The most rancorous presidential election in modern history has left voters in the Democratic stronghold of Southeastern Pennsylvania stunned and the country bitterly divided. But just how divided? We wanted to know what would happen if we got people with different opinions together in the same room just to talk — and listen — to each other. Could there possibly be any common ground? We sought out a few more-or-less-average voters representing a wide swath of our readership, demographically and politically, and asked them to speak frankly about what was important to them as they went to the polls and how they felt in the aftermath. In early December, Kecia Hilliard, 51, manager of an LGBT-friendly senior apartment building in Mount Airy, Michelle Mattus, 41, a Ridley Park insurance broker, and Roger Chu, 27, a Collingswood researcher, agreed to sit down with Philadelphia magazine editor Tom McGrath to test the waters. Their conversation has been edited for space and clarity. — Edited by Brian Howard
PHILADELPHIA MAGAZINE: Thanks for taking part in this. Could you start by telling us whom you voted for and why?
KECIA HILLIARD: I voted for Hillary Clinton. Her views are more similar to mine. I wanted to be part of this historical election and nominate our first female president. I went to the DNC with my daughter — she’s heavily involved in politics in the city, so I’m closely tied to political things. She probably got it from me. I took her to vote when she was a little bumpkin in my arms.
MICHELLE MATTUS: Donald Trump. I’m a Republican through and through. I’ve been involved in leadership for Republican women. My husband was an elected official at the municipal level in my town, and his grandfather was on county council there. I went through a real arc with this election, from the debates through the primaries. I did not vote for Trump in the primaries; I voted for [Ohio governor John] Kasich. But I ended up voting for Trump. As inspiring as being able to vote for the first woman president was — I get that; I liked seeing women who were excited about it — Hillary just wasn’t my candidate. I couldn’t feel I trusted her. I know that can sound funny because I did vote for Donald Trump, but I voted for him because he wasn’t a political insider at all and because he was my party’s candidate, ultimately.
ROGER CHU: I voted for Hillary Clinton. There was a Republican [Wisconsin governor Scott Walker] who said before the election, “If you like the last eight years, then vote for Hillary Clinton.” I liked the last eight years, and I’ve been very happy with Barack Obama as president. Hillary Clinton aligned more closely to my values. And I couldn’t view myself voting for Trump.
PM: It sounds like for Kecia and Roger, the election wasn’t a hard call. Michelle, you wrestled a little bit with this?
MATTUS: There was a time where I thought it was a joke that Trump was even in a debate. I’m a Gen-Xer, and if you remember, in the news we’ve been described as this incredibly cynical and skeptical generation, and that’s how I felt about Hillary. After her first-debate feedback said she didn’t seem happy and she should smile more, she smiled more in the next debate. I feel like her answers are just whatever polls well. And I thought that she and the press felt it was a fait accompli that she would be the president. It’s hard to see what she really is. I’m not saying she’s bad or evil. I think she’s a product of the very highest part of a political machine, and I just lost faith in that.
HILLIARD: I think we all thought Trump was a joke — it seemed like it wasn’t real. There were so many Republican candidates in the debates, and Donald Trump pretty much didn’t say anything. I think Hillary did have some trust issues. I don’t think she was warm and fuzzy enough, but that’s the patriarchy — they want us to be girly and smile, and I’m from that era where, like, “Why does she have to be your idea of this warm and fuzzy woman?”
MATTUS: I almost didn’t like when I saw her getting that way. I don’t care if she’s warm and fuzzy. She had a very professional staff and great advisers, but she didn’t seem genuine. … It was all about crafting a campaign message instead of just simply having one.
PM: Michelle, it sounds like what resonated with Trump for you was that he wasn’t a real politician.
MATTUS: He’s one of the least political candidates I’ve seen. His way of speaking isn’t one that really resonates with me. He just speaks in tweets. But I think that he really is what you see, whatever that may be. I don’t think he’s an “idiot.” I don’t think he’s “pure evil.” I think he has an ego as much as anyone else that you’re going to see get that far in politics. I don’t think he has handlers focusing his message, so that, in a sense, appealed to me.
PM: Roger, was the fact that Hillary was very careful with her message an issue for you?
CHU: No. I think it showed that she was trying to be very careful and thoughtful with the way she ran her campaign and the opinions she put out. The basis of democracy, some people would argue, is that you’re responsive to the will of the people. So for her to be labeled as having no
position — to me, it doesn’t really connect. I can see the appeal of Donald Trump’s free-speaking, because it does get tiresome to talk with someone who never seems to speak from within. But the danger is when you’re dealing with other nations. My parents are from Taiwan, and Trump had a phone call with Taiwan’s president. My family is extremely pro-Taiwanese independence. It’s awesome to see recognition for the country of Taiwan. But it’s an extremely dangerous position for Taiwan to be in. If China feels as if they have had enough and decides to, say, invade Taiwan, the United States can decide whether or not it wants to intercede. It’s not any skin off Trump’s back — it’s skin off the Taiwanese people’s back.
PM: Each candidate had some warts. Let me throw out a couple on each side. Let’s start with Hillary. Two of the bigger ones were the email controversy and questions about the Clinton Foundation.
HILLIARD: The emails weren’t a factor for me at all, and it seemed as though they made a huge deal over them. It was, to me, to take away from bigger issues. The Clinton Foundation? People make money, and if she can get paid for making speeches, that’s fine with me.
MATTUS: Those were probably the two main factors that, combined with my general impression of her handling, made me distrust her as a candidate. The way I interpreted the emails was, you don’t have your own server when you have a government email address to conduct all your business on … unless you feel that you’re different from the rest of the system. And the Clinton Foundation — I think you shouldn’t be able to buy a meeting with elected officials at that level. You’re not supposed to do that in government. It violates our trust.
CHU: The email wasn’t too big of an issue for me. I think the biggest concern with it was the idea that she gets to control the public record, which is unfortunate. I think that wasn’t well thought-out on her part. On the other hand, the U.S. government has been known to be poor when it comes to cybersecurity for ages.
PM: Now: Trump’s controversies, like the comment about Mexicans when he announced his candidacy, proposing the Muslim ban, and the Access Hollywood tape.
HILLIARD: I was offended. Does a president really speak like that? As an African-American woman, I’m like, make America great again — what does that mean? Are we going to go back to Jim Crow? His whole spouting of hate was infuriating to me. And I’m like, “People are actually on board with this?” I took it quite personally. The Access Hollywood tape, quite frankly, I thought, “Yes, he’s a pig. What do you expect?”
MATTUS: When he first said, “I’m going to build a wall between Mexico and the United States,” I was like, “Does he know how long the border is?” It seems like absolutely crazy talk. Like, the Great Wall of China — does he know how long it took to build? I don’t object to the idea of controlling borders — if we’re going to have them, they should be secure. Those weren’t the things that resonated with me, although I think he oversimplifies and overstates things. He uses a lot of hyperbole and, apparently, sarcasm.
PM: Do you factor that in when you’re listening to him?
MATTUS: Do I have a Donald Trump translator in my brain? [laughs] Eventually, yes, I started to be like, “That’s just how he talks.” But there are a lot of people that does resonate with — it’s a simplified message of, “Hey, let’s be safe, let’s make some changes,” and I don’t think they’re understanding it from a place of hate. Certainly not the majority of people. I don’t think that most of the people who support Trump hate everyone else. Those aren’t the people I know.
CHU: I thought a lot of his comments were pretty much immediately disqualifying. I kind of understand why he said those things. When Clinton was running against Bernie Sanders, I read commentary that said Sanders might have one point — about Wall Street corruption — but he has a very strong, simple, clear message. And that was Clinton’s trouble — that she didn’t have that same strong message. Donald Trump, through these hyperboles, through these absurd statements, was able to convey a message to people that resonated in a very simplified way. People that I’ve talked to who did support Trump, they say, “Oh, no. It’s just him talking. It’s just a bunch of verbal bluster.” And to me, there’s dissonance, because we have Hillary Clinton, who’s a candidate people say is untrustworthy and will do anything to become president, and then we have a candidate who’s literally saying anything that he needs to say to shore up his base.
MATTUS: My mother yelled at me the other night when I said this, but I don’t think there’s really much difference between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. I think both candidates really just tried to talk to their base. On the Democratic side, people are like, “Oh well, it’s Hillary Clinton, I’m sure she’s honest. It doesn’t matter, of course she’s honest.” It’s not that different from me or someone on my side saying, “Yeah, well, of course it’s all hyperbole. He couldn’t mean it.” They’ve got a lot in common. They’re both very wealthy. They both know lots of people on Wall Street. Their daughters are friends. It’s not an incredibly diverse pool we were choosing from.
HILLIARD: I agree.
PM: I want to go back to the hate thing. So let’s just say that Trump himself doesn’t really hate people, and let’s even say that the majority of people who voted for him didn’t do so out of hate. Are you concerned that he has empowered people who actually do hate?
HILLIARD: Oh, absolutely. Racism is here, and it’ll never go away, but it seems as though his getting elected kind of gave them a little bit of, “We can do this because this is what he talked about.” That’s what makes me feel uncomfortable. I definitely think that brought the hatemongers out, and that’s dangerous.
MATTUS: Hate and racism are ugly things, and we as a society have agreed that this is bad stuff. This isn’t stuff that you do out in the daylight. But now, because there’s been a lot of messaging about that, maybe some people feel it is somehow more socially condoned. I don’t think there are more racists now. The whole thing with the Confederate flag that was everywhere, that was before the Donald Trump election. So is it really different? Are we looking at it through election eyes? Are there more of them, or are they just louder?
HILLIARD: They’re louder. They’ve always been there; now they’re emboldened. It’s not any more or any less. I think it’s just more acceptable to paint a swastika on something or give the Hitler salute now. It’s ridiculous. And that Confederate flag thing — I was born in Alabama, so I’ve seen it flown, and it has a very negative connotation.
MATTUS: I wasn’t saying that to minimize the reaction to it. I’ve always thought, like, who would do that? Why would you put a Confederate flag on your shirt that could really make someone feel horrible?
PM: Let’s talk about media. You can now find media that will support your point of view no matter what that point of view is. Is that dangerous?
MATTUS: I think it’s really dangerous, and I think that’s what we’re seeing in this election like we’ve never seen before. I think it’s very much because of the way media is changing. I don’t think it’s an evil plot, I think it’s natural, but everyone’s got a voice. I feel that the networks all seem to have an agenda, and if you change the channel, you’ll see the same stories but they change the headline.
HILLIARD: The sound bites, the editing they do to make their point of view — it’s sensational. That’s what creates ratings.
PM: Do you guys have the same reaction to more “conservative” media?
CHU: I’m always concerned about being in my own little echo chamber. Being from Memphis, I have a number of acquaintances there, and I do appreciate seeing their Facebook posts, because I think if not for them, I would be completely inundated with people who think the way I think. I’m concerned that if that happens to me, I will never know the other opinions. And I think I can make a better judgment when I consider what other people think about. That being said, there are some things that are just straight-up crazy in terms of the fake news, on both ends of the spectrum.
PM: The transition is under way. Trump has started to do things. How do you feel about what you’re seeing from him?
HILLIARD: I guess he’s gathering his billionaire friends around to make decisions. Not knowing the background of a lot of them other than what the media is telling us, I think the Bannon person who’s an alt-right conservative sounds pretty scary. But again, that’s the media. It’s a little ironic to see Mitt Romney and those guys, because they bashed Trump. I think he really wants to do a good job, so he’s got to surround himself with people who know what they’re doing, whether they’re political insiders or not. It’ll be interesting how it plays out.
MATTUS: I also think he truly wants to do a good job. I don’t know that he knows how to “Make America Great Again,” but I think he wants to make America great, and I think he wants to do it for America as a whole — this big, huge, diverse America that there is. I like that he was meeting with Mitt Romney and his other opponents. They made some very clear criticisms of Donald Trump, and he met with them anyway, because perhaps they might be the best people for his cabinet, you know? I wouldn’t have voted for him if I thought he would destroy the country and fail miserably in this big experiment.
CHU: I personally hope he does an outstanding job as a president. I don’t think anyone benefits from him failing miserably. I mean, that would be terrible for the country. But maybe my version of him doing well looks different from what other people consider doing well.
PM: I have a two-part question. I want you to look two years down the road. The first part is, “I will be disappointed in Donald Trump if … ”
HILLIARD: I’ll be disappointed in Donald Trump if he carries out the racist remarks he made. Building a wall — which is ridiculous. Getting rid of Muslim-Americans. Yeah, if he carries out all of the things he touted in his campaign, I would be disappointed.
MATTUS: One reason I voted for Trump is because I believe he wants to do anything possible to bring jobs to this country. So two years from now, I’ll be very disappointed if everything does prove to be the status quo, because we put a lot on the line voting for this guy. I want to see the real statistics of employment increase — and not just people who aren’t looking for jobs anymore.
CHU: There are a lot of reasons I could be disappointed. There’s a lot of terrible things he could do, from starting a war to dismantling health care to pushing more xenophobic policies.
PM: Let me flip the question around: “I’ll be happy with Trump if … ”
HILLIARD: If his horrible campaign proves to be rhetoric and he really does try to make America great again. I don’t know if that’s possible. I didn’t know the president had that much power. But if he does keep health care and keeps jobs here instead of them going overseas and does what he says he’s gonna do … Stop making your ties in China. Bring those jobs over here. And be more diplomatic. Being more presidential would be nice.
MATTUS: I’m going to be happy when he does show that he can build alliances with diverse groups of people and world leaders.
CHU: I’ll be happy if he does keep the economy growing. Make sure that the services we provide to our citizens stay there. I’d be happy if a lot of his rhetoric turns out to be just bluster. I do think that sets a dangerous precedent, though, for other elections. I’ll be happy if he actually attempts to do a good job, whatever that means. If he’s not just mailing this in and doing whatever he wants to do. If he’s trying to be thoughtful about the things that he does.
PM: Is the divide as deep as it appears, or do you think there’s more common ground than we might initially see?
HILLIARD: Oh, there’s definitely more common ground. The few minutes that Michelle and I spoke before we got on the record here, we’re like, “Wow, we have so much in common.” You know? The farther away from this election we get, the better we’re going to be.
MATTUS: I don’t know if it’s a cultural divide, like an urban/rural divide, or different values. I’ve never felt more polarized in my life than I have going through this election cycle. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do this roundtable. I didn’t know if I wanted people to know for sure how I voted, just because I don’t want to lose more friends. I don’t want people to hate me just because of politics. My Facebook friends are probably 50/50 liberals and conservatives, and my newsfeed drives me nuts because it’s so extreme, you know?
CHU: I think there is a division. And maybe we’re not as divided as we seem, but I think some of the divisions are very painful. I have some not-white friends who are very disturbed and hurt by this past election, and while I don’t believe they necessarily think that everyone is hateful, I think it’s very hard to have a discussion about ideas when you’re so hurt. I used to teach, and something I noticed is, when you deal with a group of 12-year-olds, you might have a lot of trouble with one of the kids. I mean, you think, “Man, this kid is just giving me hell the entire day.” But never once have I had an individual interaction with one of the kids and been like, “Oh, you’re a terrible person.” Whenever you have an individual interaction, a lot of the bluster, a lot of the generalizations, a lot of the group identifications fall away. That’s always a lot more helpful than when you’re trying to shout at a group.
MATTUS: I think people tend to hang out with other people who agree with them. One of my mentors, Renee Amoore, a prominent Republican, gave this speech to the Delaware County Republican Women’s Commission saying, “Tell people you’re Republican, because they may know you from the schoolyard or the farmers’ market or whatever this unique you is — don’t be quiet about it.” She wasn’t saying proselytize your politics. She was saying let your personality, your uniqueness, show what Republicans are. Don’t let your political tag say who you are. And that resonated with me, because up until that point, I was a very, very quiet Republican. Then I decided that she was right and it’s important to say, “Actually, you don’t hate all Republicans, because we’re friends.”
HILLIARD: It really is meaningless, our political affiliation. This election has brought a lot of pain. This shouldn’t really affect us the way it has.
MATTUS: I would hate for someone to feel that the intent of my vote was to make them scared. I can’t imagine how isolating that would feel — if you believe that everyone who votes for Trump is a racist and hates people like you and then he wins the election and you start feeling like, “Holy shit, half this country? I knew there were people out there who didn’t like me, but half of you don’t?” That would be terrifying. I feel like sometimes the messages — and it could have been either side, it’s not inherently a Clinton thing — that if you say something like, “Our candidate is the only good candidate and the other one is horrible for all these horrible reasons,” you believe it, because it’s your candidate. It was too much. It’s just a terrible result. I would hate for the kids I mentor and coach to look at me and think maybe I don’t like them because I voted for Trump when it’s not true. That’s soul-destroying, to think that. My grandfather was the son of Polish immigrants. They fled Poland so that they wouldn’t starve to death. He fought in World War II against Nazis because they were evil. It’s not fair to call people Nazis because they want a more capitalist society. That’s not exactly equivalent.
PM: Is there anything you want to ask each other?
HILLIARD [to Mattus]: So you’re okay with this guy, huh?
MATTUS: I’m hopeful, and … I’m not okay with everything.
HILLIARD: I can appreciate that he just kind of said whatever came up, but to just offend people, immigrants, the whole Gold Star family thing … anybody can be president, it seems. Does our vote really count? This made me question that for the first time. I’m glad it’s over, and I think roundtables such as this, this dialogue, need to continue for us to heal.
MATTUS: We’ve got to stop trying to just win elections and defeat someone. We have to hear the other side. With a lot of the protests, everyone was either protesting or so offended that someone could dare to be protesting. It’s like, just listen for a second. I’m saying this to Republicans. Just give people a minute. Listen to what they’re saying. You don’t have to agree with it. Go ahead and hear some people being wrong, if that’s what you think they are. But hear them.
HILLIARD: I’m kind of indifferent to the protests. What’s the point now? Maybe it’s because I’m old-school. I don’t know. It’s over. Let’s give him a chance. We’ve got to come together now more than ever. He can’t roll back Roe v. Wade. We can’t let that kind of stuff happen. The gay rights that we have, we can’t let him take that stuff away. I hope he will do a good job, and I don’t think he’s as big of a bully as he claimed to be.
CHU: Let’s hope not.
Published as “Can These People Agree on Anything?” in the January 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.