After eight years of displeasure with the presidency of Barack Obama and faced with a choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Dennis Schminke of Austin, Minn., didn’t have to think hard about how he would vote in 2016. A retired corporate manager, a staunch conservative and a county Republican official, he supported the New York businessman.
Since then, there has not been a day that Schminke wished that Clinton, rather than Trump, were president. But week by week, month by month, as he has watched the events of Trump’s presidency, he has become increasingly conflicted and concerned about what he has seen. The turmoil, he said, has often left him feeling “motion sick.”
By early spring, he expressed a different sentiment. He had not fully broken, but he was no longer as emotionally invested in the president or a reconstituted Trumpian Republican Party. “I find myself drawing back a bit,” he said.
Schminke lives in a section of the Upper Midwest that responded enthusiastically to Trump, as a candidate and an incoming president. In this region, the Trump presidency is viewed as both reassuring and exhausting, a welcome poke in the eye at elites and the Washington power structure coupled with endless and often self-inflicted distractions. What is also apparent is that, 16 months into Trump’s presidency, many voters here have recalibrated their feelings and intensity of support for the man they backed in 2016.
This report traces the long arc of those changing perceptions, from the initial recognition of Trump as an unforeseen political force to the expectations during the early weeks of his presidency, and then through various chapters of chaos, dysfunction and policy changes. The story is told through the voices of the voters — and the degree to which the reservations are now stated more explicitly than they were in early 2017.
Nationally, about 100 counties voted Democratic in at least five consecutive presidential elections and then flipped to Trump. Almost half of them are in four states in the Upper Midwest: Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Most of those nearly four dozen counties in the region are along or adjacent to the Mississippi River.
Two dozen of these Midwest counties had backed Democrats for seven straight presidential elections. In half a dozen others, it was 10 in a row. In Mower County, where Schminke lives, it was 13 straight, and in Dubuque County, Iowa, it was 14. Itasca County, in north central Minnesota, last voted for a Republican presidential nominee in 1928. In 2016, they all shifted to Trump, with margins swinging 15, 20, 30 or even 40 points between 2012 and 2016.
Candidate Trump’s message caught fire almost immediately here; it is a bond that for many voters lasts to this day. But for others, for whom he was not their first choice during the Republican primaries, Trump was an acquired taste, a stab in the dark, the lesser of two bad choices. Rep. Cheri Bustos, a Democrat who represents a northwestern Illinois congressional district carried by Trump, calls these kinds of voters “Trump Triers,” citizens so fed up — for various reasons — that they were willing to take a chance on the unorthodox non-politician. They, more than his well-documented core base, are likely to hold the keys to his political future.
This is a region of small towns and rural attitudes, populated by communities that have felt the devastating effects of deindustrialization. Some of these towns have never fully recovered from factories shuttered and jobs shipped overseas. People who went through those changes were particularly receptive to a Trump message focused on job losses, unfair trade agreements and the identity politics of insecure U.S. borders — all wrapped together with a broadside against the political classes of both parties.
Along the Mississippi River, the landscape consists of bluffs and rolling hills, scenery not commonly associated with the billiard-table images of the American heartland. In counties farther away from the river, the fields flatten out into acre upon acre of rich, black soil that stretches to the horizon beneath a gigantic sky.
During the first 15 months of Trump’s presidency, The Washington Post traveled intermittently through this region, holding extended and sometimes repeated interviews with county party leaders and local elected officials or at random with citizens in coffee shops, restaurants, grocery stores and other gathering points. What follows is not a scientific survey of the country. Instead, it is a story of how attitudes toward the president have changed gradually over time, told through the voices of a selection of people in a unique ecosystem of Trump Nation.
Among the president’s true loyalists, his grip remains strong. Among others who supported him, that hold has weakened. Almost no one, even his most ardent supporters, appreciates the president’s tweets, although for some it is less the content that offends them and more the worry that it reveals a volatile president unable to control his impulses.
But there is a deeper unease that filters through conversations with some of those who voted for him, a recognition that to gain something, they must give something — that to see policy changes they favor they must tolerate behavior they sometimes find inexcusable. For Trump, political risk lies in the degree to which dissatisfaction with the disorder and conduct outweigh any achievements that his voters expected to see. That holds implications for this November’s midterm elections but even more so for 2020.
The state worker
“It could be a great ride these next four years. Or it could be a rough ride.”
Eight days before Trump took the oath of office, Kurt Glazier, now 50, was in the dining room of his home in Sterling, Ill. Wearing a John Deere hoodie, he offered a measured view of the road ahead. Glazier is a state worker, a union member and serves as chairman of the Republican Party in Whiteside County. He also sits on the county board. He is a thoughtful person who speaks deliberately and chooses his words carefully.
Glazier was raised outside a nearby community of about 600 people. “Growing up, coming to Sterling-Rock Falls [combined population of about 25,000] was like coming to Chicago,” he said. “McDonald’s was a treat. It was like a delicacy.” Now, after three decades in Sterling, he describes the county in less magical terms. “We’re rural,” he said. “We wear blue jeans and flannel shirts and hoodies.”
Although he had not seen Trump’s victory coming, he said that it hadn’t been difficult to interest people in Trump’s candidacy. “I think Trump brought out the fact that — I mean, as crude and callous as he was at times — so many people had been almost discriminated against because they were Republicans and not Democrats that we felt inferior.”
At one time, the county’s economic base included significant manufacturing capacity. People in the area still express shock about the night in 2001 when Northwestern Steel and Wire, which employed more than 4,500 workers at its peak, abruptly announced that it was shutting down after a series of reductions. Today, Sterling Steel occupies part of the old Northwestern plant, but at the start of Trump’s presidency, the facility employed fewer than 400 workers.
Whiteside County is part of Reagan Country. Tampico, Ill., where the 40th president of the United States was born, sits in the southeast corner of the county. Nearby, in Lee County, is Dixon, where Ronald Reagan lived as a teenager. It was along the banks of the Rock River that, according to local lore, he saved 77 lives working as a young lifeguard.
Politically it has a split identity: union-roots and Democratic in the east, rural and Republican in the west. Despite a history of support for Republicans, the county shifted beginning in 1992 and for six consecutive presidential elections, Democratic nominees carried the day. In his two victories, Obama captured 58 percent and 57 percent of the vote. Glazier assumed Democrats would again win Whiteside in 2016.
Glazier spoke of the political divisions that had been building for some years. “I hate the fact that” — he paused. “I’m sorry, my parents raised me not to use the word ‘hate,’ ” he said before continuing. “I very much dislike the fact that a lot of people stereotype Republican individuals, Republican people, that we’re racists. I think that is further from the truth.”
He called the 2016 election ugly, but not the first where political differences shattered friendships. “I lost a longtime friend in the election of 2014 because he was gay and he was Democrat and he supported the Democratic candidate and I was supporting the Republican candidate, and he has nothing to do with me anymore just because of that. And his father passed away not too long ago and I didn’t know how to get a hold of him.”
Glazier was not a fan of Obama as president, but he praised the Affordable Care Act. He talked about the working-class values of many Republicans in the area. “I’m a union guy,” he said. “We want to see our country again back to the way it was. Will it be? We don’t know. That’s still a mystery that remains to be seen. I’ll be very frank. It could be a great ride these next four years. Or it could be a rough ride.”
Asked what the people in Whiteside County who had voted for Trump expected of him as Inauguration Day neared, Glazier said, “To make America great again.”
The ag teacher
“People have jobs. But you have to understand something: A lot of those jobs have gone backward.”
“Can you call back later?” Dan Smicker asked. “I’m processing lambs.”
The deep cold of January had given way to a brief spell of near-springtime temperatures in eastern Iowa. Trump’s presidency was off to a rocky start and politicians here were feeling the reverberations. A day earlier, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) had encountered demonstrators at a town hall meeting. The protesters were angry about Republican initiatives to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Smicker, now 69, was concentrating on his ewes when his phone rang in the early evening. The next afternoon, he arrived at the Sunrise Café in DeWitt ready to talk. The retired high school agriculture teacher has an expressive and energetic personality, wide-ranging interests and is a man of opinions.
He was born in a small Illinois town and stayed in state for college. A great aunt, he said, had been a foot soldier in the old Daley machine in Chicago. After college, he began teaching in Minnesota, then moved to Iowa. His plan was to teach for a few years and then go into business to make real money. Instead he stayed in the classroom for nearly four decades. “I loved the kids immensely,” he said over coffee. “I had money to purchase everything I needed. Want is a product of desire and income.”
By now he was the Republican Party chairman in Clinton County. In 2008 and 2012, Obama carried the county with about 60 percent of the vote. In 2016, Trump won there by 49 percent to 44 percent. He was the first Republican to do so since Reagan in 1984. Smicker said he was not in the least surprised by the result.
“We started seeing a lot of traffic coming into the [party] headquarters in [the town of] Clinton, begging for Trump signs and asking how do they change their party affiliation to Republican. . . . Waitresses, truck drivers, electricians, carpenters. Working people,” he said.
Smicker recalled that many of those he encountered were mad, fed up with the state of things. “This is my observation, it is not necessarily my belief,” he said as he described their motivations. “Number one, they said minority political people have been well taken care of. Small business and working people have been identified as the source of income to take care of those people.”
He relayed a conversation he had with one local resident during the campaign. “He said the American dream of a house, the car that drives down the road that doesn’t have something falling off of it, two kids and being able to go out on Friday night and eat someplace other than a fast-food restaurant is disappearing,” Smicker said. “Unless you were there, you have no idea the emotion they gave. At first, I just thought it was a casual thing, and then it became a flood.”
He continued on the theme of the downward mobility that many workers in the area had experienced. “People have jobs,” he said. “But you have to understand something. A lot of those jobs have gone backward. . . .They are still working but they went down.”
It was a week before Trump’s first speech to a joint session of Congress. Despite the president’s rough start, Smicker was optimistic about Trump’s prospects. The America First message of the campaign and of the inaugural address was resonating with many voters, he said.
If Trump followed through with that message and had any success in saving those jobs, Smicker said, “He’s going to change the atmosphere of politics in this country for the next 40 years, because the Democrats are going to lose the threshold of their basic support, which is the working person in the United States.”
The Democratic politician
“But the area of diversity that we have not valued is geographic diversity, and we better figure it out if we want to have success going forward.”
The day before Smicker met for coffee in DeWitt, Cheri Bustos was talking with constituents in her northwestern Illinois district directly across the river. Two conversations captured what Smicker had described about the economic changes in the area.
Bustos, now 56, was at Sullivan’s Foods in Morrison, Ill., where she heard one story after another about the economic struggles her constituents were experiencing. As she was preparing to leave, she stopped to talk with Alan Gravert. He had been working at the grocery store for several years, but it was how he got there that was most telling.
For three decades, Gravert had worked at Evergreen Packaging in nearby Clinton, Iowa. He expected to retire there. Then the company shut down because of competition and he was out of a job. He was unemployed for nearly a year before he found another factory job. He left after only a short time. He said he found the working conditions intolerable. “A hole,” he said.
Eventually he landed at Sullivan’s, but his income had taken a series of hits. “It was about $20,000 less” at the second plant compared to the first, he told Bustos. “And then working here is about another $20,000 less. But I like the job. I’ve always been a customer-oriented person.”
When Bustos asked whether he was able to take vacations, he said, “Weekend vacations. Two years ago, my one nephew got married down in St. Louis and [his son] and I went down the night before and went to a Cardinals game because he’s been a huge Cardinals fan forever. So we went to a Cardinals game and then went to the wedding on Saturday and came back on Sunday.”
Gravert was the second person at the store that day who had worked at Evergreen. Marsha Story, in charge of decorating cakes, described the life of a single mother struggling on $11 an hour. “We don’t have cable,” she said, explaining how she juggled her finances. “We don’t have the Internet.” She said she declined to go on Medicaid, although she was eligible to use it. “I’ve always paid my own way,” she said.
These stories were hardly news to Bustos, a former journalist and health-care executive who got to Congress by unseating an incumbent Republican in 2012. Reelected in a rematch in 2014, she then coasted to victory in 2016, winning 60 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, Trump carried the 17th Congressional District, edging Hillary Clinton by a percentage point.
Bustos was keenly aware that one reason Trump had scored well was his ability, in contrast to Clinton, to relate to white, working-class voters. A week earlier, during an interview in her congressional office, she had ticked through the damage over two decades. A plant in Knox County that had gone to Mexico. Jobs lost in Stephenson County through multiple company closings or reductions. A factory that was the lifeblood of a town in Jo Daviess County that had shut down. The steel plant in Whiteside County that was long gone, but whose departure was still felt.
Bustos knew that workers were losing faith in Clinton during the campaign. “You could just feel it,” she said. “You go into these labor halls and guns would always come up. I don’t care where I [would] go, it would be like the first question. . . . Where’s Hillary stand on guns?”
After the 2016 election, Bustos was elected to a position in the House leadership — the only Democrat from the Midwest in the hierarchy of a party whose hopes for the presidency had been shattered by the defection of small-town and rural voters in the American heartland. “When we’re putting together different groups, we’re always cognizant of making sure that we have diversity sitting around the table,” she said of her party. “But the area of diversity that we have not valued is geographic diversity, and we better figure it out if we want to have success going forward.”
The young businessman
“Politics is also about results, and you have to get results or the pendulum is going to swing.”
Andrew Chesney is a businessman and politician in Stephenson County, which borders Wisconsin in the northwestern corner of Illinois. Although Obama carried the county in 2008, it has frequently backed Republicans for president. In 2016, Trump easily won the county, while Clinton ended up with the lowest share of the two-party vote since Reagan’s 1984 reelection landslide.
Because it has often supported Republican presidential candidates, Stephenson County does not fit the pattern of the other counties described in this article. But over years, it has suffered through difficult economic retrenchments. The changes inflicted pain on individual workers and hardship on the community —the kind of jarring changes common throughout the nation’s industrial belt.
A week before Trump’s inauguration, Chesney, now 36, was in his office on the south side of Freeport, Ill., a city whose greatest claim to fame is that it was the site of the second Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858. Chesney served as the county Republican chairman and a local alderman. He expressed pride in having helped to engineer a conservative turnaround on the city council.
He saw Trump as having run a campaign unlike that of any other GOP nominee in recent years. “He believed that he could convey to the public that their quality of life and their retirement and their safety would be better under his administration,” Chesney said. “And that wasn’t always the message of the Republican Party.” Trump also had skirted some of the social issues and avoided labor issues that had turned away independents and Reagan Democrats in previous elections, he said.
After the release of an “Access Hollywood” video, in which Trump bragged about grabbing women by their genitals, Chesney and other officials “were put under tremendous pressure from independents and Democrats to take down his signs and I guess abandon his campaign. . . . [People were] calling the headquarters, calling me personally. . . . I lost friends over it, unfortunately.”
At the start of Trump’s presidency, Chesney had high hopes, although he was worried about how the immigration issue would play out, given candidate Trump’s rhetoric. He had lived in Arizona and seen the issue from several angles. “I am very close to this issue and I don’t share the sentiments of some of my Republican colleagues,” he said. He opposed any mass efforts to deport those in the country illegally. “If they would say that it’s illegal and they just gotta go, I wouldn’t support that,” he said.
Trump’s victory presented opportunities, but Chesney said winning the White House was only a first step for the party. “Politics is also about results, and you have to get results or the pendulum is going to swing. . . . I think he has to deliver, you know, given that he was so forceful and adamant. . . . He did not carefully craft his words, I think you would agree, and he just went right into the eye of the storm.”
The factory worker
“That’s the last thing you need is somebody who thinks that greed is a good thing. . . . He scares me, actually.”
Tom Gaulrapp of Freeport, Ill., fit the profile of the white, working-class voter who made up part of Trump’s base, but he didn’t believe Trump’s campaign rhetoric about bringing back jobs and changing the rules on trade. He considered Trump just another plutocrat.
In 2012, Gaulrapp had become a minor celebrity in the national debate about outsourcing. He worked for a company called Sensata, which had announced that it would close its Freeport plant and move jobs to China. The company had a connection with Bain Capital, which Republican Mitt Romney had helped to build, and because of that link, the workers and the city appealed to Romney, at the time in the middle of his presidential campaign, to intercede.
It was a fruitless effort, but it drew national attention. For a time, Gaulrapp, now 60, was in the limelight as one of the faces of the protests. He was flown to New York, where he appeared on Chris Hayes’s program on MSNBC, and in the green room he met a priest who said he was praying for the workers. He went to Pittsburgh to appear at the United Steelworkers convention. “I got to do things that I would never, ever have otherwise gotten to do,” he said. “I know that’s bad and it sounds like it’s an ego thing, and maybe in a way it is. But some of the stuff was so cool, I mean it really was.”
Those heady moments faded quickly, replaced by a grimmer reality. With money from the Trade Adjustment Act, Gaulrapp studied accounting at a local community college but was not able to find work in the new field. He couldn’t find full-time work of any kind. The week he spoke to The Post in January 2017, he was scheduled for only 13 hours of work. He had no health insurance and had “plowed through my 401(k)” to make ends meet. “That’s just about up,” he said.
Over coffee at McDonald’s, he expressed his alarm about the prospects of Trump in the White House. “I don’t believe for a minute that anybody who’s a businessman should be the president of the United States, especially if you look at the way corporations are run right now,” he said. “That’s the last thing you need is somebody who thinks that greed is a good thing. . . . He scares me, actually.”
As Gaulrapp left the McDonald’s, he passed by a table of half a dozen men, most of them retired and one sporting a red “Make America Great Again” cap. They all said they had voted for Trump and they jokingly called themselves “a basket of deplorables.” They blamed President Bill Clinton and the North American Free Trade Agreement for the exodus of jobs from the town. They blamed Obama for not bridging racial divides and for other things. They couldn’t stomach Hillary Clinton. They already viewed the incoming president as a success. “I think he’s done a better job, and he isn’t even president yet, than Obama did in eight years,” one man said.
The small-town mayor
“Those things, I think, just sort of caught people [who said], ‘We need a change.’ ”
The population of Morrison, Ill., has held steady between 4,000 and 5,000 for half a century. But at one time, General Electric employed more than 2,500 people at its Morrison plant, where workers produced controls for stoves, refrigerators and air conditioners. Foreign competition forced changes that reduced employment until, finally, in 2010, the plant closed.
R. Everett Pannier serves as the town’s mayor. He came to elective office late in life, and does not think of himself as a politician. He worked for General Electric for 42 years, most of that time at the Morrison facility, including seven as plant manager.
Once the plant closed, the character of the community began to change. “We used to have three or four small mom-and-pop grocery stores. We have one major grocery store now, which we’re thankful for,” he said. “We had women’s clothing stores, men’s clothing stores, shoe stores. All of that was up and down Main Street. They were the small-business people. We don’t have any of those anymore. . . . We had a country club. We no longer have one.”
Pannier, now 75, considered himself a political independent who sees virtue in both parties even though he has tended to vote for more Republicans than Democrats. A month into Trump’s presidency, he was asked how he made his decision in 2016. He chuckled. “A lot of thought. A lot of thought,” he said. Pausing, he added, “And I won’t tell you how I voted, but probably my wife and my vote canceled each other’s out.”
He described why he thought Trump had won the county, noting particularly the candidate’s focus on jobs leaving the country and on immigration. “Those things I think just sort of caught people [who said], ‘We need a change,’ ” he said. “They were caught up in the fact that the guy didn’t back down on what he said. He just kept saying it whether it was well received or not.”
In the first weeks of the new administration, the mayor declined to give Trump high marks, largely because of the disruptions that had come to stamp the new presidency. “I’m not quite so sure I should call him a narcissist, but yet I think so,” he said. “He’s full of himself and he talks a lot and he wants praise. I think we can accomplish these other things without all of that type of fanfare.”
Pannier had more questions than answers about what the future under Trump might bring. “I want to see how the other countries, our allies, are going to accept [him] and what they’re going to say,” he said. “Are they going to be comfortable working with Donald Trump?”
He pointed to a bookcase in his office. “I have a little thing over there on my shelf that says, ‘Diplomacy: the ability to let other people have your way.’ ”
The ag teacher
“My honest opinion? I’m probably supporting him more now than I did the day he got elected.”
In mid-June, Dan Smicker was back at the Sunrise Café in DeWitt, Iowa. He was both elated and irritated, fuming at the way Democrats and much of the news media had treated the president. What galled him most at that moment was special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign, which he considered nothing more than a Democratic effort to discredit Trump’s presidency.
“All these accusations are wonderful, but until you prove something, basically you have accused the president of the United States of being a traitor without any proof coming out,” he said. “That’s why I said, good luck to Democrats. They better make this stick because if it’s just sour grapes, they’re in a world of hurt. The Democratic Party almost might kill itself.”
He said many people in Clinton County had not rendered a verdict on Trump’s presidency and wanted him to have more time to show what he could do. “The thing that is frustrating people, at least in this part of the state, [is] they want Trump to have that opportunity and they see a lot of this harassment is limiting his opportunity to do what he was going to do,” he said.
Five months into Trump’s presidency, Smicker was even more a believer than he had been during the campaign. “My honest opinion? I’m probably supporting him more now than I did the day he got elected,” he said.
That evening, the president took part in a boisterous rally in Cedar Rapids, 65 miles west of DeWitt. Outside the U.S. Cellular Center, dueling demonstrators waving rival placards chanted loudly at one another. Inside the arena, a huge American flag filled the wall behind the stage. Signs along the stage said, “Promises Kept.”
“If you are a Republican [in Iowa], you stand with him,” said Jeff Kaufman, the Iowa GOP chairman. He added, “Donald Trump won this state. . . . If you don’t like it, tough.” The audience erupted with chants of “USA! USA! USA!” The president’s daughter-in-law Lara Trump predicted Trump’s reelection in 2020. “He is killing it in Washington, D.C.,” she said.
The Cedar Rapids Gazette welcomed the president with a front-page editorial. “Mr. President, the campaign is over,” it said. “You won. Now is not the time to rally. Now is the time to sell your policies, listen to Americans with a stake in those efforts and govern. Iowans have questions and concerns about your plans. They can’t be heard over the cheers of a rally.”
Trump spoke for more than an hour, luxuriating in the adulation from the audience. “You don’t want me to leave,” he told the cheering crowd. “I don’t want to leave.”
The restaurant owner
“I think that’s really what changed. The people didn’t change, the Democrats did.”
Elkader, Iowa, sits in the state’s northeast corner, the seat of Clayton County. It is a reminder that there is unexpected history to be found in every corner of the country, in this case a small town with a story that spoke with contemporary relevance. At a time of talk of a ban on Muslims entering the United States and heightened concerns about immigration, Elkader residents had a historic connection to a Muslim country.
The founders named the town after Abdelkader ibn Muhieddine, a 19th-century Algerian jihadist and freedom fighter who fought against French colonialism. Today, Elkader maintains a sister-city relationship with the Algerian town of Mascara. Schoolchildren from the two countries interact with one another over the Internet and Mayor Josh Pope shuttled back and forth for events. When the floods came to eastern Iowa years ago, the Algerians sent a contribution to aid in the relief.
Until 2016, Democrats had carried the county in seven consecutive presidential elections, with Obama defeating Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by 17 percentage points in 2008 and Romney by seven points in 2012. In 2016, Trump crushed Clinton by 22 points, 58 percent to 36 percent. Her percentage was a point lower than Democrat George McGovern received in 1972.
On a warm afternoon, Brian Bruening, the county’s Democratic chairman, was sitting at a table in the back of Schera’s Algerian American restaurant, which he operates with his partner, Frederique, who is French Algerian and Muslim. They moved to Elkader a decade ago from Boston, and it was a homecoming of sorts for Bruening, who grew up in a town not far from where they now lived. By now they were part of the business fabric of the community.
Bruening, 41, understood Trump’s success in Clayton County despite the earlier string of Democratic victories. “I think one [reason] is that it is exhausting to have to edit yourself all the time, and Trump was completely the opposite of that,” he said. “I think Trump allowed . . . people to not have to feel bad about holding, say, anti-immigrant views or something. That’s one of the things I really noticed. People are way less afraid to say what they really think about a host of different things.”
Trump, he said, also was like a mirror that reflected on people what they wanted to see and hear. “What people are talking about is what he gives back to them, and I think because of that, that’s a good way to really reach people on a visceral level,” he said. “. . . So there’s this feedback loop, which I think he’s, like, a genius at, legitimately. And so people got the impression that he was hearing them on a personal level.”
Bruening also blamed Clinton for Trump’s victory. Clinton, he said, never showed that she cared about the people in his area, a hangover from her inattention to places such as Elkader during the epic 2008 Democratic caucus battle in Iowa, an event that launched Obama toward victory.
Clinton’s performance in Iowa in 2016 highlighted the steep descent Democrats have been on in the state. When Obama won Iowa in 2008, he carried more than half of the state’s 99 counties. Four years later, he captured about 40 counties. Clinton won six in 2016.
“I just feel like the Democratic message is no longer relevant to a lot of people in this county,” Bruening said. “I think that’s really what changed. The people didn’t change, the Democrats did. Or the Democrats didn’t change in a way that is relevant to voters in northeast Iowa.”
He continued, “I think it’s because they bought into the idea . . . about how demographics are destiny and how, because there’s all these new Latino voters and stuff like that, that Democrats can’t possibly lose. And I think because they bought into the hype of that, they thought that they could just coast in on that and they didn’t have to engage a lot of the people who are the core of their party.”
At the midpoint of 2017, Bruening said he sensed plenty of energy among party activists but feared that it would not be enough to bring the Democrats back to the White House or to success in his county in the future.
“In the end, whether or not you like Trump is only going to be good for the [Democratic] base,” he said. “It is not going to get any of those crossover Obama voters. That is not a winning issue, that we dislike Trump. You have to stand for something. That’s what Hillary was. So much of her campaign was based on ‘I’m not Trump and I don’t like what he’s saying.’ Well, what are you saying?”
The corporate manager
“One of the places I would agree with the hard-core Trump people, they’re tired of being treated as the enemy by Barack Obama.”
Austin sits near Minnesota’s southern border, about 20 miles from Iowa. It is the headquarters of Hormel Foods. The meatpacking town is best known for the company’s signature creation: Spam, a pork-and-ham product in a can that GIs were fed during World War II and that today is sold worldwide.
Local restaurants feature varieties of Spam delicacies — Spam sliders, quesadillas and even a Philly cheesesteak knockoff. The downtown features a museum dedicated to all things Spam that includes a gigantic deconstructed Spam sandwich hanging from the ceiling.
Among the mementos on display is a letter that former president Dwight Eisenhower wrote to a Hormel official to commemorate the company’s 75th anniversary. “During World War II, of course, I ate my share of Spam along with millions of other soldiers,” Eisenhower wrote. “I’ll even confess to a few unkind remarks about it — uttered during the strain of battle, you understand. But as former Commander-in-Chief, I believe I can still officially forgive you your only sin: sending us so much of it.”
Austin is the seat of Mower County, long a union and a Democratic stronghold. Until 2016, the county had not supported a Republican presidential nominee since it backed Richard M. Nixon over John F. Kennedy in 1960. Most Democratic presidential nominees had won the county with close to 60 percent of the vote. Ronald Reagan never got above 40 percent in his two elections, and in Nixon’s 1972 landslide, the county even went for George S. McGovern. In 2016, Clinton claimed just 42 percent of the vote.
Dennis Schminke worked at Hormel for 38 years, a number of those years focused on risk management in grain purchasing. He grew up in Iowa, one of six children in a 1,300-square-foot, one-bathroom house. His parents, he said, were “FDR Democrats,” and his first votes were for their party. But as a fiscal hawk and advocate of low taxes, he quickly migrated to the Republican side, where he has been ever since, as an activist, party leader and occasional candidate. He saw events through a conservative lens.
“I was very wary of Barack Obama and he proved me correct on that,” he said over coffee on a summer afternoon. “I despise Barack Obama. I think primarily because I don’t think he thinks very much of people like me. That’s just the long and short of it.”
Schminke, now 65, said his first indication of Trump’s political appeal came at the county fair in 2015. At what was called the “Cast Your Kernel” booth, fairgoers were given five kernels of corn and could divide them any way they wished among the buckers representing all the candidates for the GOP nomination. “A lot of people, you’d give them five and they’d walk over to that Trump bucket and just throw all five of them in hard and look at you and say, ‘Take that,’ ” he said.
Trump’s appeal, he said, was born in part of resentment toward the Obama presidency. “One of the places I would agree with the hard-core Trump people, they’re tired of being treated as the enemy by Barack Obama,” he said. “His comment, the whole thing, it’s been worn out to death, that clinging to God and guns, God and guns and afraid of people who don’t look like them, blah, blah, blah. Just quit talking down to me.”
Schminke said he initially did not know what to expect from the new president but had been confident about one thing: that Trump and the Republicans would repeal Obama’s health-care law. By August, as congressional Republicans faltered, he was deeply unhappy. “I’m sick about this whole Affordable Care Act thing,” he said. “We’ve got to get something done on that. If I have one expectation, it was going to be that, that something had to happen.”
He did not blame Trump for the failure. “I’m appreciative of Trump every once in a while stepping up to the mic and verbally knocking heads,” Schminke said. “ ‘Come, guys, you gotta get this done.’ He’s not an ignorant man, but he’s ignorant of the details. Guys like him are not consumed with details. . . . But somebody has to set the agenda.”
His one complaint was that Trump was not as disciplined as he wished. “Shame on Charles Schumer, shame on the Democrats,” he said, referring to the Senate minority leader. “They’re using every club out there to try to derail this presidency. And of course I’m afraid Trump is accommodating them.”
That evening, the members of the local Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party gathered for their monthly meeting. With a reporter present, they replayed what had happened in the 2016 election. Many opinions were offered, including that the news media weren’t as rigorous in covering Trump as it was Clinton. One activist offered a conclusion shared by many Democrats in the Midwest. “The 60-year-old white male has been forgotten,” he said.
As dusk descended on Austin, a group of men were packing up their rifles at the Cedar Valley Conservation Club, a local shooting range. George Morse, a retired firefighter, recalled Bill Clinton’s presidency. “I was best off when Bill was president,” he said. Today, he said, neither party favors the working person. He had long voted for Democrats until Obama. “I just didn’t like his attitude,” he said. In 2016, he supported Trump. “We were definitely due for a change.”
Immigration had altered the character of Austin. Earlier in the day, Mayor Tom Stiehm had recalled a bitter strike in 1985. After that, he said, “we saw different groups come in for a number of years. In the mid-’90s, we started getting the Hispanics in, and they stayed and they’re here yet.”
Many of the newcomers came for jobs at Quality Pork Processors, a slaughterhouse that supplied the hogs for Hormel products. Between 2000 and 2010, the Latino share of the city’s population more than doubled. Longtime residents expressed mixed views about the changes. “Put her in the gutter,” Morse said.
Asked whether immigration had affected the vote in the county, Stiehm said, “I wouldn’t say it was a determining factor, but I’d say it was a factor.”
The fish store owner
“We needed change, but I don’t think it’s a change that I expected. Not even close.”
Mike Valley is a fourth-generation commercial fisherman. His retail store, Valley Fish & Cheese, sits a few blocks from the Mississippi River in Prairie du Chien, Wis. He said his family is among the oldest in the city. His father ran a market half a century ago. Then there were more than 100 commercial fishermen in the area. Today, a handful.
Valley, now 57, opened his store in 1983. He offers an eclectic mix of local and worldwide products, from the ordinary to the exotic — fish taken from the Mississippi to frog legs from China; walleye from Europe and Canada to wild boar baby-back ribs and elk burgers; snapping turtle heads to bobcat and beaver skulls. The walls are covered with mounted fish and birds, old tools, animal skins and humorous signs: “Approved by the Sturgeon General,” reads one.
Valley works long hours — hard, manual labor — plying his nets to haul thousands of pounds of fish a week from the river, then cleaning them all, smoking some and putting everything for sale at the store, which is open seven days a week, 10 months a year. In January and February, he closes up and tries to rest. In the middle of summer, there is no resting.
On this day, Valley was found out back, basting fish in a commercial-size smoker. He had supported Trump in 2016 because he was “sick and tired of the same old, same old s---.” The more he had seen, the more he had soured on the president. “I voted for him,” he said. “We needed change, but I don’t think it’s a change that I expected. Not even close.” Why? “The fighting, the bickering, not getting along with one another,” he replied.
Earlier in the week, Trump had held a rally in Phoenix, where he delivered a rambling 90-minute speech that had roused the audience while putting fact-checkers into overdrive. Valley found the president’s behavior “a little off the rails,” and said, “You gotta start getting along with people.”
Asked whether he would vote for Trump again, he replied, “No, absolutely not. As of right today, no.”
The county fair
“He should just stop talking for a while and be a president.”
It was opening day at the Crawford County Fair. At the fairgrounds just south of Gays Mills, Wis., Bob Welsh was handling the local Democratic Party’s table inside one of the exhibition sheds. Like many Democrats who never saw Trump coming, Welsh was still in shock over the results of the election. “Still scratching our heads,” he said.
Trump had carried the southwestern Wisconsin county by almost six percentage points, the first time a Republican had won it since Reagan in 1984. Obama had captured 63 percent and 59 percent of the vote in his two elections. Clinton got just 44 percent against Trump.
“He conned his way in and now he’s going to con his way into everything he does,” Welsh said of the president. “He lied about everything. . . . What were people thinking?”
Shaynan Holen, who lives in nearby Vernon County, where a similar pattern had occurred, blamed Clinton’s defeat on an intraparty split among Democrats, caused by the bitter primary contest with Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.). “Once Bernie was eliminated, they abandoned Hillary,” she said, referring to Sanders’s supporters. She added: “They came right out and said, ‘I’m voting Republican.’ ”
In another exhibition shed, early arrivals to the fair were eating lunch. “I’m appalled,” said one woman, who declined to give her name. “I’m at a loss for words for the person who was elected president of the United States.”
Warren Knudtson was at the American Legion table. He said Trump was dividing the country and unfairly attacking the media. “If he doesn’t start changing, pretty soon it’s going to be chaos,” he said.
Chris Underwood, a retired police officer, stopped to talk as he was walking near the rides. “I like a forceful hand,” he said. “I like when somebody says they’re going to do something and they do it.” But he had one bit of advice for Trump. “You can’t accomplish anything if you’re making everybody mad as a president,” he said, adding: “He should just stop talking for a while and be a president.”
The state worker
“I hoped for more of the making America great again, making America strong again, rebuilding our economy in our country.”
By midsummer of Trump’s first year in office, Kurt Glazier had concerns about the president. The White House was undergoing turmoil and staff upheaval, events that were unsettling to the Whiteside County GOP leader.
“Every night when I watch the national news, I wonder what circus is going to be on the news, what they’re going to talk about,” he said. “And virtually every night, the first headline is something that President Trump has done or said. . . . I hoped for more of the making America great again, making America strong again, rebuilding our economy in our country. . . . It’s almost like it’s ‘The Apprentice’ on a daily basis.”
Glazier didn’t like the disorder of the White House. “It’s just like the president is never happy unless he can control everybody, and he gets them to do what he wants and says,” he said. “And I think people are beginning to be disappointed by those actions.”
He expressed misgivings about why Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, had met with a group of Russians at Trump Tower during the campaign. He was bothered by the president’s earlier decision to fire FBI Director James B. Comey and by the hectoring of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Still he had doubts about the value of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation. “I’ve kind of stopped following that,” he said, “because I don’t know at this point what [it] is going to change or ultimately even prove. The election’s over with. It’s time to move on.”
As he looked to the second half of Trump’s first year, he said his hopes were for a change in the president’s conduct. His overall expectation was no different from what it been at the time of Trump’s inauguration: “That we begin to focus on more of his campaign promises of, you know, making America great again. Focusing on the economy in general.”
Despite all that, he said that if another presidential vote were held at that moment in Whiteside County, Trump would almost certainly prevail again.
The ag teacher
“What I’m hearing around here, give the guy a chance. Nobody is giving him a chance.”
By now it was January 2018, and on a blustery afternoon, the weather suddenly turned raw. Freezing rain coated parked cars and a fierce wind whipped across the fields of eastern Iowa. Dan Smicker, wearing a bright orange vest, arrived at MJ’s gasoline station and convenience store in DeWitt, Iowa, and tucked himself into one of the booths.
People were more fed up than ever with Washington, he said. “What I’m hearing around here, give the guy a chance,” he said. “Nobody is giving him a chance. We got some Republicans — the Republicans and a lot of the independents are getting very hard toward Congress and the swamp. People have come up with two things that Trump brought up with and everybody is now saying, ‘You’re right.’ Number one, fake news. And it might not be fake news, but there’s so much news that is delivered with a slant or an opinion instead of just presenting the news. And the second thing is the swamp.”
Smicker complained about Republicans in Congress. “We used to just take Republican politicians at face value and we’d elect them, and they’d go to D.C. and they would do what’s best for us,” he said. “Not anymore. . . . [Trump] has tried, in most people’s opinions, to do what he said. The Republican Party, not all of it but a fraction of it, has fought him. . . . But those people in Washington, D.C., are not working for what the people out here want.”
Initially wary of Trump’s lack of political correctness, Smicker said he now appreciated the president’s approach. “He got elected because he wasn’t a politician. He’s not politically correct at all,” he said. A minute later, he added: “I think as people get more used to him and find out how real he is — and I think the guy is real, I don’t think he’s putting on a charade — I think people are going to get used to him and say, ‘Okay, now we kind of know what we’ve got.’ ”
After a year of the Trump presidency, Smicker offered this prediction: “Unless something drastic happens, Trump’s going to be in for another four years. If you think Trump carried Iowa by a lot this last election, unless something drastic happens, wait until the next election.”
The young businessman
“I can’t speak for everybody, but there’s some acceptance to the inflammatory rhetoric — I’m not saying I agree with it — in exchange for policies that are near and dear to our heart.”
During Trump’s first year in office, Andrew Chesney had helped to rewrite a century of city regulations and ordinances as part of a transition in the local government structure. He also was looking to move up politically, having declared his candidacy for an open state legislative seat in a district that leans strongly toward the Republicans.
Chesney offered a generally positive assessment of Trump’s first year. He said he thought that few people had anticipated the big gains in the stock market in 2017 and he said few expected that the new Republican-passed tax cuts would be “as aggressive and so sweeping.”
“I think that from that standpoint, as a Republican, I’m encouraged,” he said. “I think he outperformed in that area. . . . While certainly many things I don’t agree with President Trump on, largely the delivery and getting to the results, I do appreciate that the campaign promises seem to be fulfilled or at least there’s an attempt to fulfill them.”
The interview took place the morning after news reports had quoted Trump, in a heated Oval Office conversation about immigration, as calling some nations in Africa and elsewhere “shithole” countries. The statement was causing many Republicans, Chesney included, considerable heartburn. Even if only half the things Trump allegedly said in the Oval Office meeting were true, Chesney said, “it’s unacceptable.”
But what Trump had said was not enough to force a real rupture between the president and many of those same Republicans. “I can’t speak for everybody,” he said, “but there’s some acceptance to the inflammatory rhetoric — I’m not saying I agree with it — in exchange for policies that are near and dear to our heart. Positions on Second Amendment. Conservative Supreme Court justices. I don’t think it’s an either/or. I think you can do both. I think you can accept Donald Trump as a president while disagreeing with his positions or his rhetoric or his comments as it relates to certain issues.”
The reason, he said, is that the alternative to Trump is too threatening to contemplate. “The fear of a Dick Durbin, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer economy or country is so dangerous that there’s some acceptance of perhaps rhetoric we don’t agree with,” he said. “Many Republicans probably still look at, well, our president is better than the alternative of Hillary Clinton for the following reasons — and people fill in that blank. It may be their position on abortion issues. It may be their position on gun issues. It may be their position on NAFTA, Paris climate agreement. Everybody has their different reasons.”
“I feel that the wave is coming.”
Throughout the Upper Midwest, there are pockets of fierce resistance to the Trump presidency. In mid-January, a group of these activists gathered at Angelo’s restaurant in Sterling, Ill. There were seven women and two men, a ratio that underscored how much female voters have become the leading edge of opposition to the president, symbolized by the presence of Bonnie J. Collins, 88, a longtime Democratic activist, wearing her pink pussy hat.
On this winter evening, there was passion and energy around the table. Some were newly energized, others have long been in the trenches of political activism. Some were longtime Democratic Party activists, while others had been drawn by the rise of grass-roots groups such as Indivisible or Action for a Better Tomorrow.
The group viewed Trump’s election as having set off ugly forces nationwide and within the Republican Party. Several said they knew friends or family members who had backed Trump, yet his victory came as a shock to most of them. They spoke harshly about the state of the country’s politics.
“I think there was a lot of complacency before Trump,” Marie Popkin said. “I wasn’t politically fighting battles because I thought things were going well. I never thought I’d have to fight for women’s rights.”
They said one immediate goal was not to let any local Republican incumbent run unopposed in 2018. Two women at the table had declared their candidacies for state legislative seats. One of them, Joan Padilla, said, “I feel that the wave is coming.”
They did not underestimate the challenge ahead in the midterm elections, however, or their underfunded status. But they believed they had the power to offset those disadvantages to demonstrate in November that the opposition to Trump is strong and growing.
“Here’s a warning,” said Carolyn Sweeney, the most outspoken person at the table. “Women are organized people.”
The small-town mayor
“I am surprised that the economy seems to be doing as well as it is with the unsteadiness that seems to appear in Washington.”
During Trump’s first year in office, three small businesses had closed in Morrison, Ill., including a fast-food restaurant that occupied a prominent corner in the center of town. But six new ones had opened. The city also had persuaded a business that contributed to the construction of the new Freedom Tower at Ground Zero in New York not to leave. Mayor R. Everett Pannier was especially pleased by that.
Nationally, the strength of the economy was a reason for optimism. “The economy seems to be improving,” he said. “The stock market obviously is setting new records all the time in the last three, four years, and I’m not sure that people understand why that is. I’m sure Trump would take credit for it.”
Yet he was disturbed by the way the president comported himself. “I still look at him as being a big bully,” he said, adding a moment later, “I am surprised that the economy seems to be doing as well as it is with the unsteadiness that seems to appear in Washington.”
The Russia investigation bothered him. “You hear so much of this Russian investigation and this and that and you just say, forget it,” he said. “Was there meddling in there? I bet if they had an opportunity, they probably did. Do we meddle in theirs? Absolutely.”
If lawbreaking by anyone around the president had taken place, Pannier said, it should be dealt with. But he was eager to see the investigation brought to a swift conclusion. “Is this something that should drag on for years, months? No, I don’t think so,” he said. “I think it detracts from things that we should be trying to do. And it is political.”
Trump’s Twitter rants about national security issues were a major worry. “It just seems to me you’ve got somebody that’s pretty unstable with their finger on the button,” Pannier said. “How much of that’s bluster and trying to gain recognition on an international scale, I don’t know.” Later, he returned to Trump and Korea. “When you come out and say, ‘My button is bigger than your button,’ it’s like, wait a minute, this is like playground stuff.”
Pannier said he sensed some erosion in the president’s support in the area, that some Trump voters “today are looking back and saying, ‘Man, I’m not sure this is the guy I should have voted for. . . .’ Some of them are looking and saying, ‘Why did I vote for him?’ ”
He said Trump could yet succeed as president. “If he gets his [act] together in terms of his personal actions and allows his people to work the way they should, I think that there can be a positive economic impact to the country in general,” Pannier said. “But if he doesn’t change where he’s going, people are going to get so upset with that, that it won’t matter.”
The state worker
“I think the media — not necessarily the printed media, but the television media — I think they still hate him. I shouldn’t say hate, but they just don’t like him.”
It was almost the first anniversary of Trump’s inauguration and Kurt Glazier was back at his dining room table. By now, his view of the president had evolved further.
“Personally, I don’t think a lot has been accomplished because, like I said [in August], every time I would turn on the TV — and I’ve begun to watch the national news less and less — there’s some sort of daily scandal,” he said. “And then in October, when the whole Harvey Weinstein issue came to life and others, it was kind of in my opinion a relief for the president to have some of the focus on him removed.”
He continued: “However, it would have been a prime opportunity for him to step up and kind of referee that and try to pull the country together and say this really isn’t the way we should be acting. But you know as well as I do, just — what was it, a month, six weeks — before the election in 2016, the infamous [“Access Hollywood”] locker-room-talk tape came out with Billy Bush.”
Glazier still had questions about what Trump’s family had done. “This guy is running for the most important office in the United States and how could he not know that his own family was having secret meetings with individuals from other countries?” he said. Overall, however, he was having trouble following all the twists and turns. “It’s so involved and so deep, it’s confusing,” he said. “Like I said, one word. It’s confusing.”
Other moments had stuck in his mind. He said he had been stunned to see Trump, on a visit to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, “tossing rolls of paper towels to people like he’s a teenager.” Yet he also saw the media casting Trump constantly in a bad light. “I think the media — not necessarily the printed media, but the television media — I think they still hate him. I shouldn’t say hate, but they just don’t like him. They don’t want to give him credit.”
He worried especially that those who voted for Trump are now viewed by others as therefore being like Trump. “I’m far from being a racist,” he said. “I’m far from being a bigot. Not everybody makes the crude comments. Not everybody walks and talks like he’s a big bully, like the president can do sometimes.”
Did he think Republicans in the area remained behind the president? “Yeah, but they also feel that he needs to kind of change his ways,” he said. “What’s our alternative? We just can’t fire him like he did on ‘The Apprentice.’ ”
Asked whether he hopes the president runs for reelection in 2020, he demurred. “I don’t, I don’t know,” he replied. “There’s a lot of time left. There’s a lot of unknowns out there yet.”
The Democratic politician
“I also think our caucus after 2018 is going to be very, very different. . . . I don’t think we’re going to accept the way things are done right now.”
As the second year of the Trump presidency opened, Cheri Bustos was back in Washington for the first weeks of the congressional session. She recounted what she had picked up from constituents in Northwest Illinois during the holidays. “I’m still not hearing a whole lot of anti-Trump,” she said.
“We went to a supermarket last week,” she continued, “and ran into a retired farmer, and I asked him what was on his mind, and he said, ‘I like Trump.’ And I said, ‘You do?’ I said, ‘What do you like about him?’ He said, ‘I like the way he talks.’ He said, ‘My wife doesn’t like him, though.’ I said, ‘Why doesn’t your wife like him?’ [He said], ‘She thinks he’s crazy.’ ”
Just before the holidays, Bustos had met with a couple of hundred farmers. She talked to them about her committee assignments — she sits on the agriculture and transportation panels — and their relevance to the farming community. “And I open it up for questions and the very first question I got was, ‘What is Congress going to do to rein in the FBI?’ You know that’s a dominant story on Fox News, right?”
She said people in her district were increasingly impatient with Washington. “I think there’s less tolerance for everything being labeled — this is a Democratic issue, or this is a Republican issue,” she said. “They’re tired of the game playing. I walked by a television yesterday — and I think it might have been CNN or something — where the scrolling thing across the bottom was, ‘Countdown to the Shutdown.’ People are sick of that. I’m sick of it.”
She said she was heartened by the kinds of Democrats stepping forward to run for Congress from all over the Midwest. “They’re independent thinkers,” she said. “If there’s a consulting team that’s advising them to do things the Washington way, I’m seeing pushback.”
Bustos had one other observation of note, which if accurate could signal turbulence in 2019 for the Democrats. “I also think our caucus after 2018 is going to be very, very different. . . . I don’t think we’re going to accept the way things are done right now,” she said.
The corporate manager
“But I have an awful feeling that we know that it won’t end well. To me, he’s kind of on a thin thread.”
In early April, southern Minnesota was bracing for more winter — a spring snowstorm that was barreling across the northern tier of the country. Dennis Schminke was back from Florida, seated once again at the local McDonald’s. He said he still wouldn’t trade a day of a Clinton presidency for a day of Trump, but he sounded no more enthusiastic about the president than he had in January. If anything, he had moved further away from Trump.
In January, in a telephone conversation, he had said he thought he would still prefer a second Trump term to potential alternatives. “The short answer is yes, if that’s the choice over Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders or Oprah Winfrey. But barely.” But he had a sense of foreboding about the future of Trump’s presidency. “We don’t know where this will end up,” he said. “But I have an awful feeling that we know that it won’t end well. To me, he’s kind of on a thin thread.”
In the intervening three months, much had happened. The president had fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and let go national security adviser H.R. McMaster. Other personnel changes had rocked the administration and shaken Trump allies. Attorney General Jeff Sessions had fired FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. Mueller’s investigation had produced new indictments — and more presidential unhappiness.
Trump had expressed his willingness to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Of more immediate concern in the Midwest, he had imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum, and appeared to be embarking on a full-fledged trade war with China. The Chinese had just announced tariffs on pork and soybeans, two products that Midwestern farmers export in abundance to the Chinese. Schminke worried about where the trade talk might be heading.
The stock market, which had risen steadily throughout Trump’s first year, had been through weeks of volatility — down hundreds of points on one day, up hundreds on another — caused by Trump’s policies. After a year of substantial gains, the markets had lost ground during the quarter.
To Schminke, the administration’s personnel changes were particularly unsettling. “In my professional life, I found turnover to be among the most disruptive things that you could have,” he said. “If you want things to get behind and stuff to not get done, then just keep churning people through.”
If he had any sympathy for Trump, it was because of how the media treated him. He said he thought that news outlets, particularly cable television, had “lost their minds about Trump.” In January, he had said he was cutting back on his television watching worn down by constant controversy and shouting. “I’m out of outrage,” he said at the time.
But it was what he said about rank-and-file Republicans in his state that was more revealing in this conversation. Those running for office were standing with Trump, he said. They were not wavering in their support. They made up part of the 30 percent to 35 percent of the electorate that comprises the hard-core Trump base.
He said others were showing signs of discontent or disaffection. They “have kind of taken a leave of absence,” he said of some regular Republicans. He mentioned someone he knew from a nearby town, someone long active in the party. “He pretty much resigned,” Schminke said. “He formally left the party. He just does not like Trump.”
Not many Republicans were going that far, he added, including himself. “But I find myself drawing back a little bit. I’m kind of willing to let some of these guys that are more enthusiastic about it take the reins for a while and see how they do.”
At another point, Schminke said, “I’m a corporate guy. I’m kind of concerned about the company brand, so to speak. As [Facebook founder Mark] Zuckerberg found out this last week or so, it’s pretty easy to damage your brand, and things that you didn’t think were going to be a problem have a way of becoming a problem. I think that in some respects Trump has been damaging to the Republican brand.”
He was asked whether being a Republican in the age of Trump asks too much of party regulars. “It does. It does,” he said. He then added, “I’m free of that.” Asked to explain, he replied, “Because I’ll pat him on the back where he’s got that coming and I’ll kind of point out that I wish he was doing better here. I’m not a guy who thinks he’s playing four-dimension chess, that he’s just that much smarter than everybody else.”
What hadn’t changed is Schminke’s feeling that all of this will not end well. “A lot turns on whether he fires Mueller or not, and if that happens what will Congress do and what will the people do. . . . I think it would probably be a bad thing if he fired Mueller as much as I get aggravated by Mueller,” he said.
Beyond that, he worried about the effect of the constant turmoil around the president. “People don’t like chaos,” he said. “You know that. Especially here in Minnesota. You’re familiar with the phrase ‘Minnesota Nice’? It doesn’t really mean Minnesotans are nice. It just means they may think you’re full of s---, they’re just not going to tell you that. It has a bit of a dark connotation like that.”
The fish store owner
“I don’t think he’s grown. I don’t think he’s learned anything.”
Despite the unseasonably cold weather, the Valley Fish & Cheese shop was once again open for business. During the two months when it was closed, Mike Valley had spent a week in Mexico and a week in Oklahoma. He had taken a few other short trips to get away. Now, as he put it, it was back to reality.
The day before, he and others had hauled 1,200 pounds of carp and some buffalo fish out of the Mississippi River. “We’ll process them today and get them in the brine tonight and smoke them tomorrow,” he said. “The rest of them we will freeze in buckets of water for future use down the road.”
Valley said he had put the store up for sale last fall. So far, there were no takers — perhaps not unexpected for a business that requires the commitment, energy and sheer love required of an operation as personal as his. “I’ll do it for a few more years if it doesn’t sell and then I don’t know,” he said. “My mind is good, but my body’s wore out.”
Time had not softened him when it came to the president. After backing Trump in 2016, he had fallen away within months of the inauguration, and he remained deeply disappointed with him. “I knew there was going to be some talk and some issues and some things,” he said. “But one would think that, after a year and a half, that would slowly dissipate and maybe go away.”
Instead, he believed things were worse than ever. “I don’t think he’s grown,” he said. “I don’t think he’s learned anything.” Although Valley said he does not regret supporting Trump in 2016, given the choices, he remained firm that he would “absolutely not” vote to reelect the president. He will look for someone with “more professionalism” and “more integrity.”
For now, he wishes Trump would lower his voice and get serious about leading the country. But he has low expectations. “He wants to be the center of attention,” Valley said. “He wants to create animosity. . . . He’s a s--- stirrer and that’s the bottom line.”
The young businessman
“This is an area that we try to work hard, play by the rules. It’s not a fast pace, it’s not a fancy pace, but we appreciate it.”
The day was raw, with rain and the threat of snow across the region. The landscape was in monochrome, shades of brown everywhere. Along the back roads of Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin, bushes and other vegetation were sheathed in ice crystals.
Andrew Chesney had spent the morning on a hog farm, trying to understand better the kinds of agricultural operations he would be representing in the Illinois legislature if successful in his campaign. He had prevailed in the Republican primary a few weeks earlier, probably the more challenging of the election hurdles to becoming a state representative.
He said the farmers around the area were alarmed about the effect of a possible trade war on their finances. “I would even go so far as saying disappointed,” he said. Local farm bureaus, he added, were “very nervous, rightfully so.”
Still, Chesney said that he preferred to focus on the big picture with Trump, and that on that front, things still looked good. The national economy was strong, despite market volatility, and the administration personnel changes that worried Dennis Schminke didn’t particularly bother Chesney. “I like that style,” he said. “I think that oftentimes people get in office and they hold onto people in certain positions and they don’t replace them because it’s not politically expedient because of optics. . . . The quick movements are certainly something I expected.”
He did not condone Trump’s alleged affair with adult film actress Stormy Daniels but was resigned to this kind of thing being in the news so long as the president is in office — one story after another that cast Trump in a negative light, including those involving infidelity, Russia and questionable business ethics. “I’m certainly not defending him if that did take place,” he said. “But I believe most of these conversations are just being driven by the media and those that want to profit from these stories. . . . It’s nonstop. I think you almost become desensitized to it because it’s just so over the top.”
He expressed another feeling common in this part of the country, a sense that life in the Midwest was not appreciated by those on the coasts. “This is an area that we try to work hard, play by the rules,” he said. “It’s not a fast pace, it’s not a fancy pace, but we appreciate it. We like our big vehicles and our large parking spots, and that works for some people and it doesn’t work for others. . . . For us to go to a Cubs game is a day event. It’s not convenient. But we’re willing to forego some of that convenience for this pace and lifestyle.” He added that people in the area feel as though political leaders from both parties have let them down. “We’re constantly being preached to by those that in many cases have never done it,” he said.
Although he was generally positive about things under Trump, there was one area that bothered him. “I’m a little surprised that more progress hasn’t been made with unifying the Republican Party,” he said. “The president seems to be an equal-opportunity offender about everybody on both sides of the aisle. I thought he could maybe make some stronger inroads on keeping the Republican Party held together. . . . I think that there’s been some unnecessary name-calling.”
The ag teacher
“I think he’s making – I’ll be honest with you, I’m amazed he’s made as much progress as he can.”
The Sunrise Café in DeWitt, Iowa, was filling up with lunchtime customers and the noise level was rising. Outside, the sun was bright but the temperature remained far below normal. A huge pile of snow, plowed to the side of the street after an earlier storm, had hardened into a crusted, miniature mountain across from the public library.
Dan Smicker was late, unusual for a man who is punctual to a fault. “This is the first of four meetings today,” he said as he sat down in the restaurant. He was still frustrated by the Mueller investigation, impatient for it to end and dubious that it would ever affect Trump significantly.
“A lot of independents are talking that it seems like the swamp is organized to obstruct the president any way they can,” he said. At another point, he returned to that thought. “I think the president has been stymied as much as the system can stymie him. I think he’s making – I’ll be honest with you, I’m amazed he’s made as much progress as he can.”
Unlike others in the region, he played down the significance of the trade war and the threat of tariffs on Midwestern soybeans and pork. He considered all this another example of Trump standing strong. “You have to do something to prove to people that you’re real,” he said, “that you mean what you say.”
He was confident that farmers would find markets for any losses in exports to the Chinese and said Trump could supplement farmers’ finances if they took a hit from the tariffs. “The amount of money it’s going to take to make up the losses that agriculture would incur because of the tariffs is going to be so insignificant as to the total budget of the federal government, it will be easy for him in the end to cover the losses,” he said.
Smicker was almost totally positive about the Trump era, save for one personal lament. “Probably the thing that has hurt me more out of this deal than anything is the labeling that’s been done — and I think this is what’s really going to hurt the liberals in this deal — when they say, well, if you’re conservative, you’re a racist, you’re a bigot,” he said. “I have a lifetime friend, and our friendship will end when one of us dies. This is a gay gentleman whom I have admired for 40 years. I mean, I would cut both wrists and bleed out for this guy, and it hurts me badly to be called a homophobic. Okay?”
Toward the end of the conversation, Smicker reflected on how his views had shifted as a result of Trump’s candidacy and presidency. He had begun the 2016 cycle as part of the Republican establishment. He had supported Jeb Bush in the early stages of the GOP race. It was only as he saw the fervor building for Trump’s candidacy that his feelings began to change.
“I did not know what to think of these people,” he said. “I started listening to them and listening to their concerns. Okay? I started seeing what they were talking about. I changed my attitude. I said, maybe there is a better way. Because other than the group of people that had control of power, there was so much discontent in this country.”
He said Trump had empowered a group of people alienated from the political system. The election had triggered a grand experiment in democracy. “The common man has come back to the table and the common man wants to be listened to,” Smicker said. “By that I mean women also. I’m not trying to be a sexist or anything. . . . I don’t think the people will ever go back to what was. This is still a democracy. The people run it, or should run it, and they weren’t being listened to.”
The Democratic politician
“I think we as a party as a whole wrote off too much of rural America.”
A snow squall was erupting as Cheri Bustos arrived at Milltown Coffee along the riverfront in Moline, Ill. The day before, a camera crew from Vice Media had followed the congresswoman as she made rounds in her district. On this return to Illinois, she found continued dissatisfaction with both parties and what constituents considered dysfunction in Washington. But she had noticed something different as well: signs of discontent with the president among likely supporters in a district that he had won.
“Literally, up until probably the past half year also, Trump’s name would not come up negatively at all,” she said. “Certainly, when I go to party functions it does. But I don’t judge how people are feeling by going to any party function, because that’s not the real world. Mostly his name just wouldn’t even come up, and I’m hearing a little bit more about this real displeasure about the fights that he picks on a nonstop basis.”
Bustos talked about the effect on those Trump Triers, as she labeled them, the voters who had decided to take a chance in 2016. “This part of the country,” she said, “put Donald Trump in the White House, and when I say this part of the country, I’m talking about congressional districts like mine. . . . And think about what he promised us, us meaning towns of a couple thousand people and to our farmers who voted for him overwhelmingly. Look what he promised, and now look what he’s doing. It is a whole slew of broken promises.”
Bustos still worried that Democrats were not fully sensitized to the perceptions and attitudes of people in the Midwest toward her party. She voted against Trump’s tax bill but said she knew that, in a region where the average family income is about $43,000, another $100 a month in their paychecks is “not bread crumbs,” the phrase House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had used to belittle the new law.
In January, Bustos had said Trump would win her district again if the vote were held then. Now she hedged. She said she thought that Democrats would take control of the House in November and that with the right candidate, the 2020 election could turn out better than 2016 for the party.
That would require a great alternative candidate and a better strategy for winning back those areas in the Midwest that swung to Trump, she said. “We have to acknowledge why they lost faith in us,” she said in explaining why the party had lost ground in districts like hers. She added, “I think we as a party as a whole wrote off too much of rural America.”
The small-town mayor
“But I think the jury is still out on Trump, and the next year or so is going to be really important.”
“If I was giving him a grade,” R. Everett Pannier said, “I’d give him a C. He could have a B if his approach to people and things was different.”
The mayor’s mixed review of the Trump presidency included a recognition that the economy has been a plus and that an emphasis on securing U.S. borders is needed, although Pannier said he thought that building a wall would be “a ridiculous expenditure of funds.”
Trump’s behavior — leading to constant turnover in the White House and the administration, his over-the-top tweets, his occasional saber-rattling and a seeming desire to get his way no matter what — remained a distinct negative in Pannier’s eyes. “It just seems like it’s too much of . . . I’m president, this is what we’re going to do. Period. . . . I don’t appreciate that approach on things, even though I may agree with a lot of the Republican proposals and positions and things,” he said. “I don’t necessarily think their Trump’s positions.”
Pannier said the president has done little to nothing to overcome the nation’s many divisions, particularly racial divisions. “I think the white separatists feel that they’re stronger, that they have a better foothold in things and I certainly don’t want to see that. . . . I think they feel more empowered because of him being there,” he said.
Moving to the issues of sexual misconduct and harassment, Pannier said, “Then you hear some of the personal stories as far as his treatment of women and his thoughts and stuff on that. I don’t like that. . . . I think the MeToo movement pushed back real hard on some of that to the point where his fellow Republicans, at least, have learned some lessons in that and even some Democrats. I was glad to see [that].”
He talked about the voters whose discontent had prompted them to take a chance by voting for Trump. “I think that a lot of them are probably still ‘triers,’ but their enthusiasm has dwindled considerably, and if you were to have another presidential election today and had a candidate different than Hillary out there — I don’t know who that would be — I think Trump would have a difficult time. . . . But at the same time, like I said, one of the key things is the economy is still pretty good, and that’s a big measurement on things.”
Pannier was asked what he might do in 2020, if the president seeks reelection. “I’ve pretty much always been conservative in voting for primarily Republicans,” he said. “If he was running, I would have to honestly say I’d have to really look hard at the last couple years that he’s been in office to say I could vote for him again, depending so much on the opposition. . . . But I think the jury is still out on Trump, and the next year or so is going to be really important.”
The state worker
“I would just say I’m a little saddened by some of the happenings. I don’t know, maybe his better days are yet to come. I don’t know.”
Trump’s presidency continued to wear on Kurt Glazier. “Every day you wonder, or you ask yourself the question, what’s next?” he said early one evening. “I usually follow ABC News . . . and that’s the question I seem to ask myself. What is it today at 5:30 with David Muir . . . ? I think the country was on edge.”
He had watched the interview with Stormy Daniels on CBS’s “60 Minutes. “It does nothing for his reputation,” Glazier said. “None of this does. I think it puts a lot of doubt into his mental state even, even though his doctor said he’s fine, he’s fit. . . . It makes a lot of people question, including myself, how can you take this man serious with anything he says?”
He talked about the president’s provocations of his adversaries and clashes with the media. “Of course, the real die-hard Donald Trump lovers eat this up and they eat these scandals up,” he said.
But Glazier made a distinction between the most staunch Trump supporters and other Republicans. “I think the real party faithful, the educated voters, might be beginning to distance themselves from him,” he said, “and I wouldn’t be too surprised to see a Republican challenger or challengers against Trump.”
Was he disappointed by the president? “I wouldn’t call it a disappointment,” he said. “I would just say I’m a little saddened by some of the happenings. I don’t know, maybe his better days are yet to come. I don’t know. I would hope they would be, but no one can predict the future.”
He said many of the people he knows would vote again for Trump over Clinton, but he offered a telling caveat that will weigh heavily if Trump seeks reelection. “They wanted so much of a change,” he said of the supporters who put Trump in the White House. “But he has some changing to do himself before I would be supportive of him again. . . . A 71-year-old man like he is, I don’t foresee him changing a whole lot.”
About this story
Design and development by Andrew Braford, Jake Crump, Jason Bernert and Matthew Callahan. Photo editing by Marisa Schwartz Taylor. Graphics by Tim Meko. Database research by Ted Mellnik.