Nation & World

Loyalty and unease in Trump's Midwest

16 months into presidency, voters reach different conclusions

Dennis Schminke, a Republican Party activist who grew up in Iowa and worked at Hormel Foods for 38 years, tinkers in his garage in Austin, Minn. Although Schminke supported Donald Trump, he has grown increasingly conflicted and concerned about what he has seen from this presidency. (Melina Mara/Washington Post).
Dennis Schminke, a Republican Party activist who grew up in Iowa and worked at Hormel Foods for 38 years, tinkers in his garage in Austin, Minn. Although Schminke supported Donald Trump, he has grown increasingly conflicted and concerned about what he has seen from this presidency. (Melina Mara/Washington Post).
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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.

A retired corporate manager, a staunch conservative and a county Republican official, he supported the New York businessman in 2016.

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.

Schminke, who grew up in Iowa. now 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 poke in the eye at elites and the Washington power structure coupled with endless and often self-inflicted distractions.

What also is 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.

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.

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What the newspaper found was not a scientific survey of the country. Instead, it is a story of how attitudes toward the president have changed gradually over time.

Here as some of the voices from Iowa that the Post heard in interviews.

A GROWING ANGER

“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.

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 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. “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.”

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He relayed a conversation he had with one 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.”

‘I’M PROBABLY SUPPORTING HIM MORE’

In mid-June, Smicker was back at the Sunrise Café in DeWitt. 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 Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign, which he considered nothing more than a Democratic effort to discredit Trump.

“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.

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“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.”

The 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.”

LACKLUSTER DEMOCRATIC MESSAGE

Elkader 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 relevance. At a time of talk of a ban on Muslims entering the United States and heightened concerns about immigration, Elkader 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 help.

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Until 2016, Democrats had carried the county in seven consecutive presidential elections, with Obama defeating Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., by 17 points in 2008 and Romney by seven points in 2012. In 2016, Trump crushed Clinton by 22 points, 58 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.

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, which 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 — including Johnson and Linn — 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.”

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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 it would not be enough to bring the Democrats back to the White House or to success in the county.

“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?”

FOUR MORE YEARS

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.

Smicker, wearing a bright orange vest, arrived at MJ’s gasoline station and convenience store in DeWitt 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.

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“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, ‘OK, 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.”

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