Elections

My Journey into the Heart of Obama-Trump Country

Howard County Fair in Cresco, Iowa (Daniel Allott)
I failed to find a single Trump voter who regretted his choice.

After eight years of displeasure with Barack Obama’s presidency, Carla Johnson was ready for a drastic change. The 41-year-old lab technician from Cresco, Iowa, fell for Donald Trump very early in the 2016 primary season.

She loved his “take-no-[sh**]” style, his conservative stances on gun control and immigration, his defense of traditional religion, and all that winning he promised to do on the economy. “I was a huge Trump supporter from the beginning,” she says. “Huge. I love the man. He was my first choice all the way through.”

Today Johnson, 41, is so pleased with Trump that she can’t envision voting for anyone else in 2020. “It would have to be something catastrophic,” she says of what it would take for her to vote against Trump.

What’s remarkable about Johnson’s support for Trump is that not long before he came along she’d been a lifelong Democrat and once voted for Barack Obama. It’s a vote she clearly regrets.

“When Obama first ran he preached change and it sounded fantastic,” Johnson tells me near the county courthouse in downtown Cresco. “I bought into the hope and change, which is terrible, because he didn’t do any of that.”

Did he do any good? I ask.

“No. I don’t like him. At all. I think he lied. I think he lied when he campaigned and I have no time for lying. He apologized to people he shouldn’t have apologized to. . . . He’s a coward.”

Johnson is so bitter that she now entertains the conspiracy theory championed by Trump that Obama was born in Kenya and thus was ineligible to run for president. “I believe that he honestly somewhat supported the Muslims and terrorist ways,” she says. “I don’t think he had the country’s best interests at heart.”

Johnson lives in Howard County, Iowa, the only county in America that voted for Obama by more than 20 points in 2012 and then for Trump by more than 20 points in 2016.

***

I’ve already told the story of Howard County’s dramatic reversal. The question I arrived with on a recent weeklong trip was whether its vote for the maverick Republican was a fit of pique or the sign of a permanent political shift.

Not all the Trump voters I met were as harsh as Johnson in their criticism of Obama or as effusive in their praise of Trump. And Trump’s nationwide approval ratings, despite improving over the past year, still look worse than they did at the very beginning of his term. But even the more restrained assessments I encountered in Howard County conveyed roughly the same sentiment.

My first stop was the Mighty Howard County Fair in Cresco, where I peeked my head into the Moo Mobile malt truck to say hello to Joe Wacha. Like Johnson, Wacha had been a lifelong Democrat and Obama voter before switching to Trump.

At last year’s fair, Wacha told me his vote for Trump was prompted by the Democrats’ leftward drift and preoccupation with identity politics. I was curious how Wacha was feeling a year and a half into Trump’s presidency. He said he was pleased with Trump’s performance thus far. In fact, the media’s and Democrats’ unflinching opposition to everything Trump does had only hardened his support for the president.

Indeed, one thing that struck me in speaking with Trump voters was their eagerness to defend policies that Washington pundits have been predicting would cause his voters to abandon him. For instance, I found little outrage at the administration’s policy of separating families at the southern border. Most Trump supporters here said some variation of “nobody wants to see children separated from their mothers” before launching into a full defense of a policy that has sent Trump’s opponents into fits of rage.

“I don’t want to see people suffer, but they’re putting themselves in that situation,” said Chris Chilson of nearby Lime Springs, a city of 485 people located a couple of miles from the Minnesota border. “There’s a legal way to come to this country and they’re not doing it. And we’re supposed to put out all the stops? We have 22 veterans a day committing suicide, probably because they can’t get proper care at the VA. But yet we’re supposed to take in everybody who gets across the border and breaks the law? That doesn’t make any sense to me.”

The feeling that certain people — immigrants, welfare recipients, foreign governments — are not doing things the right way, that they’re exploiting the system or getting away with something, is pervasive here. So pervasive, in fact, that it’s making Todd Mensink of Lime Springs, a sociologist and Bernie Sanders voter, seriously consider moving away.

“I firmly believe that if you give everybody an opportunity to do their best, the vast majority of people are going to use that opportunity to the best of their abilities,” said Mensink. “Other people have the ideology that if you give someone that opportunity, they will just take advantage of it.”

As we sat on deck chairs beside the Lime Springs Municipal Swimming Pool, I asked Mensink whether he felt that ideology prevailed in Howard County. “Absolutely I do,” Mensink said. “That everyone’s out to milk the system. Which is unfortunate because these communities are exactly the ones that need these programs. What happens if the student-loan program is done away with? What’s going to happen to this area, where the average household income is thirty-some thousand dollars? That’s the one thing that bugs me, is that I see people voting against their own self interests.”

Mensink couldn’t think of a single positive thing Trump has done as president. “I think he’s done more to harm this country and harm democracy than any president we’ve ever had,” he said.

Still, Mensink doesn’t support impeaching Trump: “I might be one of the only massive lefties who does not want to see Trump impeached. [Vice President] Pence is a skilled politician. If he gets into the White House, the Republican agenda will move a lot, lot faster. And I don’t want that. That scares me.”

I knew I’d get nowhere when Maxine began telling me what she likes most about Trump.

The next day, I headed back to Cresco and struck up a conversation with David and Maxine, a middle-aged couple working the Tri-County Right to Life booth at the fair. The booth was full of pro-life paraphernalia: anti-abortion leaflets, fetal development models, and graphic depictions of late-term abortions.

David and Maxine told me they were devout Christians and the parents of seven children. “One mother,” David said. “These days you have to specify that.”

They’re also ardent Trump supporters, so I asked them whether as Christians they were troubled by Trump’s lack of Christian virtue. David simply pointed at a diagram of a late-term dilation-and-extraction abortion as if to say, “We’re focused on saving babies, not the president’s manners.”

“I wouldn’t do that to an animal,” Allen, an elderly dairy farmer standing beside me, said as we both looked at the picture.

I understood David’s logic. It’s the same logic many of my pro-life friends used to justify their vote for Trump. Still, I wanted to see whether they could allow any nuance in assessing Trump’s performance.

But David and Maxine were having none of it. I knew I’d get nowhere when Maxine began telling me what she likes most about Trump. “He doesn’t have a big ego — unlike Obama and Clinton,” she said. “He doesn’t talk about himself all the time at his rallies. It’s all about the people.”

Then David chimed in. “That’s what ticks you off about these Democrats. They complain about treatment of kids coming across [the border] illegally and yet have no trouble killing kids [through abortion].”

After all that talk of child murder, I headed over to the beer garden looking for a drink. I was introduced to Jackson, a young intern at a local plant business. Jackson told me he was from Haiti, where he was due to return two days later. I asked him the inevitable question: Were you bothered by President Trump’s reference to Haiti as a “[sh**]hole” country?

Most Haitians weren’t offended, Jackson said. Instead, many saw Trump’s comment as an indication of “the work we must do to change the perception of our country.”

***

The Upper Midwest is a region of small towns and large vehicles. It’s a place where people like their religion strong and their coffee weak, a place where many people leave their front doors unlocked and their truck keys in the ignition.

Ask anyone from the Upper Midwest to explain rural values and sooner or later, probably sooner, they’ll mention guns and hunting. To many rural Americans, guns aren’t so much a hobby as a lifestyle. But many coastal Americans don’t realize that gun ownership isn’t a partisan issue here. Rural Democrats are just as likely as rural Republicans to own and use guns.

It’s one thing to hear Ernie Martin, an old conservative white man I met at Cresco’s indoor shooting range, say that Hillary Clinton lost because she wanted to “take away all the guns” and boast that everyone in Howard County has “at least two ARs and dozens of shotguns.” It’s another thing to hear a progressive Democrat talk about her affinity for guns.

“Hunting is just a huge part of my world,” Wisconsin state senator and gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Vinehout told me last year. “It’s not just Republicans. That’s the way people live, so I think that’s an important part of the culture.”

Narren Brown feels the same way. “Everyone here owns guns. Like, everyone,” he told me when we meet at The Pub, a Cresco bar, a couple days after the fair ended. Brown doesn’t fit the image of a gun-toting country boy. For one thing, he’s a progressive college professor with two Ph.D.s. For another, he’s black — one of the few black residents in a county that’s more than 99 percent white.

“At that fair, there were more pistols in pockets than you would even think,” Brown informed me. “There was a pistol in my pocket. There’s a pistol in my pocket right now. It’s legal to carry it. And as long as [the police] don’t see it, I’m not breaking any laws.”

Brown moved to Cresco from Oakland 25 years ago for the cheap housing and slower pace of life. He’s a Bernie Sanders supporter who says he’d kneel every time he heard the national anthem if he didn’t think his two sons, who play high-schools sports, would get punished for it.

But he’s conservative on guns. “I actually think liberals would do themselves a favor if they got off the gun control,” he said. It’s a sentiment I’ve heard again and again throughout the Upper Midwest: Vote Democratic and you’ll lose your guns.

***

In the weeks leading up to my trip, the Trump administration announced a series of tariffs on imports from China, Mexico, and other countries. In retaliation, those countries have imposed or threatened to impose tariffs on goods coming from the U.S., including on some of the Midwest’s most important exports: dairy, soybeans, and other crops.

With each new round of tariffs and counter-tariffs, media outlets have deployed reporters to tell the story of how the White House’s protectionist policies could prompt a backlash among voters in these pivotal Trump states. But that is not what I found in Howard County. On my final day there, I headed to Casey’s General Store on the outskirts of Lime Springs and chatted with a group of farmers who gather there early each morning.

None of the farmers wished to be quoted by name, but all were happy to give me their political opinions. They said they were nervous about the tariffs and had already seen significant drops in crop and livestock prices. “We’ve lost a dollar and a half on the beans, and seen a drop on the corn in the last month,” one farmer said. “It’s really affecting people that have to have that cash flow. For them, it’s traumatic.”

I’d come to talk about tariffs, but each time I tried to return to that topic, we’d soon end up on something else — guns or immigration or the media’s mistreatment of Trump.

But I didn’t sense any anger at Trump or hear anything to suggest he’d lost their support. In fact, they said they appreciated that a president was finally pushing back against other countries’ unfair trade practices. “I think we’ve been giving our wealth away for way too many years,” said one farmer. “We’ve made terrible deals,” another said. “Terrible.”

I asked the group whether an ongoing trade war would affect their vote in 2020. “Last time there wasn’t much of a choice,” one elderly farmer said. “Depends on who’s running. If it’s a socialist, no.”

Another man chimed in, “You’d never vote for a Democrat. I know that.” To which the first guy replied, “I’d have to take my NRA hat off!” All of the farmers saw the Democrats as devoid of ideas and viable presidential candidates. “I don’t think the Democrats have anything to run on,” one said. “Who’s going to beat [Trump]? Pocahontas?”

Here are some of the other things this group of farmers said about Trump during our 45-minute discussion:

“The only way I can see him losing is if the economy goes clear to [sh**].”

“He’s done so many things already that don’t get reported.”

“His tweets kind of let you know he’s still not a politician.”

“He’s not polished. But he’s doing what he said he would do.”

I’d come to talk about tariffs, but each time I tried to return to that topic, we’d soon end up on something else — guns or immigration or the media’s mistreatment of Trump.

When I asked the group whether there was something specific Trump could do for Howard County, their unanimous answer was . . . welfare reform.  “I wouldn’t mind having welfare reform, for the whole country,” one farmer said.

Another said, “My sister has had polio from the waist down since she was five years old and she’s always held a job, raised a family. She didn’t get any welfare.”

“You can’t have open borders and have our welfare system,” another offered.

Think about that. As journalists report on the “devastating” impact of Trump’s trade battles and speculate that they could cost Trump the farm vote in 2020, these farmers wanted to talk about welfare reform, and the pervasive feeling that somebody’s getting something for free.

I tried once more to steer things back to the tariffs, but to no avail. “We sure would like to see our prices improve,” one farmer said, “but we want better trade deals so we’re not giving away the store all the time.”

***

If you look at county-level electoral maps of the United States from the early 1990s through 2012, you’ll notice a large blue spot in the Upper Midwest, a group of counties located along the Upper Mississippi River and its tributaries in northwest Illinois, northeast Iowa, southeast Minnesota, and southwest Wisconsin. Democrats’ dominance in this cluster of 100 or so rural, religious, overwhelmingly white counties became known as the Upper Mississippi River Valley Anomaly.

But look at a map from the 2016 election and the blue spot virtually disappears: Donald Trump turned these Obama counties red on his way to winning Iowa and Wisconsin (and nearly taking Minnesota).

Support for Trump seems so strong in this region now that I wonder how in the world Obama ever managed to win so convincingly in the first place. I’m not the only one who’s perplexed. Most people I encounter aren’t clear either. “I have no idea,” was Mensink’s response.

In a week of reporting, I couldn’t find a single Trump voter who regretted voting for him in 2016.

Reports predicting a Midwestern backlash to Trump’s policies remind me of what happened throughout the 2016 campaign, when every Trump misstep or perceived scandal was predicted to trigger a fatal backlash to his candidacy.

Some Trump supporters offered mild criticism of the “I don’t agree with everything he does” variety. And most said he could do himself a favor by spending less time on Twitter. But many had nothing negative to say about the man. And all of them gave an upbeat overall assessment.

Republicans and Democrats alike also said their Trump-supporting friends are just as supportive as ever. “I’ve never heard anyone who voted for him tell me they wish they hadn’t,” Karla Johnson said.

Almost everyone I talked to, including most Democrats, predicted that Trump would meet or surpass his 20-point win in Howard County in 2020. Mensink told me he thinks Trump will win by “25 points or more” in 2020.

My trip to Howard County took place before what might have been Trump’s worst week as president, which culminated in a press conference in which he declined to criticize President Vladimir Putin for Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. I reached out for responses from some of my interviewees and none of them offered much in the way of criticism. In fact, polling shows most Trump supporters gave the president high marks. A Washington Post–ABC poll found that two-thirds of Republicans approved of Trump’s performance at the Helsinki summit.

My findings in Howard County somewhat contradict what other journalists are reporting. A May Washington Post piece reported some “unease” among Trump voters in the Upper Midwest who were “increasingly concerned and conflicted” about their support for the president.

I’m sure there are some Trump voters who feel uneasy and conflicted, but I haven’t met any of them. Among the scores of Trump voters I’ve talked to in Howard County and throughout the Upper Midwest, his support remains rock solid. Any unease, concern, or conflict they feel is more than offset by the goodwill he has earned with them.

It’s easy to write off their fervent support for Trump as tribalism. But these voters are giving Trump the benefit of the doubt because they believe he has their backs. Perhaps as a token of that bond of trust, Trump announced in late July that he is seeking to secure $12 billion in aid for farmers hindered by retaliatory tariffs.

Reports predicting a Midwestern backlash to Trump’s policies remind me of what happened throughout the 2016 campaign, when every Trump misstep or perceived scandal was predicted to trigger a fatal backlash to his candidacy. That backlash never happened, and this one may not either.

Editor’s Note: This piece has been emended since its original posting.

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