Donald Trump sailed to victory in significant part on the back of white, rural, largely conservative voters drawn to his populist message. The upset victory has prompted soul-searching in the media, which had set the odds of a Hillary Clinton victory from 71 percent to more than than 99 percent. “Want to know what America's thinking? Try asking,” the New York Times' public editor Liz Spayd wrote, urging the Times to “think hard about the half of America the paper too seldom covers.”
Margaret Sullivan, media critic at The Washington Post, struck a similar note. “Although we touched down in the big red states for a few days, or interviewed some coal miners or unemployed autoworkers in the Rust Belt,” she wrote, “we didn’t take them seriously.”
In May, I moved from deep-blue Baltimore to one of those overlooked corners of the country that swung wildly toward Trump. I have gotten to know the people who live there as friends and neighbors. Here in the town of Red Lake Falls — the seat of Red Lake County, Minn. — it wasn't easy to get a sense of which way the political winds were blowing. I didn’t see a single yard sign for Clinton or Trump, although signs for state and local candidates were everywhere. Sometimes, it seemed, signs for competing Democratic and Republican candidates were planted in the same yard.
But voters in Red Lake County voted for Trump in a landslide, 61 percent to 29 percent. More striking, Clinton’s showing here was the worst of any Democratic presidential candidate since at least 1960. Given the vociferous campaign that played out on TV — and seemingly across the country — I wondered how such a dramatic political shift could be happening in an almost hidden way among my neighbors. It was, in some way, no surprise that busy reporters based in D.C. and traveling nonstop around the country had not grasped the entirety of this shift. I lived here every day. I missed it, too.
After the election, if there were any place in America to take the pulse of these Trump voters, I figured it would be right here in Red Lake. And I knew just the place to go, too. Every morning down at Eagle Square, one of the local gas stations, mostly retired guys get together to talk local gossip and the issues of the day. These “coffee klatches,” as they’re known around here, are a big part of the region’s civic fabric.
I visited Eagle Square on Friday morning expecting to hear from jubilant Trump voters. But what I found was something different, another humbling reminder of the yawning gap between what political numbers — like in the chart above — can tell you about a place and what life is actually like for the people who live there.
The grizzled and cantankerous crew of retired teachers, farmers and laborers at Eagle Square were mostly, as it turned out, loyal Democrats who had voted for Clinton. And like so many other people in the country, they were wondering how their friends and neighbors with deep ties to Minnesota’s Democratic Farmer-Labor Party — the state arm of the national Democratic Party — ended up pulling the lever for Trump.
“I was shocked by the election,” said Jim Benoit, a retiree and veteran who has lived in Red Lake Falls nearly his whole life. “I say hold on to your shorts, because we're in for a ride. And not a good ride — I’m really scared to death.”
Benoit is the kind of guy who will drop by a newcomer’s house to share fried walleye recipes and apples plucked fresh off his tree. His voice carries a raspy lilt that comes from a decades-long cigarette habit cultivated in northern Minnesota.
He voted for Clinton because Trump “is a walking bomb. It’s scary.” Benoit remains hopeful that Congress will hold Trump’s more authoritative impulses in check. “He thinks you can do everything, and you can't. You’ve got Congress.”
Ed Dahle, who retired some years ago after decades of teaching music at the Red Lake Falls High School, said he has taken to telling anyone who asks that he plans to build a wall around his house to keep Trump supporters out.
“It’s hard for me to vote Republican when I was raised by a grandfather that was solid Democrat,” he said. “And he told me every time he had a chance, ‘Don't ever vote Republican because the Democrats help the farmers.’ ”
Echoing remarks by some Clinton advisers in the aftermath of the surprise defeat, Dahle said that Clinton was defeated in places like Red Lake Falls because she didn’t reach out to the working class the way her husband, former president Bill Clinton, had.
“When Hillary was up to speak, some of the people just did not feel that ease of conversation,” he said. “They felt there was like a screen or something between them and her. And that’s why so many people turned.”
Retired highway worker Larry Eckstein, another Clinton voter, pointed to her handling of a private email server as another factor in her defeat.
“That email thing was really a big thing. That hung with her for a long time,” he said. “She never came out and said, ’Let's get it all out. Get it out now, and let’s see if there's any problem.’ She never came out and got rid of it.”
Still, he said, “What’s done is done. We’ve got to get behind him.”
Of course, just because I happened upon a group of Democratic voters doesn’t diminish the fact that Trump won big here.
Allen Bertilrud, the mayor-elect of Red Lake Falls, who won the position on a write-in ballot, swung by to chat. He wouldn’t say who he voted for, but he seemed upbeat about the results.
“Trump didn’t win because he was the most popular guy on the planet,” Bertilrud said. “He won because he said the right things at the right time that got Hillary going. And if Hillary would have focused on the issues instead of focusing on his womanizing when she had a husband who was a womanizer, she probably would have won.”
He added his family has “voted Democratic for years.” But this time, “they voted for all the other Democratic candidates but Hillary.”
Gun control was a huge factor. Democrats “keep harping on this gun control,” he said. “I can understand gun control in the metropolitan areas, but we don’t see that out here. We don’t have drive-by shootings. This is one of the things that they feel is one of the last rights that they have.”
A few blocks away from Eagle Square, Dick Brumwell, a veteran and retired schoolteacher, was helping his son fix a garage door. Brumwell is a lifelong Democrat and voted for Obama twice. But he said a vote for Clinton was off the table.
“Every time Hillary would get together with a group of people, they would say, ‘Oh, we need more food stamps or more of this,’ and she would say, ‘Okay, we'll take care of that.’ She was promising everything,” he said.
Brumwell vacillated on whether he could pull the lever for Trump but ultimately voted for the businessman. “I think America is so gosh darn tired of the status quo politicians, lifetime politicians, it’s time to get somebody who isn’t associated with the government, who has new ideas,” he said.
The aftermath of the election is prompting a new wave of analysis of the working-class voters who pushed Trump over the finish line. There’s a temptation to treat these white rural voters as a monolith. The sense often seems to be that they’re fundamentally different than their urban counterparts — on culture, on politics and across so many other social vectors — and similar to each other.
Statistically, of course, there is some truth to this. There is a commonality out here. Nearly everyone is white. Most folks own guns. Many have a tie to the agricultural economy.
But it’s easy to overstate these commonalities. What I’m starting to see after six months here is that folks in this community — and probably many others like it across the U.S. — defy easy stereotypes. Yes, Red Lake County turned out overwhelmingly for Trump. But there are plenty of Clinton voters here too.
Politics is also experienced in a quieter, more personal way up here — that may be one reason yard signs for national candidates are so hard to find. Ideological disagreements tend to be hashed out in conversations between close friends, rather than shouting matches between strangers. Decisions and judgments about politics are subtler and less polarized that the election’s results might make it seem.
Back at Eagle Square, Bertilrud and Dahle were arguing over the severity of future threats the country might face.
“We’re $19 trillion in the hole,” Bertilrud said. “If interest rates go to 5 percent, we can’t even pay our interest.”
“I don’t give a hang about that,” said Dahle.
“Remember your great-grandchildren? They’re going to have to pay for this.”
Dahle wasn’t buying it. “They’re not even going to be alive if we don’t get this global warming done and get rid of the damn coal. They aren’t going to be alive if they can’t breathe!”
But at the end, for these voters, the political talk was just talk and little more.
“We’re friends,” Dahle said. “Politics is one thing. You disagree, and then you go on with your life. You can’t hate people forever.”
Discussion soon turned to what Bertilrud intended to do, as the new mayor, about the plague of squirrels in Dahle’s back yard.