TREMPEALEAU, Wis. — As the Packers and Cowboys kicked off earlier this week, a couple of dozen regulars arrived at the Vet’s Bar with potluck dishes to share, including a crockpot of hot dogs, macaroni salad, deviled eggs and layered dip. Many brought along their own beer koozies, and the bartender passed out green or yellow Jell-O shots every time the Packers scored a touchdown.
Sitting at the bar was a 63-year-old cook who voted for Donald Trump because “everything sucks” right now and there’s no way things could get worse. Next to him was a 59-year-old school lunch lady who believes Trump’s policies will lead to a significant increase in her wages and cheaper health care.
Farther down the long wooden bar was a 67-year-old truck driver who voted for Hillary Clinton and earlier this month pulled all of her money out of the stock market because she’s worried Trump will crash the economy. And there was a 30-year-old union worker at a brewery who voted for the Green Party candidate because he didn’t think Trump or Clinton could relate to guys like him.
There’s a reason that the Vet’s owners have a strict “no politics” rule. It seems as if any conversation about politics these days can quickly become heated.
For decades, Trempealeau — along with the surrounding county by the same name — has been deeply Democratic, with President Obama getting 56 percent of the vote here in 2012 and 60 percent in 2008. But in November, Trump won Trempealeau with 53 percent.
The victory stunned many residents, even though Trump signs had plastered the area for months. The same flip happened in 50 other Midwestern counties clustered in western Wisconsin, southern Minnesota, eastern Iowa and northwest Illinois.
Die-hard Democrats are still trying to figure out which of their roughly 1,600 neighbors were the 482 people who voted for Trump. Several lifelong Republicans say they voted for him, often reluctantly, but they didn’t expect him to win — and, as Inauguration Day approached, they were concerned that the country is even more divided.
Everyone at the bar agreed that it will take at least another presidential election to see if this was a fluke or a lasting shift.
“I just think that people were not feeling the greatest about the direction of the country and thought: ‘Oh well, I’m just going to throw my vote to somebody that I think will change things.’ Still, with the idea: ‘Well, he wasn’t going to win,’ ” said Kurt Wood, who has been village president since 1993 and voted for Clinton. “I think, in all honesty, people already realize what a mistake they made.”
David Samb, 60, came to the bar with his longtime girlfriend, whom he plans to soon marry — at least partly to get on her health insurance plan instead of paying $670 per month for one from a marketplace. Samb considered himself a “lifelong Democrat,” but he voted for Trump.
“I’m just tired of where everything is going in the country. It’s like we’re giving everything away, and we’re not getting anywhere,” said Samb, who recently retired from his union printing job. “I just kind of want to get the country back to the way it was.”
Samb voted for Obama twice, but his support evaporated with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which requires most Americans to have health insurance or pay a fine. Samb said he only briefly considered Clinton, saying that her gun-control proposals alone showed she was out of touch with rural America. As long as Trump controls his “hothead” tendencies and fully repeals Obamacare, Samb will consider his vote a wisely placed one.
“I’m not exactly sure what their ideas are, but I know it’s not working out the way it was planned,” Samb said. “I just don’t like it being pushed down our throat.”
Samb still voted for Democrats in down-ballot races, but he thinks that he has become a Republican.
“Now, depending on how Trump goes,” he said, “I may switch back.”
Nearly every storefront in downtown Trempealeau is filled, and the village booms with activity during the summer, when tourists arrive to bike, hike, fish and enjoy riverside concerts.
Local business owners say it’s difficult to find workers, as there are so many entry-level jobs in the area, including at a massive Ashley Furniture manufacturing plant about 20 miles north in Arcadia. The unemployment rate in Trempealeau County was 3 percent late last year, one of the lowest rates in the state.
What’s missing are the higher-paying jobs for more-skilled workers, several residents said, and many feel as if their salaries or retirement savings haven’t kept up with their expenses, especially for health care.
Trempealeau County is 97 percent white, but a growing number of Latinos have moved to the area for manufacturing and agriculture jobs. Arcadia’s downtown has been revitalized thanks to a half-dozen brightly colored Latino restaurants and grocery stores — but that rapid change has unsettled some longtime residents.
Chris Danou, a Democrat who represented this area in the state Assembly until unexpectedly losing to a Republican in November, said he thinks that resentment contributed to Trump’s victory.
“It’s infuriating, and it’s sad,” said Danou, who lives in Trempealeau but will soon move to the Madison area with his family. “I was disappointed in my constituents.”
Danou, a former police officer with two graduate degrees, lost to Treig Pronschinske, a technical-college graduate who worked in construction and was a small-town mayor.
Pronschinske said accusations of racism are “a cop-out” from Democrats who are out of touch with how frustrated many in rural towns have become.
“You could feel it coming,” Pronschinske said. “The comments were a lot of: ‘I agree with what Trump says, but I don’t really like how he acts.’ I saw right through that. They weren’t saying they wouldn’t vote for him. They just didn’t want to fight about it.”
And Clinton just was not liked in the area, a shortcoming exposed when Sen. Bernie Sanders won the Democratic primaries in the village and surrounding county. Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) — who did not face a Republican challenger, even though most of his congressional district went to Trump — said the only campaign sign he saw that mentioned Clinton was one calling for her to go to prison.
Clinton didn’t visit the state once.
Stop by Trempealeau’s River Cafe — the only place to get a full breakfast in the winter — and it’s packed with retirees, families and young professionals. A survey of the weekend rush illustrates the nuances of the village’s unsettled political views.
Donald and Alice Brenengen, both 76, are longtime Republicans who live on a farm near the edge of town. They dutifully voted for Trump, even though they wish the Republican nominee had been Ohio Gov. John Kasich. They learned that Trump won the morning after the election when Donald Brenengen turned on the television.
“I thought something happened to him, he had this crazy look on his face,” Alice Brenengen said Saturday morning. “He couldn’t believe it.”
“I was shocked,” he said.
“He just doesn’t seem like he’s president material,” she said of Trump, “although I think he will be better” than Clinton would have been.
Sarah and Derek Stoner both voted in the primary — her for Sanders, him for Trump — but just weren’t motivated to vote in the general election. They both now say that Trump could shake things up for the better.
“If it doesn’t work out, there will be another election in four years,” said Derek Stoner, 41, who is studying computer science.
Sunday morning brought a 69-year-old Vietnam veteran who voted for Trump because “I don’t think a woman could be president” and a 39-year-old firefighter who voted for Trump because he wants immigrants to follow the tradition of Ellis Island, arriving legally with documentation. Nearby, a 31-year-old woman having breakfast with two friends said she voted for Clinton and was so upset the day after the election that she cried at her desk at work. There was also a union leader visiting from another county who didn’t want to be quoted, saying that he voted for Clinton and that Trump-supporting union members get angry when he talks politics.
Jesse Cox, 42, always voted for Democrats and voted for Sanders in the primary. He’s worried about the cost of health care, because in his 20s — before the Affordable Care Act — he didn’t have insurance and had to pay about $11,000 to have his gallbladder removed, a price that more than doubled with interest.
He didn’t want to vote for Clinton or Trump, as he thinks both are “in the pocket of Wall Street banks,” so he voted for Libertarian Gary Johnson and has no regrets.
“I might be done with the Democratic Party, actually,” said Cox, who works as a technician for a cable and Internet provider. “Unless they can really show me something.”