• Marissa Elman

Trump supporters in rural Wisconsin wanted change, remain frustrated

Trump supporters in rural Wisconsin wanted change, remain frustrated
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Rural counties in western Wisconsin have become difficult to predict politically. Richland County is one of 19 counties in the U.S. to vote for every winning president since 1980.
Rick Wood and Craig Gilbert / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

RICHLAND CENTER, Wis. — Just over a year ago this rural battleground region swung hard for Donald Trump in a clamor for political change. 

But today that frustration with politics appears undiminished and is aimed in all directions — including Trump’s.

“We’re wasting so much time,” said Trump voter Robin DeFabbio, interviewed at Kelly’s Coffee House here. 

She would like Trump’s staff to take his Twitter account away. 

► Monday: Analysis: Trump is betting tax cuts will make him popular
► Nov. 7: Trump has tweeted 2,461 times since the election
► Nov. 6: Trump has changed Washington more than Washington has changed him

“He’s like a very bad child that I’m glad I didn’t raise,” she said.

She laments a do-little Congress, two parties that can’t work together, ceaseless division, the media circus over Trump and a swamp that hasn’t been drained.

“You just get disappointed on a bunch of levels, not just (with President Trump). Everything’s in gridlock, nothing’s moving.”

Robin DeFabbio, Richland Center, Wis.

“You just get disappointed on a bunch of levels, not just (with Trump). Everything’s in gridlock, nothing’s moving,” she said. “You can’t get anywhere like this.”

At taverns, churches, bowling alleys and American Legion halls, people here echo that discontent.

Hillary Clinton voters are disconsolate and Trump appalls them.

Trump voters who are happy with Trump are unhappy with Congress and Trump’s GOP critics. Trump voters who are critical of Trump — and they’re not too hard to find here — display everything from resignation to pique to exasperation with his behavior.

Voters of all stripes complain about the political culture, including the media, the parties, and the inability to have a respectful conversation about politics with political opponents.

“I am a political science major. I am starting to hate politics. Actually, not starting, I do hate politics: the vitriol and the vulgarity and the lack of willingness to talk to people,” said Kari Walker, co-owner with her husband of the Touchdown Tavern in Reedsburg, Wis.

Her county, Sauk, was decided by 109 votes. Just to the west is bellwether Richland, one of 19 counties in the United States and four in the state to vote for every winning president since 1980.

► Nov. 5: One year later, Trump voters blame president’s tweets for his troubles
► Oct. 29: Trump’s approval rating drops to historic low in new poll

They are part of a remarkably picturesque and politically purple patch of Wisconsin —known for geologic reasons as the Driftless Area — that has become a magnet for journalists, academics, political and civic groups trying to digest what happened a year ago and what it means for our politics going forward. 

A few weeks ago, a Dutch news crew showed up at Jo’s Kountry Bar in Steuben, a Crawford County village with a population of 131 that voted for Barack Obama by a margin of 35 points and then for Trump by 38 — the biggest swing in percentage terms in Wisconsin.

This past summer, a New York-based group called Resetting the Table, which specializes in conflict resolution over Israel among American Jews, sat down with hundreds of voters in the Driftless Area to promote dialog across political lines.

One thing it found was “just this sense of frustration to the point of repugnance with the … political class, shared on the left, shared on the center, shared on the right,” said Eyal Rabinovitch, the group’s co-founder.

Why are people watching southwestern Wisconsin? What makes its politics interesting to outsiders?

► Oct. 10: Trump downplays criticism he’s steering U.S. into World War III
► Oct. 3: High court shows divisions in redistricting case could reshape U.S. politics

It’s not because of its political clout. The seven counties in this rustic corner of the state — Crawford, Grant, Iowa, Lafayette, Richland, Sauk and Vernon — are home to about 220,000 people.

It’s not that it’s a microcosm of America, or even Wisconsin. The region is far whiter — 97% — than either and has no cities of any real size. It is a much different battleground than the populous suburbs where Democrats scored victories Nov. 7 in Virginia and New Jersey and hope to make inroads in Congress next year.

“Every time I hear anybody say anything about ‘Trump shouldn’t be tweeting. … The thing that immediately comes into my mind is Hillary Clinton is not president, and the United States of America can never thank Trump enough.”

Tom Allaback, Richland Center, Wis.

What this swingy slice of the heartland does offer is a window into the trends and tumult of the Trump era.

Blue-collar white voters, a demographic group that propelled Trump to the White House, are largely its population. Its economy is challenged, often cited as an ingredient in Trump’s election. And it contributed to the huge rural wave that overwhelmingly accounted for Trump’s victory in Wisconsin. 

But the region is as interesting for the trends it defies as the ones it embodies.

Nationwide, rural white communities are overwhelmingly Republican. The Driftless Area that extends into Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota — “Driftless” because the glaciers missed it, leaving a landscape of rolling hills, looping streams and narrow valleys — contains the largest cluster of blue and purple counties in rural, white America.

It boasts the nation’s greatest concentration of Obama-Trump counties — places that voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016.

In a very partisan age, neither party dominates the region. Like its serpentine roads and rivers, its voters wind this way and that.

In 2016, five of the seven southwestern counties voted for Republican Trump for president and Democrat Russ Feingold for U.S. Senate. Six of the seven voted for Obama twice before swinging to Trump.

Weak party loyalties help explain a history of big election swings.

► Sept. 20: Trump supporters don’t mind him working with Democrats, poll says
► Aug. 23: Amid bipartisan concerns, debate over Trump’s mental health takes off

Two of the past three presidential races have featured mammoth partisan shifts in the region — in a Democratic direction in 2008 and a Republican direction in 2016. Trump won the seven-county area by 3 points, four years after Obama won it by 18. 

In interviews, it was striking how often voters here bashed both parties and dismissed the value of sticking with one party.

Tom Lukens of Viroqua, Wis., was a Clinton voter and says he now can’t sleep when he watches TV news. (Photo: Craig Gilbert, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

“There should be zero ‘party’ in America,” said Mark Rooney as he watched a Universityi of Wisconsin Badgers football game at Touchdown Tavern. 

“I’d be embarrassed to put a sign for either (party) in my yard,” said Dan Anderson, who repairs chain saws in Richland County. He’s unsparing about Trump but wasn’t happy with either candidate last year, voting for Hillary Clinton because of the single issue of health care. 

Anderson said he entered the voting booth thinking, “I’m walking in to make a mistake.” 

In more than 30 interviews over five days here, most voters and political observers — including many Trump supporters — said they viewed what happened this past fall as more of a vote against Clinton than for Trump. Clinton lost badly to Democratic primary opponent Bernie Sanders in this same region of the state. 

Southwest Wisconsin defies one other stereotype about our polarized politics — that America is increasingly composed of separate red and blue communities.

In many places this is true. Metropolitan Milwaukee is a glaring example.

Most voters live in partisan enclaves decided by 30 points or more. Not a single city, town or village in the four-county Milwaukee area voted for both Obama and Trump. 

► Aug. 20: Voters in three key states Trump won ’embarrassed’ by his conduct
► Aug. 15: President Trump trying to reverse Obama’s legacy through legal battles

Yet more than half the communities in southwest Wisconsin did so. While the region’s small cities are bluer than its countryside, its urban-rural gap is far smaller than in most of America.

Here, making assumptions about a person’s politics based on where they live, how they dress or what car they drive is a big mistake. That could very well be a Democrat sitting next to you at the American Legion Hall or a Republican at the downtown coffee house.

“Why can’t we have civilized conversations and not be hollered down?”

Ken Ogi, Richland Center, Wis.

On a recent morning at Dan Anderson’s saw shop, five guys sporting beards and boots joked about how many guns and chainsaws they owned. None of them voted for Trump.

But while this area is less polarized in many ways than other places, it may be experiencing polarization in a more personal way because people are so integrated politically. Trump and Clinton voters are living side by side.

“You’re either going to be an enemy or find a way to get along. And (when) you’re friends, you find a way to get along,” said retired dentist Bruce Vermilyea, interviewed over meatballs, lefse (Norwegian flatbread) and whitefish at the annual lutefisk (a preserved fish dish) supper at Five Points Lutheran Church in Blue River, Wis. 

However, not everyone is getting along.

“I wouldn’t keep a friend that voted for Trump. I have a neighbor that I haven’t been able to speak to since,” said Tom Lukens of Viroqua, Wis., shopping at the Viroqua Public Market farmer’s market in this Crawford County town.

► Aug. 14: Trouble in Trumpland: The president’s core supporters begin to worry
► Aug. 2: Manufacturers split on Democrats’ get-tough trade plan

By many accounts, even local politics are becoming more divisive. Larry Engel, the pastor at Five Points Lutheran, said the divisions surrounding Trump feel even sharper than those around Republican Gov. Scott Walker during the 2011 labor wars and recall fight, divisions that linger today.

“The civil discourse has been turned up a notch in terms of its negativity,” he said.

Many Clinton voters blame Trump for that.

► July 30: Secret donations are helping to boost President Trump’s agenda
► July 26: Could Jeff Sessions still get his old job in the Senate back?

Some Trump voters at least partly agree, but they blame the media for wallowing in Trump’s outbursts. And they complain that liberals and Democrats dismiss or demonize them for the choice they made.

It’s, “how can you possibly think that way?” said Ken Ogi of Richland Center, who was at the lutefisk supper. “Why can’t we have civilized conversations and not be hollered down?”

The Trump voters interviewed for this story fell into roughly three groups.

• Trump enthusiasts embrace both his style and agenda, are happy with his presidency and bristle at all the criticism. 

“I look at (Trump) as possibly being the savior of democracy for the United States,” said Dick Bartels, a Marine veteran who was guiding cars into the parking lot outside the lutefisk supper.

“Every time I hear anybody say anything about ‘Trump shouldn’t be tweeting … He put his foot in his mouth again, blah, blah, blah,’ the thing that immediately comes into my mind is Hillary Clinton is not president, and the United States of America can never thank Trump enough,” said Tom Allaback, interviewed outside an American Legion post in Richland Center.

• Committed Republicans wanted someone else to be nominated and continue to wince at Trump’s style and rhetoric but support Trump for reasons of party, ideology and a desire to see conservative policies in place.

• The most conflicted Trump voters often were self-described independents. They had qualms when they voted for him but couldn’t support Clinton and were drawn to at least one part of the Trump package: his business background or outsider mantle or rejection of political correctness or vow to put America first.

These are the Trump voters who are most critical of him today. Some, like Obama-Trump voter Nell Justiliano of Spring Green, Wis., now have meager expectations of his presidency.

► July 25: GOP backlash to Trump attacks Jeff Sessions signals political danger
► July 20: Analysis: Trump isn’t changing, and that’s both good news and bad news

“I did vote for him. It was really hard,” she said. “We have been stuck in a political rut on every level.”

But “I’m so embarrassed by what a (expletive) show it is. Because it is a (expletive) show,” she said, citing the turnover in the administration, deriding Trump’s diplomatic and leadership skills and bemoaning his behavior. 

Dick Bartels, guiding cars into a parking lot parking outside the annual lutefisk supper at Five Points Lutheran Church in Blue River, Wis., is a Donald Trump voter who said he used to vote Democratic. (Photo: Craig Gilbert, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

“You want change, then you just get really discouraged when it doesn’t happen,” she said.

Others are waiting and watching. Where these Trump voters land in 2018 or 2020 will hinge on events, the economy, the performance in power of Trump and the GOP Congress, and what alternatives Democrats offer.

While voters interviewed here did not clamor for tax cuts, they had a generalized but plaintive cry for less noise and more action.

People are “just losing their faith in the ability for (things) to happen” in Washington, Shannon Clark, who runs the electric power co-operative in Richland County, said of the customers he talks to.

“I voted for (Trump) because of the options that I had, because I really did want to see a business person in there. … I knew what I was voting for,” said Ogi, a retired school administrator.

“But I’d spank his butt if he was my kid and he was a third-grader doing that. Just shut up!” he said. “The people coming at him aren’t any better. The press, our politicians have digressed to fifth- and sixth-graders. I’m disgusted with the attitude (in politics) and the way it’s being handled — on all sides.”

Robin DeFabbio, the Trump voter from Richland Center, doesn’t like Trump’s style but doesn’t think we should be obsessing about it either. 

► July 19: Trump directs panel to tackle voter ‘fraud’ during its first session
► July 16: Analysis: Can Trump turn around struggling presidency?

“No matter what his behavior is, he’s the president. Sorry guys! Suck it up,” she said.

“I’d like to see all the talk, rhetoric, the Twitter account, everything gone! I’d like to see us move forward,” she said, “I always have hope.”

Follow Craig Gilbert on Twitter: @WisVoter

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