Michael Kruse goes to Pepin County to find Democrats surrounded by Republicans:
The morning after Donald Trump was elected president, Andrea Myklebust’s sheep needed new hay. Distraught by the results from the night before, feeling like this was the first day of a suddenly altered American reality, she walked down the driveway of her farm to meet the man who brings her feed for her flock. Myklebust didn’t know for sure, but she suspected he had voted for Trump, a person she considered odious, dangerous and unqualified for the job he had just won. She said nothing about the election, and neither did he, as they talked only about where to drop the bales of hay—a brief exchange during which, she told me, she tried to “rearrange” her facial expression into something “neutral,” “friendly.” She could do only so much, though, to mask her despair. The sculptor, shepherd and weaver had moved from Minnesota’s Twin Cities because she found this area’s rolling hills bucolic and welcoming—and now, and for the first time in her 11 years here, she felt uneasy.
When I met Myklebust, 51, in late November, these sentiments had not softened. She described the history-twisting election of 2016 in stark, before-and-after terms, unable to fathom how anybody could have voted for Trump, much less three-fifths of the people with whom she shares her adopted home in Pepin County. “There is sort of a baseline assumption of common sense and decency that’s been thrown into question in a way I never expected it to be,” she said. “And it’s a struggle. You have to continue to interact with people, and you have to wonder: Do you really have hate in your heart in this way? Really? At the core, I didn’t believe this about us.”
The population of the county is barely more than 7,000 people, which can give it an everybody-knows-everybody sort of allure. But in this tiny county, the smallest in Wisconsin, wedged against the east bank of the Mississippi River, Myklebust and so many other Democrats and progressives woke up November 9 jilted, deeply confused about where they lived—where they had lived for years, decades, even their entire lives. Wisconsin, after all, hadn’t voted for a Republican for president since 1984, and Pepin County itself had gone blue in every presidential election since 1972. This put it near the top of a sizeable, nationwide list of similarly flipped counties—the rural, out-of-the-way spots on the map that made Trump president. It left those on the losing end of the tally roundly stunned.
“Totally shocked,” said Wally Zick, 71.
“Blew me away,” said Jen Peterson, 36.
“My mom said, ‘What happened to our blue state?’” said Alex Johnson, 24. “I said, ‘Trump set it on fire.’”
Terry Mesch, 67, has lived here since 1976 and oversees the local historical society. He knows the story of the county better than practically anybody, and yet he was “dumbfounded,” he said, telling me he walked into his polling spot on the day of the election and voted alongside people whose names he knows. The results that rolled in later that evening were not at all what he was expecting. More than that, they came with an unsettling realization: “I said to myself, ‘I don’t know my own neighbors.’”
Democrats and progressives thought they lived in one kind of place. It turns out they live in another. That’s true in the nation as a whole, and it’s particularly, poignantly true here. Pepin County at first glance doesn’t seem like much of a microcosm of America—it’s 98 percent white, the overall population hasn’t changed in 120 years, and the unemployment rate this past fall was an infinitesimal 3 percent—but what I found in a week of talking to farmers and small-business owners, longtime residents and transplants, was a startlingly precise reflection of the national rift that animated Trump’s campaign. “Stronger Together” versus “Great Again.” Move-ins versus natives. Urban versus rural. The loss wrought by long-term change here isn’t so much a visible picture of a closed, rusted factory as it is a less measurable communal decline in morale, a slow seep of self-worth, a perceived slippage of relevance in the national conversation.
As Donald Trump takes the oath of office—a phrase that still has the power to make those on the left shudder in shock—an easy way to process the election is that people in rural areas all over America loathe Washington and New York and San Francisco and Hollywood and finally had a chance to show it in a big way. But Pepin County is one of those rural areas, and the resentment isn’t just directed at the coasts. It’s local. Here, the urban elite isn’t a faceless, distant other: It’s the enclave of liberal, mostly Twin Cities newcomers who have moved here over the past few decades—not just an abstract political imposition, but an actual physical presence. It has spawned anger and bitterness, a simmering undercurrent of alienation among many people locally born and raised. It has made “Democrat” mean something it didn’t mean a generation ago. And it was made manifest on November 8.
Pepin County represents not only the most compelling reasons Trump won but also the reasons so many liberals were so surprised. If more people from more places had been talking to the people of Pepin County—and if the people of Pepin County had been talking more to one another—the notion of a Trump victory wouldn’t have seemed farfetched in the least. But my interviews, with Democrats and Republicans alike, started to feel to me like listening to disconnected halves of conversations that had never occurred. And still weren’t.
“We have found a whole community here,” said Pat Carlson, Wally Zick’s wife, “of very like-minded—it’s going to sound elite—but bookish, artsy, I’d say compassionate … organic foodies, the whole nine yards. It’s all transplants. It’s mostly liberals.” As for this election, and the locals, she continued, “I think they thought the liberal elite was looking down on them, and I guess, in some ways, we were. Because we couldn’t believe anybody would vote for Trump.”
Zick described a fault line here between the old and the new, the people who have lived in the county forever and the move-ins from over the Minnesota border, clustered primarily on the southwestern end of the county. “They don’t come here,” Zick said. “We don’t go there.”
“We don’t know them,” Carlson, 72, said.
“I could ask them, ‘Why did you vote for Trump?’” Zick said. “Then what would I do about it?”
“You don’t want to make them mad,” Carlson said. …
Katherine J. Cramer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, recently wrote a book about this. The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker came out just last March. It’s based on research she did from 2007 to 2012, when she essentially kept inviting herself to informal but regular gatherings of people in more than two dozen rural communities around the state—and listened. For decades, Wisconsin has been politically malleable, but the window for Cramer’s work ended up being particularly fascinating and telling. When she started, the state had a Democratic governor and two Democrats in the U.S. Senate, and its voters had picked a Democrat for president in four straight elections; by the time she finished, Democrat Russ Feingold had lost his 18-year spot in the U.S. Senate, and Wisconsin’s governor was Scott Walker, a union-busting, public-employee-attacking Republican. In her book, she wrote about “rural consciousness” and “multifaceted resentment against cities.”
But even Cramer was surprised by the extent of the resentment stemming from a growing rural-urban divide, and now its consequences. “I did go into the evening saying that Hillary Clinton was going to win,” she admitted to me. The reason Clinton lost: “It’s people looking around,” Cramer said, “and then making the assessment that their way of life is under threat.”
“It feels like somebody is coming from the outside and changing their world,” said the area’s state senator, Kathleen Vinehout, a Democrat. It feels that way because it is that way.
“People are wondering just what their place will be in this 21st-century global economy,” said the congressman who represents western Wisconsin, Democrat Ron Kind. “This is very unsettling for a lot of folks.”
“It’s more than the loss of a job or a wage,” Cramer added. “It’s the death of an expectation of a certain kind of life. … Across society, what’s seen as up and coming, successful, whatever you want to call it—it’s not you anymore.”
And what I heard in Pepin County, again and again, is that they’ve had it. In conversation after conversation with people who have lived here forever and who voted for Trump, some people were more measured and diplomatic than others—but the same blunt, base feelings kept coming up.
“Where’s the richest place to live?” said Gerald Bauer, 74, born and raised on a local dairy farm, who now is the vice chairperson of the county board of supervisors. “The area around Washington, D.C.—that’s wrong.”
And here these city people have come, with their money and their politics, right to Pepin County, which now has its very own liberal left coast. “The ones that move in try to change everything,” said Gary Samuelson, 72, “and the people who’ve been here a long time don’t care too much for change.”
“They don’t share our views on anything,” Vic Komisar, 41, the president of the ATV club, said of the people from Minnesota. “They got this picture that we’re all country bumpkins, the locals are, that we’re not educated. The people who move in talk down to the natives. I don’t know how you want to word that, but that’s the persona given off.”
Komisar said he frowned upon some of Trump’s rhetoric, calling him an “oddball.” But one thing he liked a lot: “I think he’s going to stand his ground on—how the hell do I want to word this?—I don’t think he’s gonna get ran over by the social agenda.” He cited gay marriage, the legalization of marijuana and Black Lives Matter. “It shouldn’t be center stage with troops overseas and the economy. We got other things to worry about than Black Lives Matter having a protest. Come on—we got bigger issues. To me, that’s what it’s been for eight years. I’m not a racist. I’m not a homophobe. I’m not any of those things. But OK, you guys have your rights—can we move on?”
When these feelings collide with politics, it’s the Democratic Party that tends to take the hit. Once, the party was a coalition of farmers and workers and union members, along with urbanites and minorities. A lot of farmers in Pepin County come from longstanding Democratic families. But over time, the party has come to represent a way of seeing America with which people here have trouble identifying.
John Andrews, 68, was the sheriff in Pepin County for 28 years. He is a Republican. He used to be a Democrat, though—and not just any Democrat, but the boss of the Pepin County Democrats, the position currently held by Bruce Johnson. Andrews told me he switched parties in the mid-2000s after the newcomers started coming to the meetings. “They actually took over the party,” he said.
He agrees with Komisar’s opinion concerning the overemphasis on “the social agenda.”
“When the people came in—and the things that they were trying to push on the rest of us—that’s why I left,” Andrews added. “I didn’t want to deal with these people. I didn’t want to be a part of what they were a part of. You’re talking about people from the Cities who are very progressive. I call them tree-huggers, a bunch of tree-huggers. They referred to us, meaning the people who’ve lived here and worked here all our lives, as a bunch of hicks. They just think they’re a little bit better than everybody else, and that we’re not as smart.”