CLINTON, Iowa — Tom Godat, a union electrician who has always voted for Democrats, cast his ballot for Donald Trump last year as “the lesser of two evils” compared to Hillary Clinton.
He’s already a little embarrassed about it.
There’s a lot that Godat likes about President Trump, especially his pledge to make the country great again by ignoring lobbyists, challenging both political parties and increasing the number of good-paying jobs.
But Godat was surprised by the utter chaos that came with the president’s first month. He said it often felt like Trump and his staff were impulsively firing off executive orders instead of really thinking things through.
“I didn’t think he would come in blazing like he has,” said Godat, 39, who has three kids and works at the same aluminum rolling plant where his father worked. “It seems almost like a dictatorship at times. He’s got a lot of controversial stuff going on and rather than thinking it through, I’m afraid that he’s jumping into the frying pan with both feet.”
Of the six swing states that were key to Trump’s unexpected win in November, his margin of victory was the highest in Iowa, where he beat Clinton by 9 percentage points. Yet at the dawn of his presidency, only 42 percent of Iowans approve of the job that he’s doing and 49 percent disapprove, according to a Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll this month.
That support varies across the state: Here in eastern Iowa, it’s in the low 40s. It’s highest in northwest Iowa, where 55 percent of Iowans approve of the president’s performance thus far, and it’s lowest in the southeast corner of the state and the Des Moines area, where only 31 percent of Iowans approve, according to the poll.
A meandering 370-mile drive across the state last week — starting at the Mississippi River in the east on Wednesday and ending at the Missouri River in the west on Saturday — took a Washington Post reporter and photographer through a range of communities that mirror many parts of America. Along the way, more than 100 Iowans explained why so many of them are already disappointed in the new president.
While Iowa is still home to many strong supporters who say it’s too early to judge him, there are others who say they voted for Trump simply because he wasn’t Clinton. Many Iowans worry Trump might cut support for wind-energy and ethanol programs; that his trade policies could hurt farms that export their crops; that mass deportations would empty the state’s factories and meat-packing plants; and that a repeal of the Affordable Care Act would yank health insurance away from thousands. While the hyper-simplicity of Trump’s campaign promises helped him win over voters, they are no match for the hyper-complexity of Iowa’s economy and values.
As the temperature hit 73 degrees last Wednesday afternoon, Godat took his two sons — ages 3 and 15 — to a playground near the Mississippi. He has lived for most of his life in Clinton, a town of nearly 27,000 that is home to a major corn-processing plant and other manufacturers.
Hillary Clinton won the city by more than 2,000 votes — but Trump won Clinton County, which was one of more than 25 counties in eastern Iowa that flipped from voting for Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016. That shift here and in other Midwestern states was largely driven by white working-class voters like Godat.
Godat commutes more than 30 miles south to Bettendorf, where he gets paid a base wage of $34 per hour to help prepare aluminum used for airplanes and cars. There’s a shortage of trained electricians, and last year Godat said he worked 600 overtime hours, bringing his total pay to about $110,000. His wife provides in-home care for the elderly.
Godat hopes his son will get an apprenticeship at the plant after high school. He is confident that his employer won’t lay off workers or shut down the plant because it has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Iowa and does specialized work that would be difficult to move. He hopes Trump can create more jobs like his across the country.
And that’s why he wishes he could tell the president: “Focus on us, on our country, on our issues here.”
Just then a train rolled by the playground, carrying coal, scrap metal and corn. Godat turned to his son and told him: “That’s the sound of progress.”
On the other end of Clinton County is the tiny town of Lost Nation, where the president received 66 percent of the vote. On Wednesday night, a couple dozen local farmers and union guys gathered to play pool at the Pub Club, situated amid downtown storefronts that once contained a funeral home. (Beer is chilled where bodies were once stored.)
Near the front window, three friends in their early 20s sipped beer. They all voted for Trump because he’s an outsider who speaks his mind — and they like what he’s doing so far.
“He’s doing what he said he was going to do, that’s the biggest thing,” said Tyler Schurbon, 23, who describes himself as a “progressive Republican” who falls asleep watching Fox News each night. “A lot of people get into the presidency, and they just completely forget what they talked about.”
Schurbon trims trees for power companies, a full-time union job that pays $60,000 per year and full benefits. He drives a nice pickup truck and bought a two-story farmhouse for $50,000 last year.
“That’s pretty good living for not having a college degree,” Schurbon said.
While he doesn’t like how politicized unions have become, he’s grateful for the wages they negotiated over the years. The Republican-run Iowa Legislature, empowered by Trump’s win, voted this month to dramatically scale back the collective bargaining rights of the state’s public workers — worrying members of private unions like Schurbon.
While others in the bar insist that Trump supports unions, Schurbon doesn’t think so: “Nope, he’s completely against them.”
Schurbon and his dad farm about 500 acres of soybeans and corn, so he’s also worried about the president’s promise to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, which could hurt farmers that export their crops to Canada and Mexico.
“He’s really hurting us, even though everybody around here is conservative,” Schurbon said, thumping his bottle of Budweiser on the table to emphasize some of his points. “When you cut off trade, that cuts off everything. Where do our crops go? They don’t stay here.”
But still, Schurbon likes much of what Trump is doing — and he wishes protesters would give him a break. The day before, hundreds descended on an event hosted by Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) just up the road in Maquoketa.
“Everybody might at least try. At least a little bit. Just try and help,” he said. “You don’t have to agree with him, but you don’t have to just completely block him, everything he’s doing.”
About 140 miles southwest of Lost Nation is the much larger town of Newton, which for generations was home to a Maytag factory that once employed one in four residents. The factory closed in 2007, laying off more than 3,000 workers. In 2010, “60 Minutes” profiled the struggling town — catching the attention of Trump, who reached out to some of the residents who were profiled.
Newton has somewhat recovered, although most locals commute out of town for work. Two companies that manufacture wind turbine parts have taken over part of the Maytag factory, creating hundreds of jobs, although they pay less than Maytag did. While Trump claimed on the campaign trail to support wind energy, he has also fought wind projects near his properties, and Iowans worry he could cut subsidies that are vital to the industry.
Nearly a dozen local retirees gathered at a barbershop downtown on Thursday morning, chatting about the cold reception Republican senators were getting at town halls as they ate chili out of plastic foam bowls at 10 a.m.
Nearly all of them voted for Clinton, although Trump won the surrounding county of Jasper.
“I hate to say it, but I voted for Hillary,” said Dave Drew, 71, a longtime Democrat who retired from Maytag in the early 1990s after working there for 27 years. “I voted against Trump. We didn’t have a choice. I mean, I don’t think she was the greatest choice. I don’t think he was, either. Joe Biden would have been my choice.”
Although this was a room full of Democrats and left-leaning independents, the conversation was far from politically correct. There were jokes about Clinton’s health, and a racial slur was used to describe Middle Easterners. The group mostly agreed that mass deportations of undocumented immigrants would tank the state’s economy, although they wondered why immigrants don’t learn English before coming to the United States.
Jerry Wylie, 73, praised Latinos for having a strong work ethic and taking low-paying factory and meat-packing plant jobs that most Iowans don’t want to work — especially, he said, black Iowans whom he accused of being lazy.
As Wylie told two stereotype-filled stories to back up his claim, another retiree in the barbershop argued that most longtime welfare recipients in the state are rural whites.
At one point, a Trump-supporting 30-year-old truck driver who stopped in for a haircut looked at Wylie and said: “What’s your problem?”
The truck driver, who lives in the next town and didn’t want to give his name, said he mowed “Trump” into his yard last summer. While the older guys in the barbershop worked during the golden age of manufacturing and retired comfortably with pensions, the truck driver says his annual pay has decreased by $5,000 in the seven years he has worked for a dairy company in Marshalltown. Something has to change, and that’s why he supports Trump.
“He went against the grain — took it up as a hobby and asked the questions no one wanted to ask,” he said. “I have never heard of a president getting scolded or put down for upholding his promises.”
Another 40 miles west of Newton is the Des Moines suburb of Urbandale, a maze of cul-de-sacs and big-box stores. Clinton narrowly won this city of nearly 42,000.
As a light rain fell Thursday afternoon, the corridors of Merle Hay Mall filled with retirees speed-walking and moms pushing strollers — including Steventjie Hasna and her 1-year-old daughter.
Hasna, 24, is a conservative Christian who is deeply opposed to abortion and usually backs Republicans. This election, she decided not to vote.
“The balance between Hillary or Trump — they’re both horrible, in my opinion — but Trump outweighed it just because of his racist stance on everything,” Hasna said.
Hasna was stunned when Trump won, and her young family has deeply felt the ramifications of the president’s first month in office. Her husband, Hosen Hasna, is from Syria and came to the Midwest for college. He later took a job in the small Iowa town where Steventjie Hasna — her first name is Dutch and she took her husband’s Arabic last name — grew up. He works as an electrical engineer at a tire factory, while she stays home with their daughter, Nehad.
She continues to practice her Christian faith, while he attends Friday prayers at a local mosque when he can. His parents, who live in Damascus, often visit Iowa for five months at a time — visits that may no longer happen if the president institutes another travel ban, which Hasna said does little to protect the country.
“I don’t care what he says, you’re attacking Muslims here,” she said. “And that’s not American at all. We’re American. We stand for American values and that’s the exact opposite of what he stands for.”
Hasna is terrified that her husband’s mosque will be attacked or that he will be targeted.
“You don’t know what some crazy guy might get in his head,” she said. “People are going to do what they are going to do. I’m not going to say that it’s Trump’s fault. . . . But with him having the hateful stance that he had and then being voted as president, it made people feel like: ‘Hey, maybe my racist stance on things isn’t wrong.’ ”
Her husband is in the process of becoming a citizen, and they have discussed what they might do if they need to flee the country. If her husband could vote, he likely would have voted for Clinton.
Hasna’s mom and sister skipped voting — but her father cast a ballot for Trump.
“Yeah,” Hasna said, drawing out the word and then taking a deep breath, still clearly upset about it. “He didn’t want to vote for Hillary, so he voted for Trump. I told him: ‘You know, you shouldn’t have voted, Dad, if you don’t like either one of them.’ ”
About 30 miles northwest of Urbandale is Perry, which has been revitalized with the help of thousands of Latinos and other immigrants who moved to the area to work at a meat-packing plant.
The town of about 8,000 has long struggled with racial tensions. A month before Trump launched his presidential campaign, a bilingual kindergarten concert was interrupted by a man shouting: “USA! English only. USA! English only.”
The president’s threat to quickly deport millions of undocumented immigrants has scared many law-abiding residents of Perry, said Oscar Ramirez, 41, a legal resident who owns the Oasis grocery store downtown and has hired a lawyer to help him become a citizen.
Ramirez moved from rural El Salvador to New York in 1990 when he was 15. After eight years there, he moved to Perry to work at the meat-packing plant because he heard that the Midwest was a crime-free place to raise children. Four years ago, he and his wife opened their store. Lately, Ramirez said people have come to him with their fears of Trump.
“A lot of people are scared,” Ramirez said, as he hauled trays of pastries into the shop on Thursday afternoon. “They come to me, and they talk to me, and I say, ‘Hey, calm down. Nothing is going to happen, everything is going to be okay. You have to have hope that everything will be okay.’ ”
Jim George, 68, a retired county engineer who has lived in Perry for 20 years, said he voted for Trump but that his view of immigrants is different. “These are good folks,” George said. “This place would not be functioning without the folks that have come in here.”
“I voted for the Supreme Court. I didn’t want to vote for Trump,” said George, who is opposed to abortion. “With Trump, you just hold your nose.”
Continuing west takes you through the deeply conservative Fourth Congressional District represented by Rep. Steve King (R), who fought for some of Trump’s immigration proposals back when they were fringe ideas. Trump won the district by 27 points, while his approval rating in the latest Iowa Poll was 55 percent.
The small town of Missouri Valley sits nestled between the river of the same name and the railroad tracks. Trump received nearly 60 percent of the votes here.
On Saturday morning — the day after a sudden snowstorm closed schools — women ranging in ages and political beliefs ventured to Abundant Moon Yoga.
Owner Rachelle Pfouts, 40, is careful to keep politics out of her studio — although she says compassion is a key tenet of yoga that seems to be lacking in Washington right now.
Pfouts’s 8:30 a.m. class included a 48-year-old special education teacher, a 39-year-old mother of three and a 42-year-old administrative assistant who doesn’t have children — all of whom voted for Clinton and are gravely worried about the future of public education in their state and across the country.
A 10 a.m. class attracted two retirees from Woodbine who usually vote for Republicans, although they consider themselves independents. Lois Surber, a 67-year-old retired city clerk, said she didn’t like either candidate for president but voted for Trump. Libby Ring, a 70-year-old retired nursing assistant, said she didn’t vote — and she doesn’t approve of Trump’s first month.
Neither woman could name a thing the president has done that they liked, but they both said that protests and negative commentary are not helping.
“I’m going to support what he does just because I think that we need to,” Surber said.
Ring agreed: “We have to be adults and whoever is elected, we’re going to have to follow them.”
Ring paused and then added: “But he’s very hard to follow.”
Scott Clement in Washington contributed to this report.