Donald Trump's Appeal Among White, Working-Class Minnesotans

18 hours ago
Originally published on April 13, 2017 7:10 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

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.

SAXHAUG: Yep.

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.