia so that he could make it to his early morning classes. He was exhausted but energized by the unexpected victory he witnessed.
“It was a historical night,” he said. “It was amazing to be there.”
When he arrived back on campus, he could immediately feel the change in tone. Many morning classes were empty, as students who were disappointed by the election results could not bring themselves to attend. He knew there wasn’t much support for Trump on campus but he was stunned to see campus grind to a halt.
“It was the strangest thing. I had never seen campus so quiet or muted,” said Blanco, now a sophomore who is studying political science. “I wondered: Is it always like this after an election? That atmosphere really lingered for a week, two weeks. Campus was as if a funeral had happened.”
Since the election, Blanco said that it seems like the country has become even more divided, that politics have become even more tribal. Instead of having heated debates, he said that he increasingly finds people not even willing to have a discussion about their differences. As a young Republican, he views his party as having an identity crisis.
While he celebrated the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, new anti-lobbying rules for Trump administration staffers and the healthy economy, he’s frustrated that Republicans can’t come together to pass legislation and that the president often gets “too carried away” on Twitter.
But he’s still hopeful that the president is constantly learning more about the job and can steer his tenure toward the vision he laid out on election night.
“He really has to hold true to his words,” Blanco said, “and work on behalf of all Americans.”