If you want to understand Trump voters

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

Spend a weekend in Manitowoc. . .

if you sincerely want to understand Trump voters


If you think you have Trump voters all figured out, I suggest that you spend a weekend in Manitowoc, WI and actually get to know some of the people.  Those encounters might just deconstruct your implicit bias.


            I grew up in Manitowoc, a city with a population of 40,000 on Lake Michigan.  It's about 70 miles up I 43 from Milwaukee and just 40 miles south of Green Bay.  I return to that area about six times a year, so I've kept in touch with the people who live there, the majority of whom voted for Donald Trump.


            So what's your image of a person who voted for President Elect Trump especially if you are one of the 85% of Forest Parkers who vote for Hillary—would you describe them as misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, uneducated, white supremacist, angry and living in a bubble cut off from the real world?


            There is a grain of truth in those descriptors of course, but if you think those generalizations put a typical Manitowocian in a nice, neat box, I would suggest that you are living in a bubble of your own. 


            Here's what I experienced growing up and what I still observe each time I go there. 


            When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, Manitowoc was an industrial town, a mini version of cities like Cleveland and Detroit.  The two biggest employers in town were Mirro Aluminum which made pots and pans and Manitowoc Shipbuilding which made freighters that hauled iron ore on the Great Lakes from Duluth to the steel mills we see when driving to Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. 


            During World War II, the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company built 28 submarines for the United States Navy. More than 7,000 men and women worked around the clock, 365 days a year to build some of the best submarines in the Navy.


            The thousands of blue collar workers employed in the factories and shipyards were proud of the work they did.  The white collar workers in the offices didn't feel superior to the guys in the shop since that was where many of them had started out before moving up through the ranks.  One of the nicest things you could say about the guy lying in the casket at the funeral home was, "He was a good worker."


            Like many baby boomers, I was encouraged by these manual laborers to go to college.  That after all was the American Dream.  But to earn money for my higher education, I worked at a hamburger stand flipping burgers, at a grocery store stocking shelves, at one of the Mirro Aluminum factories as a degreaser, at Oriental Milling Co. loading and unloading hundred pound bags ten and a half hours a day and then the Soo Line Railroad changing ties and pounding spikes all day long.  Working class people had jobs that paid enough to get a mortgage and we, their children, could get jobs in the summer to pay for college.


            The older men I worked with were proud of the work they did with their hands.  I never saw my foreman on the railroad, a sixty year old bachelor named Art Langhorst, miss a spike he was driving into a tie in the three summers I worked with him.


            But in the 49 years since I moved out of Manitowoc, that economy has fallen apart.  The aluminum goods are gone.  So is the shipyards that once employed 7000 people.  The downtown which once was vibrant with department stores and shops looks depressed and feels that way.


            Old timers grieve the loss of what was once a great place for a working guy to raise a family without needing his wife having to go to work.  My mom did go back to teaching once I was in school so that my parents could make double monthly payments on their mortgage.


            Depressed as many residents may feel, the work ethic still remains.  My mom was in a nursing home until she died at 99 nine years ago and towards the end, she needed a lot of care.  The staff at Shady Lane treated her like a family member.  When I was a pastor, I saw parishioners in many nursing homes around here, and none of them could compare with Shady Lane.  The staff wasn't getting paid any more than people around here.  Working hard was in their bones.  They were proud of the work they did.


            I owned three guns by the time I graduated from college—a 44-40 deer riffle, a 410 gauge bolt action shotgun and a 20 gauge pump shotgun.  My dad and I would go pheasant hunting with our English Setter, Slick, and during deer hunting season we'd head up north to Uncle Alton's and Aunt Addell's to join the other men folks to hunt during the day, eat a feast cooked by Aunt Addell when it got dark and tell the same greatly exaggerated deer hunting stories they told the year before.


            These people, my people, voted for Donald Trump.  Why?  They certainly didn't approve of his behavior, but he was able to make them feel like they were understood and, what's more, respected.  They felt like he understood the loss ordinary working people feel when the company they worked hard for gets relocated and jobs go overseas. 


They feel wrongly blamed for crime by gun control advocates when, in their minds, city folk have no understanding of how they love nature and take care of the environment.  And most of them could not fathom how anyone could approve of having an abortion, let alone a million of them a year, when they were raised to take responsibility for their actions.  As my mom and dad would say, "You made your bed.  Now lie in it."


            I don't mean to portray them as saints, but I don't think it's fair to simplistically stereotype them as "deplorable."  They are for the most part good people who know as little about urban living and diversity as Forest Parkers know about living in a small town or on a farm.


            So, drive 170 miles north some weekend, spend a few days in Manitowoc, hang out at the Four Seasons Family Restaurant and talk to the locals.  You might come back with some stereotypes deconstructed.  And while you're talking to them, invite them to come here and do the same.



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Doug Asbury from Riverside, IL  

Posted: March 10th, 2017 4:28 PM

Hi Tom, I just became aware of your blog and have been looking over some of your posts. I'm kind of surprised this post didn't get any comments before mine. I was reminded of Hillary's "basket of deplorables" statement earlier this week; and reading reference to it in your post caused me to reflect a bit more on it. I think it's unfortunate that she didn't say the second part of that section of her speech before adding the first part. In the second part she said that half of Trump's supporters "feel that the government has let them down" and are "desperate for change. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well." Had that been her first statement, it would have given a more positive framework within which to hear the other. Even better, she could have changed the "half" reference to "many" and referred to the other group she label a "basket of deplorables" as "too many" or "some." But, that's Monday morning quarterbacking. It was what it was. That said, I don't know about Manitowoc, but when I pastored a church of hard-working farmers in the rural area west of Elgin, IL, there was one occasion on which I made negative comments about the KKK that was marching in Skokie at the time. Sometime later, one of the parishioners told me that she had overheard another parishioner say, "Doesn't he know that there are KKK members out here?" So, though I am sure Manitowoc, just as rural Kane County, IL, has many good folks who have just cause for their dissatisfaction, there are also some who fail to live up to the good heritage of their forebears and who support political candidates such as Trump in the hopes that they will support their local efforts to maintain the power structure that has privileged them and others like them for generations and that has enabled them to marginalize those who are "different." Such persons shouldn't be allowed to give a bad name to the whole area; but their existence should be acknowledged and their efforts resisted.

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