National youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman reads a poem during Joe Biden and Kamala Harris' inauguration (Image: AP/Patrick Semansky)

It’s easy to assume that America is a divided nation. Democrats v Republicans, taxis v pick-up trucks, service v manufacturing workers, or those who live within 20 kilometres of a large body of water v those who do not.

Many feel a healing process is needed to bridge the chasm that seems to separate the two tribes — as embodied by poet Amanda Gorman’s stunning performance at today’s inauguration. But thankfully the country is a lot less riven than that.

Trump ruled by division. He championed neglected Americans from the rust belt, whose manufacturing jobs had been exported for years.

He contrasted them with Washington politicians, obsessed with identity politics, gun control, climate change and micro-aggressions, while barely acknowledging real workaday issues.

Trump said he would Drain the Swamp and Make America Great Again by Putting America First. He would build his wall to keep out drug-importing job-discounting Mexicans. He called out city elites, and their fake news machine, forcing binary them-and-us-ism.

And it worked, not necessarily because voters bought the hyperbole, but certainly as a message of protest. The narrative resonated with worried middle-income voters too. They got Trump, Trump got them.

In a population of 331 million, 74 million Americans voted Republican. Only a tiny, tiny fraction of these attended the haphazard protest at the Capitol two weeks ago.

Within this statistically insignificant subset, actual rioters were a smaller group, and QAnon-esque conspiracists an even smaller one.

Yet they retain the capacity to do great harm if they put their collective mind to it.

If there’s healing to be done, it’s important to understand that the societal rift is probably not as broad as oft characterised. It’s vital not to conflate a Republican vote with support for insurrection. Lots of people voted GOP for all sorts of different reasons, just as they do in every election.

For example, many people would have fretted about regional decay and job loss and voted for the man who acknowledged the problem and promised to act. Some voters would have agreed with Republican values, plans and ideals more than those of the Democrats.

Concerns about gun control and abortion steered the decision of some. Others voted because they had always been rusted-on Republicans, disliked the soft socialism of Democrats, were part of the religious right, saw themselves as pro-freedom and free enterprise, opposed the perceived political correctness of the observer class, or saluted Trump’s actions — like calling out China and building a robust economy before the pandemic — while simultaneously despairing of his boorish behaviour. Voters had motives.

Ultimately the Democrats won. But that means that some of the millions that felt they should not have may need to be persuaded to play nicely together again.

Successful persuasion is built on head nods. It’s easy to get people to accept things framed to align with their beliefs. This is why political parties target soft and swinging voters, not loyalists.

Targeting the great mass of moderate persuadables rather than the tiny cohort of extremist unpersuadables is simple.

The starting point is to look through their eyes and recognise they have a valid viewpoint. Their opinion should be heard and respected. Don’t call them deplorables. Don’t gloat or mock them in their post-electoral trauma. Don’t lecture about what and how they should think. Don’t bang on about issues that interest you, but not them.

Rather, listen to and respect their point of view and then do something tangible to address their concerns.

It will be vital not to allow Trump to be seen as a martyr. A perceived witch-hunt would fuel the fire. Investigations must examine his actions at a glacial pace, surgically and dispassionately, involving credible assumed supporters, letting persuadables slowly discover the former president’s failings that seem so evident to others.

Doing these things successfully will build greater understanding and tolerance, and this, in turn, will placate the less extreme extremists. There will be a rump left, but you get a bit of that.

Most Americans are decent, hard-working, considerate people. If Joe Biden listens to their real concerns and responds respectfully, the wound will heal.

And all that will remain of Mr Trump will be an ugly scar: a wannabe dictator who only managed the first syllable.

Peter Fray

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