An election divided them. A year later, they meet face to face.

SLIDESHOW: Bridge is following a group of Michigan residents with different political views throughout 2017 to try to pierce the bubbles they and most of the rest of us live in. Recently, they gathered in the same room for the first time. Here, they’re divided by their 2016 votes - non-Trump on the left, Trump on the right. You can read more about the Michigan Divided project here. (Bridge photo by Rod Sanford)

John Hulett, 73, Ionia County, who voted for Trump. “When you take people off the computer and look them in the eyes and shake their hand, it’s real. That is what changes people. It makes you want to work together.” Read more about Hulett here. (Bridge photo by Rod Sanford)

Wilfredo Diaz, 23, Wyoming, who is an undocumented immigrant. “I wanted to hear everyone’s views and show them I’m not a criminal. I want everyone to know I’m not what the media says.” Read more about Diaz here. (Bridge photo by Rod Sanford)

Jim Leija, 38, Ann Arbor, who voted for Clinton: “The stakes feel higher. It feels more (real) in a way that was more conceptual before. I have friends who say ‘I’m not going home for Thanksgiving.’ Even a year later, a lot of those feelings are still there.” Read more about Leija here. (Bridge photo by Rod Sanford)

Tom Herbon, 57, Troy, who voted for Trump: “Someone said, ‘I wonder if there is going to be fisticuffs?’ People here are nice. But if this were on social media …” Read more about Herbon here. (Bridge photo by Rod Sanford)

Lisa King, 35, East Lansing, who voted for Clinton: “We’re all here because we want to put ourselves out there and learn from each other.” Read more about King here. (Bridge photo by Rod Sanford)

Marlando Wade, 42, Flint, who voted for Clinton: “As long as it’s my beliefs and doesn’t infringe on anyone else, then why should I be crucified for those beliefs? That’s where the clashes come in. One person may think you’re killing a baby because that’s what the Bible says. Another person may say, ‘This is my body.’” (Bridge photo by Rod Sanford)

Don Finelli, 61, East Grand Rapids, who voted for Trump: “I don’t think we’re really as divided as the media portrays. I think we’re going to get through our differences.” (Bridge photo by Rod Sanford)

Aric Knuth, 40, Ann Arbor, who voted for Clinton: “There’s value in drilling down on issues. There’s a gap between liking and respecting each other and drilling down to our differences.” Read more about Knuth here. (Bridge photo by Rod Sanford)

Cynthia Shafer, 59, Harbor Springs, who voted for Trump: “If this election was different, it’s because the pendulum had swung so far both ways, we couldn’t find a middle.” Read more about Shafer here. (Bridge photo by Rod Sanford)

Ben Shomo, 22, Traverse City, who didn’t vote: “We fetishize (our differences). We cling to it. As long as we keep dividing ourselves, we diminish ourselves.” Read more about Shomo here. (Bridge photo by Rod Sanford)

Mariam Charara, 28, Dearborn, who left her presidential ballot blank, couldn’t attend but replied to questions by video: “Whenever people talk about religion or politics, it’s always a touchy subject. I doubt we’ll find common ground. Everyone is a product of their environment.” (Read more and Mariam and Hussein Charara here.) (Photo by Rod Stanford)

The Michigan Divided project participants who gathered recently in Lansing, from left to right: Marlando Wade, Don Finelli, Tom Herbon, Lisa King, Aric Knuth, Cynthia Shafer, Jim Leija, John Hulett, Wilfredo Diaz, Ben Shomo. (Bridge photo by Rod Sanford)

LANSING – First to walk into the meeting room was John Hulett, a conservative Christian and retired salesperson who now spends his energy promoting a children’s book written by his wife. Hulett had driven to Lansing from his rural Ionia County home the previous afternoon, checking into the hotel attached to the conference center so he could soak up all he could of the event.

For almost a year, Hulett had participated in “Michigan Divided,” a Bridge Magazine experiment following 11 individuals and families with different political views. He’d read about the other participants and seen their photos, and he was eager to talk.

“When you take people off the computer and look them in the eyes and shake their hand, it’s real,” Hulett said. “That is what changes people.”

The 2016 presidential election may not have created the divide between Michigan residents, but it exposed deepening fault lines. Michigan Divided is an effort to explore the political, social, media and economic issues that separate us, and the common ground that might serve to bring us together. (You can read about the Michigan Divided participants here.)

Of the 11 individuals and families Bridge has been following, eight came to Lansing on Oct. 28 for a three-hour discussion, with another taking part through pre-recorded messages. They were joined that day by two other residents who are part of a documentary being produced by Bridge and its parent organization, The Center for Michigan, addressing the politics that separate us.

The group of 11 participating in the gathering included four people who voted for Donald Trump for president, four who voted for Hillary Clinton, and three who didn’t vote. They ranged from a 22-year-old food truck vendor to a 73-year-old retiree, from an undocumented immigrant to a University of Michigan English Department lecturer.

They were funny, candid, curious, and eager to talk.

Conservatives John Hulett of Ionia County and Cynthia Shafer of Harbor Springs (and Lady, her dog), chat before the event begins. (Bridge photo by Rod Sanford)

‘You never know what may happen’

After coffee and mini muffins that Saturday morning, the group settled in around a U-shaped table.

“I thought (the meeting) would be a good opportunity to let people know I’m not a wacko, psycho racist,” said Tom Herbon of Troy, prompting a cheer from fellow conservative Cynthia Shafer. “I’m just a normal guy with five kids enjoying two toppings on my pizza every once in awhile.”

The six-foot-six Herbon is a retired IBM engineer who built a 32-square-foot Trump campaign sign to prop in front of his home last year. He gets most of his news from conservative talk radio and from the president’s Tweets, and complains long and loud about how much more he spends on health care now because of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.

“I wanted to see how people will be in real life compared to how they’re depicted in Bridge,” Herbon said “We’re depicted as polar opposites, but we have a lot in common.”

Lisa King wanted to meet Herbon and others who voted for Trump. The 35-year-old self-employed communications specialist is an East Lansing mother of two children under the age of 5 and with another on the way. She writes letters and makes phone calls to politicians, advocating for progressive issues. “In my work, I don’t know a lot of people who voted different from me,” King said, “so I really wanted to hear from the others side, and walk away with some more compassion.”

Jim Leija and Aric Knuth drove in from their home in Ann Arbor. Both work at the University of Michigan, are liberal and gay. They have five degrees between them. In January, Leija said he couldn’t recall the last time he’d had a conversation with someone who didn’t have a college degree. “The experiment of this morning is interesting to me,” Knuth said. “You never know what might happen.”

The meeting was scheduled to begin at 9, and at 9:05, while microphone levels and video cameras were getting a last check, Ben Shomo rushed in. Shomo didn’t vote in the presidential election. He’s worked as a barista and on a food truck in Traverse City at different times. He’s taken college classes, but has not yet completed a degree.

He’d agreed to participate in the year-long project, for which the meeting was the climax. He’d decided not to come, but the previous night, changed his mind.

“I’ve never finished anything in my life,” Shomo told fellow participant Knuth Saturday. “If I didn’t come to this, it would be another thing I never finished.”

Wilfredo Diaz’s reason for attending was personal. Brought to the United States from Guatemala illegally at age 9 (a trip that took three months and during which he was almost kidnaped), Diaz “wanted to know what people would think of me … to see that I’m not a criminal.”

Tom Herbon of Troy saw the meeting as a chance to show that conservatives who voted for Trump weren’t “wacko psycho racist(s).” (Bridge photo by Rod Sanford)

‘Don’t hit anybody’

The group joked easily among themselves as they took part in an exercise splitting into different “Michigan divides” – whether they prefer winter or summer, and Michigan roads or Michigan construction.

The laughter stopped when the group was asked to separate by their vote in the 2016 presidential election. Those who voted for Trump moved to the left, those who didn’t vote for the current president to the right.

Would anyone switch sides today?

No one budged.

Shoulders straightened. Each side was quiet. It was as wide as the divide felt all morning.

“It is kind of a stressful question,” Herbon said. “We’re out of the warm-up phase; we’re into the ‘Don’t hit anybody’ phase.”

‘Do I want to lose friends over this?’

Don Finelli, a 61-year-old commercial real estate developer from East Grand Rapids who was not a part of the year-long project, downplayed the partisan gap.

“We aren’t as divided as the media portrays,” said the Trump supporter, adding by way of example that America was more divided during the Civil War. “I think we’re going to get through our differences.”  

But among the polite discussion and friendly banter, clear divisions emerged. None of the four Trump voters felt America was more polarized now than in the past, but all four Clinton supporters thought the opposite.

“We do disagree,” said a frustrated Leija, the Clinton voter from Ann Arbor. “We know that from reading about each other.”

Leija was one of several liberals who wanted to address hard issues head-on, while some conservatives focused on wanting everyone to learn to get along.

Cynthia Shafer drove to Lansing from Harbor Springs the night before the event to have dinner with a friend. Shafer told the group that her friend had lost contact with a mutual acquaintance because of a disagreement over politics.

“At some point, it’s not that important,” said the 59-year-old Trump voter. “Do I want to lose a friend over this? You can be right, or you can be happy.”

Three conservatives said that politics over the past year had strained or ended friendships. Hulett lost contact with a brother who is as liberal as Hulett is conservative. Hulett thinks the media are too critical of the president, and wants immigrants to assimilate to America and not institute Sharia Law here.

“We never talk anymore,” Hulett said of his brother, beginning to cry. “It really breaks my heart, because we’ve been separated so long.”

The political divide affected others in the room, too, but in different ways.

“I’m wondering if others felt as scared as me on election night,” Mariam Charara, a 28-year-old Muslim mother of two from Dearborn, said in a video recording played to the group Saturday.

She and husband Hussein Charara have been a part of the Michigan Divided project but couldn’t make it to Lansing because of scheduling conflicts.

East Lansing Clinton voter King referenced the fear of the Muslim Charara family and undocumented immigrant Diaz as evidence that the divide today goes beyond traditional policy differences. “It feels dramatically different than anything else in the past,” King said.

“The stakes feel higher,” Leija said. “It feels more (real) in a way that was more conceptual before. I have friends who say ‘I’m not going home for Thanksgiving.’ Even a year later, a lot of those feelings are still there.”

"I was amazed that some of the participants are still scared,” said Troy conservative Herbon. “That alarms me. Hopefully there are some things that the new (Trump) administration has done that are good.”

“If the election was different,” said Shafer, “it’s because the pendulum had swung so far both ways, we couldn’t find a middle.”

Ten Michigan residents with diverse backgrounds and political opinions talked for three hours about what divides them, and what they have in common. (Bridge photo by Rod Sanford)

‘What would people think of me?’

During a break in the session, conservative voter Shafer leaned toward undocumented immigrant Diaz.

“I was so alarmed by what you said,” Shafer began. “You said, ‘What will people think of me?’ What did you mean by that?”

“When Trump started running for president, he was talking about Mexicans being criminals,” Diaz said. “I’m not Mexican, but it was like all Hispanics are rapists. I don’t know what you guys will think of me when you get to know me.”

“You’re thinking you might be deported?” asked Shafer. Diaz nodded.

The 23-year-old has Dream Act status, but Trump signed an executive order phasing out Dream Act protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. Unless Congress restores those protections, Diaz and about 800,000 other Dreamers could be eligible for deportation in March.

Shafer leaned in closer. “You’re right, he (Trump) did say that, but politicians say a lot of shit and they never do any of it. He (Trump) is a bit of a buffoon. But with his background, I don’t believe that is his intent. I would be shocked if that ever happened.

“I can’t speak for all conservatives,” Shafer continued, ‘but, I don’t think anybody thinks, if this is home, that (you) should be deported. I think the struggle we have is that when someone’s a criminal, we don’t follow up” and deport them.

“I’ve been here my whole life,” Diaz said.

“You’re right,” Shafer said. “This is your home.”

Disagreements become divides

During the three-hour session, participants broke into groups to hash out issues they could work together on, and issues where there isn’t common ground.

Generally, there was agreement that liberals and conservatives could work together to improve the environment, but even on an issue important to Michigan residents (almost all the participants listed some version of “water” as the best thing about the state), there was some disagreement. Herbon said the environment is already better than it used to be. “It’s all perception,” he said.

They agreed to disagree about issues touching on religion, such as abortion.

“As long as it’s my beliefs and doesn’t infringe on anyone else, then why should I be crucified for those beliefs?” asked Marlando Wade, a 42-year-old Clinton voter from Flint. “That’s where the clashes come in: One person may think you’re killing a baby because that’s what the Bible says and it’s murder; another person may say, ‘This is my body.’”

“Whenever people talk about religion or politics, it’s a touchy subject,” Mariam Charara said in her recorded message. “I doubt we’ll find common ground. Everyone is a product of their environment.”

The group kept circling back to disagreements, and how they’ve metastasized across the political spectrum.

“I’m interested in how disagreements become divides,” said Hulett, the conservative from Ionia County. “When my wife and I have a disagreement, we say, which is more important, this disagreement or this relationship? I think that’s analogous to some issues in Michigan.”

“Disagreements become divides when communication ends,” answered Knuth of Ann Arbor.

“Maybe we’re not more divided,” said liberal communications specialist King. “But maybe we notice it more.”

Clinton voters Jim Leija, left, of Ann Arbor, and Marlando Wade of Flint get ready for a discussion of the political divide. (Bridge photo by Rod Sanford)

‘I’m not what the media tries to say’

Each participant was asked to write down what they were taking away from the meeting and from the year-long project.

“I’m not what the media tries to say,” Diaz said. He looked around the room and added, “and others aren’t what they say, either.”

“We need more ears and fewer mouths,” said Shomo, the 22-year-old nonvoter from Traverse City.

“There’s value in drilling down on issues,” said Knuth. “There’s a gap between liking and respecting each other and drilling down to our differences.”

“I’ve learned that everybody here is super-personable,” said conservative Herbon. “The problem is unfiltered social media. Someone said I wonder if there is going to be fisticuffs (at the meeting). People here are nice. But if this were on social media..,” he said, pantomiming typing.

Everyone laughed and nodded.

Ann Arbor Clinton voter Leija said he was left wanting more. “I would like this project to have lasted long enough,” he said, “for someone to change their mind in some way.”

“If we could live that long,” Herbon replied.

Softened rhetoric, exchanged emails

Afterward, the participants headed outside for a group photo, then walked across the conference center for lunch.

Herbon wished Diaz luck with his immigration status, and conservative Christian Hulett arranged to meet the young undocumented immigrant soon in Grand Rapids. “I feel there is some way, unknown at this point, I can be of benefit to him,” Hulett said.

Shafer talked about creating an email group to continue the conversation they’d started that morning. Earlier in the week, Shafer had toyed with the idea of not coming because she didn’t think conservatives would be given equal time.

“I’m so glad I came,” she said. “(But) I wonder how today would have gone if Mariam (Charara, the Muslim voter from Dearborn) was here. Would we have talked about how (to) differentiate between radical Muslims and others? I don’t know if I would have been as honest.”

“I’m taking away that respect is important,” said Wade, the Clinton voter from Flint. “We all have different views. How do we respect those without demonizing? Whoever the person is, nobody is all right.”

“I’m going to give Trump a couple years,” Finelli said. “He’s not a very likeable person, but Hillary was worse. He’s got to do something about healthcare and tax reform and keep us out of these ridiculous wars.”

Hulett was the last to leave. “It opened my mind to hear their stories, their fears and hopes,” said the Ionia County conservative, polishing off a piece of carrot cake. “It’s been such a meaningful growth experience for me, confronting some of my historical beliefs and what I was taught as a child. This was a life-changing experience.”

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Robyn Tonkin
Tue, 11/07/2017 - 11:33am

I am 64. I was raised to be ready to join the ranks of the society of the heavily industrialized Downriver. Part of the indoctrination into the factory system were attitudes that would come under the general heading of "minding your own business." Since the workforce, which was mostly male, had to get along in the shop, on the line and in the plant in general, children were taught to not inquire into the lives and habits of those of different nationalities, ethnicities or very importantly, what were called "religions". I was raised main-stream Protestant. I did not number Catholic or evangelical Protestant, or even Baptist children, among my friends, or Jewish kids either, until high school when I finally put my foot down and had good friends who were Jewish. There were no Muslim believing kids around, to my knowledge. My parents made it clear that other main-stream Protestant children were to be my friends. There were absolutely no Black Americans around in my racially segregated suburb. I grew up believing we were "right" about everything, but also that everyone was fully entitled to see things their way, worship their own way, and live their own way, in the privacy of their homes and lives, as our family was doing.

Today, I emphatically do not believe I am right. I am only right for myself. I keep all my opinions to myself, and with others, have an attitude of very rigid politeness and privacy about ideas. I can see other peoples' point of view, believe that they have mentally labored to arrive at their world outlook, as I have, and would defend their right to hold whatever views they choose. I find some things rude, however. One thing I find it very rude that other white people assume I am very conservative and/or hold Christian beliefs, just because I am old and white. Just because I fit a demographic that is often conservative, votes Republican, and believes in the Christian god, I am very irritated by those who assume I personally fit that demographic, and who make comments that I find annoying, unthinking, or downright shocking. When this happens, I don't disagree. I just move along.

Something I believe generally about Americans of any political persuasion today is that by and large, folks want people to "get along". When people talk to me about "getting along", they mean that everybody must come to the point of having homegeneous outlooks, which fit the outlook of the person who is talking to me. "Getting along" no longer means everybody thinks what they want, and are publicly polite and generally quiet on volatile subjects. "Getting along" means zero conflict because everybody has "gotten aboard".

Here's what I feel about family division due to political outlook. If you are not in contact with family member due to political differences, one should wonder if the fact of the matter is "no contact ostensibly due to political differences." My husband has 5 siblings, and I have one, and we have no contact with my sibling, and such limited contact with my husband's that it is in fact, a "no contact" situation. In our generation, we are the lone politically different duo, but you know what? Long before there were political divides, we had profound divides of lifestyle, life goals and views on the afterlife. Differing political views were simply a final straw. If we all had the same political outlook, there would still be precious little we agreed o with our siblings.

Mike Watza
Tue, 11/07/2017 - 11:52am

Great Concept. Well done Bridge!

Tue, 11/07/2017 - 12:37pm

Sad. I guess facts, science, etc. don't matter to many people. That they don't see Trump for the fraud that he is very discouraging. I guess it's like what Trump himself said:

On 23 January 2016, presidential candidate Donald Trump caused controversy when he stated the following during a campaign rally in Iowa:
'I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.'

Tue, 11/07/2017 - 3:56pm

You could substitute Hellary Clinton for Trump in what you just wrote, and it would be the same. She thought she was so entitled that she did not even have to campaign.

Fri, 12/08/2017 - 6:41pm

The one comment from the conservative guy who was 'shocked' that people are still afraid says it all. Conservative white people really are blind to their privilege. He literally has no idea how to even be empathetic to other races of people. It's mind boggling to me that they can't see how awful, bigoted and just plain stupid Trump is. HOW can your brain function and you still support this guy?

Mary Fox
Tue, 11/07/2017 - 5:54pm

I no longer associate with People who voted for Trump if I can help it. My contact is as limited as I can make it. If you can embrace something that evil, you can do my life no good and it is not my job in life to fix those who would embroil themselves with such evil. I attend those Trump fillers harm.

Martha vreeland
Thu, 11/09/2017 - 7:17am

These people must get some of their views from the Bridge, which suggests they get a broader perspective than social media and television news and talk shows. They acknowledged each other, and seemed to listen to a few points, but did they discuss source of information? Make reference to historical careful thinkers? Backgrounds can be different, but broader exposure is sorely absent in portions of our culture.

Richard Zeile
Thu, 11/09/2017 - 10:17am

People are so much more polite in face to face meetings. What they say in the anonymous (or semi-anonymous world) is another thing. Media itself is responsible for trumpeting the most reprehensible rhetoric and disclaiming responsibility for their role in encouraging it by amplifying, and using it selectively to shape the discourse.

John Anthony La...
Sun, 11/12/2017 - 9:07am

There were people who didn't vote for Trump, and didn't vote for Clinton, but *did* vote for President. It might be nice to give a bit of time and respect to the consistent plurality who don't consider themselves either Republicans or Democrats -- see, for example, this historical poll:

And in Michigan, where people don't have to register to vote on a partisan basis, it might even be a majority.