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Division over Union: Local officials, residents weigh in on Trump's speech
From left, Hall County Democratic Party Chairman Kim Copeland, former Hall County Republican chairman Kris Yardley, college student Marisa Pyle and The Rev. Stuart Higginbotham of Grace Episcopal Church in Gainesville.

President Donald Trump might have struck a new, unifying tone in his speech on Tuesday, but the State of the Union address did nothing to soothe local political divides.

Trump talked of the nation as “we” in his address — a rhetorical change from former President Obama, who often spoke personally of his own achievements and ideas — and offered olive branches to Democrats on infrastructure spending and a path for citizenship for “Dreamers,” young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.

Meanwhile, local Republicans are viewing Trump’s speech as a breath of fresh air after years of Democratic dominance in the White House.

“I really liked that Mr. Trump would talk about how we’re all in this together and that we’re all Americans,” said Kris Yardley, a former chair of the Hall County Republican Party. “We’re getting better and things are improving – and that’s what we all should do. We all live in the same place, we all appreciate and love a lot of the same things.”

But left-leaning Georgians, stung by an unexpected electoral defeat and horrified by Trump’s remarks current and previous on immigrants, women and minorities, aren’t buying it. 

Marisa Pyle, a Lumpkin County 20-year-old pre-law student at University of Georgia, didn’t watch the speech on Tuesday but read the full transcript of Trump’s remarks.

Given Trump’s policy positions, Pyle said she thought it was “disingenuous to pay lip-service to unity” and “then never back up those promises.”

She found his plan for immigration, even with the concession for “Dreamers,” most objectionable.

“I think if the path to citizenship alone were an option without any of the strings attached, it would be a perfect plan because it’s what most of the country wants,” Pyle said. “But he attached his requirements to it that hurt so many other immigrants in the process.”

Yardley sees Trump’s offer from a different perspective. The president is offering Democrats a long-desired goal in a legal status for “Dreamers” while requiring reasonable immigration reforms “so that we can make sure that we’re still allowing immigration and allowing people to come to this country for opportunity, but we’re doing it in the right way.”

Cash is king

Not only do Yardley and Pyle have vastly different political positions, but both are in such different stages in their lives that they’re seeing the United States economy from polar opposites.

Yardley, a financial services manager years into his career working in retirement accounts, investments and insurance, is excited about the economic boom and the effect it’s having on his clients’ accounts.

He’s in a position to capitalize on a growing economy and the wealth it moves into action — a booster not just of wallets, but of morale.

“I think people are getting greater opportunities to participate in saving and stop living instance to instance. I think that’s going to continue,” Yardley said, continuing that job growth and investments will be the “rising tide that floats all ships.”

But what if you feel like you’ve fallen overboard?

Pyle is a 20-year-old college student looking into attending graduate school. She has recurring medical costs and student loans — enormous obstacles she’ll have to clear before she’s in a true position to take advantage of the growing economy, assuming it’s equally strong when she enters the job market.

She sees friends working full time jobs and still taking out loans to cover the ever-rising costs of school and worries about whether it will be worth it.

“It’s a huge amount of stress to put on somebody, especially when you’re so focused on getting your education, and that really needs to change,” Pyle said. “It’s unfair to tell all of the students in America that to succeed you need to get a college degree and then to put that degree financially out of reach. We need to pick one or the other – we need to have affordable college if we want to compete in the global economy and if we’re going to prepare our students.”

Political exhaustion

After Trump’s election, Kim Copeland spent a week at home, worn out and demoralized. The local chairman of the Hall County Democratic Party had worked 18-hour days for weeks leading up to Nov. 8 — and it ended in shock.

But at the first meeting of the local party after Trump’s election, Copeland arrived to find record turnout among local Democrats equally surprised by his victory.

On Wednesday, Copeland said that enthusiasm persists and that he believes it's opening new opportunities for Georgia Democrats as the party looks to flip the House of Representatives this year.

“I know that a whole lot of people are really worried about the country in general,” he said. “... After the election, which was completely unexpected, they realized what happens if they sit around and don’t do anything.”

Fast forward to Tuesday night, and Copeland said he saw a president talking about unity but not walking the walk.

“It’s a bit of a change of pace for him because usually he’s very divisive,” he said. “Of course I like it when people say ‘we’ and ‘unity’ for America, but I know the background and I know him.”

And for a Democrat like Copeland, whose day job is running the local party, dealing with politics in the age of Trump is an all-encompassing experience.

“Is there life outside of politics right now?” he asked, chuckling. “Not for me, that’s for sure.”

Who we are

In his work, the Rev. Stuart Higginbotham sees not only a country with ever-wider political differences, but a country losing its ability to talk about those differences.

The rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Gainesville said he sees Americans and Christians both consolidating into tribes lobbing catchphrases at one another.

“I’m concerned in terms of how churches even fall into the trap of shorthand,” Higginbotham said, continuing that people are too busy grouping people into categories of conservatives and liberals, fundamentalists and progressives. “We try to grasp onto power by pitting one category against another category, and I think that’s really lazy.”

Instead, Americans and Christians should ask themselves how their faiths intersect with how they live — how their politics benefit those held up by their faiths. For Christians, that means the poor, the stranger and the vulnerable.

And by talking to one another about how their faiths — or their politics — better help those people and Americans in general, the country is “kept sharp.”

“Gainesville is a remarkable town. There’s a broad spectrum of perspectives when it comes to being Christian, and on top of that you have an interfaith component. People don’t really realize the local mosque has 50-something members,” Higginbotham said. “I think Gainesville, the broad spectrum, what I hope that does is keep us on our toes and keep us sharp. The more conservative end of the spectrum might criticize the more progressive end, but I actually think that might be a healthy thing. 

“It keeps us on our toes, and we have to actually articulate. We can’t take for granted that people are just going to come to church the way they did in the 1960s.”

And with control of Congress in the balance in 2018, there’s not much else to be taken for granted either.