Donald Trump, who dealt a stunning political blow to Hillary Clinton and the established order when he was elected the 45th President of the United States on Tuesday, now faces the challenge of governing a divided American electorate after a notoriously bitter campaign.
On election night, Clinton supporters voiced fear and frustration, overwhelmed and bewildered by their candidate’s unexpected loss. Some said they would avoid listening to news the next day; others predicted it would feel like waking up in an unfamiliar country. But on Wednesday, top Democratic and Republican leaders delivered a common message. They compared an unprecedented presidential election to those that came before and called on Americans across the political spectrum to unite in its wake.
“Now, as we do every four years, we have to work to heal the divisions of a long campaign,” Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan said. “This needs to be a time of redemption, not a time of recrimination. We all need to rededicate ourselves to making America great and making it a more perfect union.”
“Everybody is sad when their side loses an election, but the day after we have to remember that we’re actually all on one team,” President Barack Obama said. “This is an intramural scrimmage. We’re not Democrats first. We’re not Republicans first. We are Americans first. We’re patriots first.”
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a liberal leader who was one of Trump’s most outspoken critics during the campaign, offered to “put aside our differences” and work with him to improve the economy. Trump, in his victory speech, praised Clinton for a hard-fought campaign and asked Americans to “bind the wounds of division”—wounds he had so often opened himself.
Those wounds appeared most painful for Clinton supporters gathered at what was supposed to be her victory party in New York City. Before the results came in, they voiced concern about what a Trump victory would mean.
“I fear it’ll just exacerbate and cause more separation between Americans and the world,” said Wendy Siskin, 41. “I don’t think we’ll be in a safe place. I don’t think we’ll be in a loving place.”
Syed Zaidi, 51, said early in the night that he disagreed with Trump’s approach to immigration and viewed his prospective presidency as “very scary.” Holding a sign that read, “Great leaders unite, they do not divide,” atop Clinton’s “Stronger Together” slogan, Zaidi said he hoped both parties would come together no matter who won the election.
“It’s too much hatred, too much hatred in the country,” he said. “The whole world is looking at us as a democratic country in the world, you know? People come from all over the world for the freedom of democracy here.”
A New York Times/CBS News poll published last week found that a majority of voters thought neither candidate was likely to unify the country after the race. Scattered protests throughout the country on Wednesday—including in Oakland, Calif., Portland, Ore., and Austin, Texas—underscored the enduring divisions.
In previous presidential elections, concession speeches have been key to minimizing hostility, said Scott Farris, author of Almost President: The Men Who Lost the Race but Changed the Nation.
“Most candidates in the past have understood that this is a precarious time, during which what they say carries great weight and great meaning,” Farris said. “Every word needs to be pretty measured.”
In her concession speech on Wednesday, Hillary Clinton offered to work with Trump “on behalf of our country.”
“We must accept this result and then look to the future,” she said. “Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.”
That message resonated with 33-year-old Clinton supporter Nicole Toon, of Brooklyn, the New York City borough where Clinton headquartered her campaign. Toon had watched the election returns from Clinton’s rally in Manhattan, seated on the perimeter of the outdoor block party with her four-year-old daughter, Dakota Rose, asleep on her lap. “I wanted her to experience this,” Toon said around 10 p.m. on Tuesday night. “We both agree that Hillary is the perfect choice.”
By the time Dakota Rose woke up the next morning, her mother’s mood had changed.
“Honestly, I’m distraught. It’s like you lost a family member—like that kind of grieving feeling,” Toon said. “I still can’t believe it. I’m looking at the news, like is this what I’m seeing? President-elect Trump?”
On Wednesday, she brought her daughter—who carried an American flag, a memento from Clinton’s rally—to school. She cried while she watched Clinton’s concession speech and then she internalized her candidate’s message.
“Like Hillary Clinton said, we have to accept it and move on,” Toon said. “We all could be devastated. I’m devastated, but we have to accept it to move on and show it’s not all about one person.”