Trump Supporters In The Upper Midwest Have A Message: Be More 'Presidential'

Apr 13, 2017
Originally published on April 18, 2017 12:44 pm

Much of President Trump's political strength comes from the fact that he won in places Republicans usually don't.

In November, long-time Democratic states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin flipped from blue to red. He nearly did it here in Minnesota, too, a place that hasn't gone Republican since 1972.

"I didn't see it coming and most people didn't, obviously," former Minnesota state Sen. Tom Saxhaug said, as he looked out from seat in the front window of the Brewed Awakenings coffee shop in downtown Grand Rapids, Minn. Saxhaug is now retired, retired because support for Trump in this area helped swamp his own re-election bid. The Democrat (or more precisely the Democratic Farm Labor Party, or DFL) lost by a just 545 votes in November.

Trump broke through in the Upper Midwest in a way no Republican has in a generation. But one of the lesser-covered or understood states where that was true was the liberal stronghold of Minnesota. The state stayed blue, but barely. Trump lost it by less than 2 percentage points, the best finish by a Republican in 32 years.

Trump's populist message resonated with blue-collar white voters — something that has the potential to reshape the political map. But some of those same voters, though they remain supportive, are sending something of a warning signal — they wish he would be more presidential.

"There's a bit too much drama for me sometimes, with the tweeting," said Dean Morgan, a Trump voter and owner of SONSHINE Muffler and Brake, a religious-themed muffler- and brake-repair shop just a few blocks from Saxhaug's perch at the coffee shop.

The Iron Range

That was a sentiment heard repeatedly here in this mild-mannered Midwestern town of just under 11,000 people. It sits in the heart of Minnesota's eighth congressional district. It's a large and, in parts, rural district that extends some 300 miles, all the way from the Twin Cities' suburbs up to the Canadian border and includes the "Iron Range."

The Iron Range is home to mines of high-grade manganese ore that first opened after the Industrial Revolution at the turn of the 20th Century. It long supported this area, but fell on hard times in the 1980s, like a lot of other areas home to American manufacturing and steel companies. Efforts to diversify its economy have sputtered.

In this district, the exurbs give way to forests with too many lakes to count. It eventually hits mine country in the Iron Range. People here like to say the economy is all about "the Three T's," Taconite, Timber and Tourism."

In less alliterative language, that's mining, forests and lakes. And with a population that's some 93 percent white, this congressional district has lots of the white, working-class voters who represent a big bloc of Trump's support.

It's also one that has long been solidly Democratic. That all changed in 2016, going for Trump by better than 15 percentage points.

'Wish he were a little more reserved'

A cross, rays of sunlight and "JESUS" in large block letters are all prominent on the signage of Morgan's auto-repair shop. Morgan is a born-again Christian, and he believes Trump is one, too.

Even though that's not true — religious-right leader James Dobson had to walk back that same claim last summer — the thrice-married billionaire former playboy won a whopping 81 percent of white, born-again evangelicals in the 2016 election.

Morgan said though he's still supporting the president, "I wish he were a little more reserved, if you know what I'm saying."

Asked if the Trump presidency has been what he expected, he hesitated before answering, "You know it has, and it hasn't."

Greg Gilness, a 66-year-old former steelworker, said of Trump: "He's got a lot to learn."

He added with clear frustration: "I think he has to learn to be more presidential. He has just got to conduct himself like he's the president of a great power."

Gilness stressed that he isn't a member of a political party and that he "votes for the person." He wouldn't disclose which person he voted for in the presidential election. But, at times, he sure sounded like a Trump voter.

"I was leaning toward him," Gilness admitted, "but I won't tell you how I actually voted."

He spoke to Trump's appeal. "People are looking for hope," he said, "and he [Trump] gave a lot of people a little bit of hope to hang onto."

That hope for Gilness specifically was economic. His plant closed down, and while he transitioned to an office job for the same company, he said he believes Trump will be very good for the mining industry. He expects Trump to do something about low-cost, imported steel — as he's promised.

Split ticket: A Democrat in what's now a Trump district

There's a wrinkle — Gilness would say one person he voted for: his congressman, Rick Nolan, a Democrat.

Gilness was actually at a Nolan event when he talked to NPR. Nolan has served the district since 2012. He previously served two terms in Congress in the 1970s, too.

Nolan held on to win a narrow victory in one of the closest and most expensive contests in the country last year. He's been holding town-hall style meetings all across the district during the current congressional recess.

The sessions have been courteous and polite, with none of the rancor and shouting that has marked some town halls around the country this year. Nolan spends time at each pointing out problems with the budget Trump has proposed, with cuts that he says will be bad for this region.

"Funding for the National Forest Service is gutted," Nolan said in an old city-council chamber in the small mining town of Virginia, Minn.

So, too, Nolan said, is money for "transportation, and funding for the Great Lakes."

A mixed political bag

Right across the street from the coffee shop, is a giant mural painted on the side of the building just across the street. It features the iconic characters from the classic film The Wizard of Oz.

It's there because the movie's biggest star, Judy Garland, was born in Grand Rapids in 1922. (Fun Fact: Also born in this district — in Duluth — was songwriter, and now Nobel laureate, Bob Dylan, who grew up just up the road in the town of Hibbing.)

As Saxhaug talks Trump, it's clear there's plenty he disagrees with. This self-described "pro-gun, pro-mining, union-Democrat" said of the president, "He can't concentrate on anything long enough to accomplish anything. I'm real, real worried about the fact that he goes from one thing to another."

He did not vote for Trump, but now, nearly 100 days into Trump's presidency, Saxhaug said, he is pulling for Trump to succeed. He said he'd be happy to back the kind of big infrastructure spending Trump has talked about (but not yet officially proposed in his budget or in specific legislation). He also noted that he could get behind tax reform, too — if it's done fairly.

"Just to be clear, you're a Democrat saying this," this reporter noted.

"Yeah," he replied.

"You're one of those Democrats who legitimately says you want him to do well, because that's good for the country?"

"That's exactly right," he said emphatically.

But other Democrats in the coffee shop were not so magnanimous.

At a table over by the far wall, retired public-school teacher Frieda Hall was having lunch with a friend. She said she's been "mortified" by what she's seen from President Trump so far.

Asked if it's what she expected, she replied, emphatically, "Yes, exactly what I expected — a total chaotic mess."

She doesn't trust Trump's judgment, his motivation, or the people he has surrounded himself with in his administration. She did say, though, that Trump has kept one promise — to be a disruptive force.

"He is disrupting the way things work — and to our detriment, and with no set goal," she said.

Hall then asked, "Like the goal of disruption is what? To disrupt? And then what?"

A call to end the drama

Like him, or dislike him, people here in this place Trump won, tell you they want him to act more like a president. It was a common thread.

They want an end to all the drama. World events are dramatic enough, they seem to be saying.

For his critics, it's yet another reason to judge him negatively.

But for those who like him, they will often just shrug and say, "That's just who he is." And they find a reason to like him.

Back at the brake shop, while Morgan says he wishes Trump would be more presidential, he shows no sign of abandoning him.

He was quick to praise the president on foreign policy, for example, including the missile strike on Syria.

"I kind of go along with what what they're doing right now," Morgan said, adding about Syrian President Bashar Assad, "I mean, this guy is killing babies with gas.

"It's like, 'Come on dude,' you know? This can't go on."

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Minnesota stayed in the Democrats' column in November, but President Trump made inroads there. His populist appeal won over many white, working-class voters. Trump, for example, easily carried the state's eighth congressional district, which President Obama had carried twice. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea has been in that part of the state talking to people all week. He joins us on the line from Duluth on the shores of Lake Superior. Hi, Don.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Indeed, good morning.

GREENE: Good morning. You said - you tweeted out this amazing story from up in Minnesota of a young moose being rescued, having fallen through the ice, by people. I mean, it was so heartwarming but just a reminder to me that it is not very warm there. It's still winter.

GONYEA: (Laughter) And those kinds of stories happen in April up here, yes.

GREENE: Yeah. But you're - I mean, comfort zone for you. You're a Michigan guy.

GONYEA: Exactly, exactly.

GREENE: So what does this - what does this district look like? Tell me about it.

GONYEA: First off, it's massive. It runs from just north of the Twin Cities almost 300 miles up to the border with Canada. There are exurbs. There are tons of lakes. There is mining. It includes the Iron Range and timber forests. You've got towns like Duluth and Brainerd and Hibbing, which is where a songwriter named Bob Dylan was born. And some other numbers for you - it's 93 percent white, unemployment is low, right around the national average.

GREENE: OK. So Obama won this district twice. Trump then does really well there and wins that district. What do people think about Donald Trump now, you know, as we're approaching 100 days in?

GONYEA: Let's start at a coffee shop in the town of Grand Rapids, Minn. - population just under 11,000. It's got a big papermill. There some iron mines nearby. I sat down with local resident Tom Saxhaug. We looked out the front window at a giant mural on a building across the street with the characters from "The Wizard Of Oz" painted on it. It's there because Dorothy, Judy Garland, is also from here.

TOM SAXHAUG: She was born here in 1922 at the old hospital, which is just across the river. My dad was born here in 1922 too so - and I was born at that same hospital.

GONYEA: Saxhaug is a former state lawmaker and a Democrat, but he says not a liberal Democrat.

SAXHAUG: Pro-gun, pro-mining - not everybody agrees with me but most union Democrats do.

GONYEA: He is now retired because he narrowly lost his state Senate seat last year as Trump won big in this part of the state. But Saxhaug says he is pulling for Trump.

OK, so just so I'm clear, you're a Democrat saying this.


GONYEA: You're one of those Democrats who legitimately says you want him to do well because that's good for the country.

SAXHAUG: Exactly. That's exactly right, yeah.

GONYEA: He says if Trump can broker, say, a big infrastructure deal, that would be good for everybody. Now, at a table over by the far wall sits retired teacher Frieda Hall having lunch with a friend. She says she's mortified by what she's seen from Trump so far. I asked her if it's been what she expected.

FRIEDA HALL: Yes, exactly what I expected, a total chaotic mess.

GONYEA: She says Trump is living up to his promise to be a disruptive force.

HALL: But he is disrupting the way things work and to our detriment and also with no set goal. Like, the goal of disruption is what, to disrupt? And then what?

GONYEA: OK. Now let's head just up the street to a muffler-and-brake shop. It's owned by Dean Morgan. He says he's a born-again Christian and a conservative. And he says he's happy with his vote for Trump, but there is some hesitancy.

Has the Trump presidency been what you expected?

DEAN MORGAN: You know, it has and it hasn't. There's a little bit too much drama for me sometimes with the tweeting, you know. I wish he were a little more reserved, if you know what I'm saying.

GONYEA: Right away, though, he says Trump is doing the right thing on foreign policy. Here's his take on the missile strike in Syria.

MORGAN: I mean, this guy is killing babies, you know, with gas. It's like, come on, dude. You know, this can't go on and...

GONYEA: How about North Korea?

MORGAN: Same thing. You know, I think the sooner that he's dealt with the better.

GREENE: All right. Speaking to Don Gonyea there. Don still on the line. Don, you also did something interesting. You went to see a Democratic congressman, a congressman who held on to his seat in this district. And it was a town hall.

GONYEA: Yes. It's Congressman Rick Nolan - again, a Democrat. He did hang on to win here in one of the closest, most expensive races in the country. Yesterday, I attended a town hall up in the small town of Virginia, Minn. Let's go there.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.

GONYEA: It starts with the Pledge of Allegiance. Nolan then talks a bit about problems he has with Trump's proposed budget.

RICK NOLAN: Funding for the National Forest Service is gutted, you know, funding for housing, funding for transportation, funding for the Great Lakes.

GONYEA: I do need to say it was a very congenial town hall, none of the confrontation we've seen around the country at these events. One of those who is here is 66-year-old Greg Gilness. He's a former steel worker. He identifies with no political party. He says he voted for Congressman Nolan but won't discuss or disclose his presidential vote, though he did say this about Trump.

GREG GILNESS: People are looking for hope, and this is - he gave a lot of people a little bit of hope to hang on to.

GONYEA: He thinks Trump will be very good for the mining industry, especially if he takes on low-cost, imported steel. I told him he sure sounds like a Trump voter.

GILNESS: I was leaning towards him, but I won't tell you how I actually voted.

GONYEA: OK, fair enough.

GILNESS: (Laughter).

GONYEA: But then, when I ask Gilness how Trump has done so far, he gives a very tough review.

GILNESS: He's got a lot to learn. He really - I think he has to learn to be more presidential (unintelligible). You know, he just got to conduct himself like he's the president of a great power and he has to learn that.

GREENE: Don Gonyea, it sounds like a lot of unpredictable voices in Minnesota.

GONYEA: And I found across the board grumbling about Trump's temperament, from Republicans and Democrats. Some shrugged their shoulders, though, and some have clearly made that a reason to judge him very negatively.

GREENE: NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea. Don, thanks.

GONYEA: Pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.