Trump yet to show he can unite people

But even the once apathetic are banding together to send the message to new US President Donald Trump that he is accountable to the citizens

During the yearly promotion ceremony at my children's school in Chapel Hill, the principal would end his speech to the graduating pupils by exhorting them to "now, go change the world".

I thought that was so cute. And just the right thing to say to 12-year-olds with their lives ahead of them.

Who knew? One of them could discover the cure for cancer. Or a miraculous way to stop the icebergs from melting.

And it didn't have to be a big thing either. Every one of them could change the world in his own small way through his own community. Small changes, as we know, can have a cascading effect.

I also knew, equally, that his words didn't apply to me. My contribution to changing the world was to produce the children who might one day change the world. I am the mother of a potential world-changer, not one myself.

In fact, who's to say that as a Singaporean, I might not secretly believe the way to effect change is to complain to the right people until the problem is magically solved? A D-I-Y nation we are not.


So the feeling of helplessness that followed the initial discombobulation wrought by the United States presidential election was not unfamiliar.

Unsatisfactory though the electoral college system might be, the people had spoken. There was nothing any of us living in the United States could do to change the fact that the newpresident would be narcissistic, morally ambiguous and politically inexperienced, but won because he was savvy enough to tap a deep vein of despair in the American heartlands.

Donald Trump's supporters see him as an Everyman who will protect them from the inexorable forces of change, like globalisation and rampant immigration, and he has made some steps in that direction, for instance, by saving jobs with Carrier in Indiana and Ford in Michigan.

But for a while, we talked about where we wanted our family to be for the next four years so that we could avoid the storm that was bound to ensue here.

In the end, I figured our best option was just to hunker down and tough it out for a while. We might not be able to avoid the news totally, but we could steel ourselves to it so as to live as normally as possible.

After all, what other choice did we have? Well, apparently, not none. If there is one thing about Americans, it's that rolling over is not much in their psyche. For two months now, I have seen normally apathetic people become galvanised and take up cudgels to get in the face of those in power.

They might have a point. Before Mr Trump even took office, things were already beginning to shred.

For instance, it now looks all but certain that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) - which makes it compulsory for everyone to have insurance coverage, like Singapore's Medishield Life - will be repealed, to be replaced by something that doesn't even exist yet because Republicans have been opposed to the ACA for political reasons. It remains to be seen if Mr Trump wants a wholesale overhaul or to keep parts of it intact.

With his vaunted boast of making America great again seemingly predicated on being a bull in a china shop, he has time and again nominated as public servants, wealthy private-sector individuals with no governing experience and potential conflicts of interest.

Confirmation hearings are being rushed through before the backgrounds of some of these nominees can be thoroughly perused, the Office of Government Ethics recently complained.

Mr Trump's particular brand of divisiveness has been embraced on a state level as well.

In North Carolina, where I live, the election of a Democratic governor over an unpopular Republican incumbent spurred the Republican majority in the state assembly to unfairly push through changes that make it more difficult for him to govern.

This has had people in an uproar.

My friend, Anne, is one of those folks who were never really politically active before. She has started participating in protests in the state capital, Raleigh.

She credits Mr Trump for her awakening. "If not for him, I might have remained apathetic and uninformed about the Republicans in our state and their egregious behaviour, but I reached my tipping point and realised that I could no longer trust our elected officials to act in my best interests - or perhaps never should have trusted them," she says.

She knows her participation might not result in the change she wants to see, but she says Mr Trump so offends her that she could not live with herself as someone who values integrity if she did not show the world and her children, that some actions were not okay, "pointless though the gesture may be", she says.

That gesture was amplified thousands of times over yesterday, the day after Inauguration Day, in the Women's March on Washington. From all over the country, protesters made their way to the nation's capital, not to celebrate the inauguration of a new president - though there were thousands of others who did - but to send a message on his first day in office that he was accountable to all Americans.

We, too, were among the marchers in DC, thanks to my daughter, who insisted we should go to stand with the people, even though I, being pragmatic, initially questioned whether there was even a unified rationale for the protest.

While there was a platform of sorts, the idea had sprung up as a reaction against Mr Trump and everyone who went would own his or her personal reasons for being there.

Still, a kind of Arab Spring is blowing through parts of the country and who knows what seeds will grow.

I think I decided to go - my first protest march - partly to support my child, but also to tell myself that not leaning in this time is not an option.

I don't expect to magically discover the drive and resourcefulness to be a change-maker. But, says my friend Margaret, you can learn how if you keep your heart and mind open.

She also had never been an activist but, last year, she watched her friends knock on doors and make call after call to people, campaigning tirelessly on behalf of four Democrats being put up as candidates for the borough council of their tiny New Jersey town.

It was a clean sweep, she said, which cracked their all-Republican council wide open and divided it equally between the parties.

"I never, ever thought I would attend a protest march," she says, but "fighting for our democracy is worth stepping out of my comfort zone".

I know that joining a march is only a step up from signing one of those endless petitions on and in no way constitutes meaningful change-making.

Last Monday was Martin Luther King Jr Day and you need only look to him and those who fought in the civil-rights movement to see what true commitment means. Some of those people paid the ultimate sacrifice and others knew that what they fought for, they might not even see in their lifetimes.

Today, we are not at that stage, but people are readying themselves. In a deeply divided nation, groups are forming to monitor what is going on and to keep the pressure on Mr Trump through their elected representatives in Congress.

For many, nothing less than the survival of the nation is at stake.

As for me, someone who should have a conscience (and a member of the very profession that Mr Trump has tried to denigrate as fake), it turns out that doing nothing and just waiting for the storm to pass is not okay.

I'll admit I'm in the camp that is deeply suspicious about a Trump presidency, though, to be fair, he has yet to begin work. At the very least, however, it behooves us to put him on notice that we are watching what he does.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 22, 2017, with the headline 'Trump yet to show he can unite people'. Print Edition | Subscribe