On election night, Dale Hutchinson-Scroggins didn’t think much of his chosen candidate’s chances.
Rather than head to a bar or a watch party, the 24-year-old human resources worker went to the apartment near Monroe Park that he shares with his husband to ingest the returns and a few beers alone, insulating himself against what he thought was to be certain defeat for businessman and reality television celebrity Donald Trump.
“I was scared to be at any watch parties,” he said. “I didn’t want to be around people that were depressed.”
Instead, as more states and electoral votes fell into Trump’s column and the suds went down, his giddiness grew.
“I was on my phone, and I was geeking out at the television,” said the GOP canvasser who grew up in Charles City County. “I was sitting on the floor. I was happy. ... I am pretty excited to be a young adult with a conservative government.”
As Hutchinson-Scroggins’ hopes were soaring, in the West End, Patricia Maehr was stunned into sleeplessness, disbelief washing over her in waves.
“I found myself waking up at 2 a.m. and watching the news over and over again. It was pretty devastating. It was not what I expected,” said Maehr, a 62-year-old Democrat who nevertheless once cast a ballot for Ronald Reagan.
“I just couldn’t imagine that we’re going to have Donald Trump as a president and what that would mean. In the kindest word, he’s a knucklehead. He’s just so incompetent. And how do that many people think he would be able to run this country?”
Both Maehr and Hutchinson-Scroggins will be in Washington this week, the latter to celebrate and the former in protest. The inauguration ceremony, which some protest groups say they hope to disrupt, will be followed the next day by the Women’s March, which Maehr will attend along with what organizers expect to be thousands of others seeking to “send a bold message to our new government on their first day in office and to the world that women’s rights are human rights.”
The leader of a group called Bikers for Trump told Fox Business it will be at the inauguration on Friday ready to “form a wall of meat” against any protesters.
The polarization surrounding the inauguration seems a natural third act to a presidential election that defied convention in countless ways and a transition period that has careened from one eyebrow-raising episode to the next, from the U.S. intelligence consensus that Russia meddled in the election to help Trump and the leaked, unverified and salacious “dossier” to battles over Trump’s cabinet picks and criticism over potentially unprecedented conflicts of interest posed by his global business dealings.
“There certainly is no modern inauguration that has been controversial like this,” said Quentin Kidd, a professor of political science at Christopher Newport University. “I know of no president in history that has had the combative kind of relationship that Donald Trump has had with almost everybody since he won the election. ... I think that’s what makes the period leading up to Friday so different and so anxiety-inducing. ... We’re literally in uncharted waters in some ways.”
At the Rise and Shine Diner near the entrance to the Hanover Industrial Air Park, a printed copy of the Pledge of Allegiance adorns the entrance, along with a sign that says “God bless our police officers as they protect us.” Inside the vestibule there is another notice: “This home is politically incorrect: We say Merry Christmas, God Bless America. We salute our flag and give thanks to our troops. If this offends you please leave. God bless America.”
Amid the plates of bacon, eggs, grits and biscuits shuttling out of the busy kitchen, there was no anxiety about what Trump’s presidency portends.
The owners, Minor and Connie Hairfield, run the diner and a fencing business, so there’s no time for a trip to the inauguration. But Minor Hairfield, a devout man who grew up Baptist and originally favored Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the GOP primary, was swayed by Trump’s support by conservative Christians, including Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University in Lynchburg, where Hairfield’s son goes to college.
“We’re getting too far away from our Christian values,” Hairfield said. “I think there’s a lot more people that feel the way we do than people think there are.”
Just a stone’s throw from Interstate 95, people come to the diner from all over the country and many find the signage and the restaurant’s family atmosphere, where cussing is forbidden, “refreshing,” Hairfield said.
“People are so worried about whether they offend anyone. I’m not trying to offend anyone, but I’m not going to offend him first,” he said, pointing skyward. “Any difference of opinion is offensive, racist, sexist.”
He also has earthly, practical concerns. He and his wife have insurance coverage through the exchange set up by the Affordable Care Act, which Trump has vowed to repeal, but the plan costs them $1,162 a month with a $6,500 deductible. Their first insurance carrier left the exchange and the new one told his wife she couldn’t go to her old local primary care doctor. The company offered her another doctor in Blackstone, about 40 miles from Ashland.
“This thing is a fiasco,” he said.
It’s time the country let a businessman “take a whack at this thing,” Hairfield said, adding that Trump’s several bankruptcies don’t diminish his credibility on that score. “When you do the big deals like that, you’re going to have some failures.”
He called Trump a “reset.”
“Career politicians ruin everything. If most of these guys ran a business, they would have been fired,” he said. “All the people’s he’s appointing are successful people. They’re successful for a reason.”
One of Hairfield’s regular customers, roofing contractor Jobe King DeShazo, 65, pulled from his wallet an old 50 billion dollar note from Zimbabwe that was given to him by friends who had done missionary work there.
“That’s what happens when you keep printing money,” he said.
He says he wants to a see a crackdown on companies, particularly in the construction trades, that hire illegal immigrants.
“I could not be happier,” he said of Trump’s election and wishes he could attend the inauguration. “You look at Obama and he’s a professor who’s never run anything. I think the country is showing the inexperience of the Democratic leadership. ... I don’t like Republicans, and I really don’t like Democrats. I think they’ve all sold out the country. I was a Trump supporter from the beginning because I thought we needed a businessman.”
Like others floored by Trump’s win, Chuck Alexander, a 32-year-old education coordinator at VCU Health System who lives in Church Hill, can’t fathom what millions of voters saw in a man he called “vitriolic and repugnant and dangerous and unstable.”
Alexander called the election “one of the most devastating miscalculations I’ve ever been a part of in my adult life.”
“It was very hard to understand, why him?” said Alexander, who will be attending the Women’s March with friends the day after the inauguration. “This isn’t a protest of the outcome of the election. That is over. I’ve moved on.”
Rather, the march is about being a “check on authoritarianism” and reminding Republicans in power that Trump lost the popular vote by about 3 million, Alexander said.
“That’s part of the fear. No one knows what he stands for,” Alexander said. “It’s terrifying what he’s capable of now. If it was any other candidate, I don’t think I would have this inherent fear and nausea about this whole thing. ... If it was Ted Cruz, I wouldn’t have liked that, but I would have accepted it in a much more tacit way. I feel compelled to do something about this.”
Melissa Ansley Brooks also felt spurred to action. The nonprofit fundraiser and native Iowan who has called Richmond home for nine years is one of the organizers of Saturday’s March on Monument. And though the event was meant to be “in solidarity” with the Woman’s March, it also was intended to strike a tone of inclusiveness and positivity and inspire community activism.
“We’re kind of over the labeling and segregation of people based on their beliefs,” said Brooks, 32. There were to be strict limitations on signs and messages, with none of the more vulgar invective about Trump seen at some protests.
“That’s not what we’re going for. We believe and know it to be true that Richmond has a deep history of coming together and making it a better place. I think it’s fair to say that the culture of our country is very divisive. But at this point in time, we’re all moms and we want to focus on the positives here.”
They were hoping for 1,000 attendees, and the crowd appeared to be at least twice that size.
“The election happened and here’s where we are,” she said. “And you can either choose to get on board with doing something good or you can bitch and moan about what’s already happened.”
Scott Presler, a former Republican Party of Virginia regional field director for Virginia Beach, came out to his family, friends and the world after the massacre last summer at a gay nightclub in Orlando by a gunman who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. The man who convinced him it was safe to be a gay Republican? Donald Trump.
“He told us he will protect us from terror,” said Presler, the son of a Navy captain. “I’ve been conservative-leaning, but I never felt I could be conservative and pro-LGBT. I never felt the party was going to stand by me before Trump.”
Presler returned the favor by co-founding Gays for Trump and a relentless social media campaign on the president-elect’s behalf, including a Twitter account which at present includes a photo of him holding a sign that says “I want Sharia law banned” and boasts nearly 51,000 followers.
“I feel like Trump is going to help save our country, and that’s why I fought for him day in and day out,” Presler said. “This was: Is Western civilization going to prosper?”
White nationalists have given Trump their full-throated approval. Although there was a sparsely attended gathering in Washington after the election — described in media reports as about 200 people strong — where Nazi salutes and shouts of “Hail Trump” broke out, Presler says “a minority does not speak for the majority.”
“Trump is the most pro-LGBTQ Republican president-elect in history and Hitler was a gay-hating monster of a man,” he said. “If I had attended an event where people did the Hitler salute, I would have walked out.”
Presler will be at the inauguration, during which he will help host his own Gays for Trump ball, and wants dubious and fearful Trump opponents to keep an open mind.
“My message would just be: Please, if anybody is fearful, talk to a Trump supporter. You will find that we are nice, friendly, loving people,” he said. “We are nice, decent people who want to put the American people first. We love our country.”
Can the chasm that separates Trump’s supporters and his opponents be spanned?
The polarization may not be all Trump’s fault, but as the incoming president, it’s up to him to try to bridge the divides, say Kidd and Kevin Cherry, a political science professor at the University of Richmond who studies the history of political division and faction.
“Donald Trump today continues to pick some of those fights after he won the election,” Cherry said. “It’s hard to change horses in midstream. If that’s what he thinks won him an election and won him the nomination, he’s going to keep doing the same thing. ... It’s hard to govern if you’re consistently picking fights with people you really need to win over to your side.”
And if you’re looking for consolation, take comfort in the fact that this wasn’t the election of 1860, on the brink of the Civil War, Cherry said.
“As far as places in the world, if you had to pick one, this is still a pretty good one to pick. We’re nowhere near what we had in 1860,” he said. “The Civil War is the exception. We have found ways of overcoming these differences.”
Even Maehr hopes there’s silver lining out there.
“One of my younger grandsons said, ‘Don’t worry, they’ll impeach him,’” she said. “I hope it doesn’t come to that. Maybe he’ll surprise us all. I know I’m a dreamer.”