Voters await economic revival in a part of pro-Trump America

President Donald Trump is sworn in during a live broadcast
President Donald Trump is sworn in during a live broadcast of the inauguration as Denny Riebe, from right, Doug Dickman, Scott Reilly, and Bill Winter, play cards at the Sawmill Saloon in Prairie du Chien, Wis.
David Goldman | AP File

She tugged 13 envelopes from a cabinet above the stove, each one labeled with a different debt: the house payment, the student loans, the vacuum cleaner she bought on credit.

Lydia Holt and her husband tuck money into these envelopes with each paycheck to whittle away at what they owe. They both earn about $10 an hour and, with two kids, there are usually some they can't fill. She did the math; at this rate, they'll be paying these same bills for 87 years.

In 2012, Holt voted for Barack Obama because he promised her change, but she feels that change hasn't reached her here. So last year she chose a presidential candidate unlike any she'd ever seen, the billionaire businessman who promised to help America, and people like her, win again.

Many of her neighbors did, too — so many that for the first time in more than 30 years, Crawford County, Wisconsin, a sturdy brick in the once-mighty Big Blue Wall, abandoned the Democratic Party and that wall crumbled.

The rural county lent Donald Trump 3,844 votes toward his win. More came from formerly blue counties to the north and to the south, and on and on. Some 50 counties stretching 300 miles down the Mississippi River — through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois — transformed in one election season into Trump Country.

They voted for Trump for an array of reasons, and the list of grievances they hope he now corrects is long and exacting: stagnant wages, the cost of health care, a hard-to-define feeling that things are not getting better, at least not for people like them.

Here in Crawford County, residents often recite two facts about their hometown, the first one proudly: It is the second-oldest community in the state. The next is that it's also one of the poorest.

There are no rusted-out factories to embody this discontent. The main street of Prairie du Chien butts up to the Mississippi River and bustles with tourists come summer. Pickup trucks crowd parking lots at the 3M plant and Cabela's distribution center where hundreds work. Just a few vacant storefronts hint at the seething resentment that life still seems harder here than it should.

A pedestrian stands in Prairie du Chien, Wisc.
A pedestrian stands along the main business district in Prairie du Chien, Wisc., in Crawford County, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017.
David Goldman | AP File

In this place that astonished America when it helped hand Trump the White House, many of those who chose him greeted the frenetic opening acts of his presidency with a shrug. Immigration is not their top concern, and so they watched with some trepidation as Trump signed orders to build a wall on the Mexican border and bar immigrants from seven Muslim countries, sowing chaos around the world.

Among them is a woman who works for $10.50 an hour in a sewing factory, who still admires Obama, bristles at Trump's bluster, but can't afford health insurance. And the dairy farmer who thinks Trump is a jerk — "somebody needs to get some Gorilla Glue and glue his lips shut" — but has watched his profits plummet and was willing to take the risk.

There's a man who owns an engine repair shop and struggles to keep the lights on, and a bartender who cringes when he sees "Made in China" printed on American goods.

There's also Holt, who makes $400 a week as a lawyer's assistant and whose husband doesn't do much better at a car parts store. She is enthusiastic that Trump started quickly doing the things he said he would, because she worries that by the time their sons grow up there will be nothing left for them here.

In this corner of middle America, in this one, small slice of the nation that sent Trump to Washington, they are watching and they are waiting, their hopes pinned on his promised economic renaissance. And if four years from now the change he pledged hasn't found them here, the people of Crawford County said they might change again to someone else.

Katherine Cramer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, coined a name for what's happened in her state's rural pockets: the politics of resentment.

She spent years traveling to small towns and talking to people at diners and gas stations. And when she asked which political party best represented them, their answers almost always sounded something like, "Are you crazy lady? Neither party is representing people around here."

"People have been looking for a politician who is going to change that, going to listen to them, do it differently," she said. "People a lot of times don't have specifics about what that means. They just know that however government is operating currently is not working for them."

In Crawford County, with just 16,000 residents, that dissatisfaction stems from feeling left behind as other places prospered.

There are plenty of jobs in retail or on factory floors, but it's hard to find one that pays more than $12 an hour. Ambitious young people leave and don't come back. Rural schools are dwindling, and with them a sense of pride and purpose.

Still, much of the economic anxiety is based not on measurable decay, but rather a perception that life is decaying, said Jim Bowman, director of the county's Economic Development Corporation.

There are higher-paying jobs — in welding, for example — but companies can't find enough workers with the right training, Bowman said. The county's $44,000-a-year median household income is $9,000 less than the state's, but the cost of living is lower, too.

Just 15 percent of adults have college degrees, half the national average, and yet the ratio of people living in poverty is below the country as a whole.

Crawford County and all the other places in the county cluster along the Mississippi River that switched from Obama to Trump rank roughly in the middle on a scale of American comfort in one economic think tank's county-by-county appraisal of community distress.

Yet for many here, it doesn't feel that way.

Mark Berns sits in his small engine repair shop
Mark Berns sits in his small engine repair shop in Prairie du Chien, Wis., Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017.
David Goldman | AP File

"If you ask anybody here, we'll all tell you the same thing: We're tired of living like this. We've been railroaded, run over by the politicians and run over by laws," said Mark Berns, leaning through the service window in the small-engine repair shop downtown that he can barely keep open anymore. He drives a 14-year-old truck with 207,000 miles on it because he doesn't make enough profit to buy a new one.

Berns watched Trump's first days in office half-hopeful, half-frightened.

"He jumps on every bandwagon there is. It's a mess," he said, bemoaning what he described as a quantity-over-quality, "sign, sign, sign" approach to governing. "I just hope we get the jobs back and the economy on its feet, so everybody can get a decent job and make a decent living, and have that chance at the American dream that's gone away over the past eight or 10 years.

"I'm still optimistic," he said, sighing. "I hope I'm not wrong."

Marlene Kramer gets to work before the sun comes up and spends her days sitting at a sewing machine, stitching sports uniforms for $10.50 an hour.

Kramer, who voted twice for Obama, used to watch Trump on "Celebrity Apprentice." "I said to myself, 'Ugh, I can't stand him.'" When he announced his candidacy, she thought it was a joke. "Then my husband said to me, 'Just think, everything he touches seems to turn to money.'" And she changed her mind.

She's 54, and she's worked since she was 14, all hard jobs: feeding cows, pulling weeds, standing all day on factory floors. Now it's the sewing shop, where she's happy and gets to sit. But there's no health insurance.

Her bosses, brothers Todd and Scott Yeomans, opened the factory 12 years ago. They said they're trying to do the right thing by making sportswear with American-made fabrics and American labor. But they compete against factories overseas.

They'd like to offer insurance. The other day, a trusted worker quit for a job with benefits. But they've run the numbers and it would cost $200,000 a year — far more than they can spend.

Kramer said she's glad the Affordable Care Act has helped millions get insurance, but it hasn't helped her.

She and her husband were stunned to find premiums over $1,000 a month. Her daughter recently moved into their house with her five children, so there's no money to spare. They opted to pay the penalty of $2,000, and pray they don't get sick until Trump, she hopes, keeps his promise to replace the law with something better.

Kramer thinks Obama did as good a job as he could in the time he had. She admires him, still, but went with Trump. That doesn't seem incongruous to her, just a simple calculation of results.

"His things aren't going the way we want them here," she said, "so we needed to go in another direction."

Across town, Robbo Coleman leaned over the bar he tends and described a similar political about-face. He held up an ink pen, wrapped in plastic stamped "Made in China."

"I don't see why we can't make pens in Prairie du Chien or in Louisville, Kentucky, or in Alabama or wherever," said Coleman. "Trump brought something to the table that I haven't heard or seen before. And if it doesn't turn out, then, hey, at least we tried."

Coleman doesn't love Trump's moves to build a wall or ban certain immigrants — all Americans descended from immigrants, he said, including his own relatives, who migrated from Germany too many generations ago to count.

But he's frustrated that other politicians stopped listening to working people like him.

"We've got to give him some time," he said of Trump. "He's not Houdini."

Even some rural Wisconsin Democrats agreed with Coleman's assessment, and think their party's leaders are among those who stopped paying attention to those just trying to get by. On the same day that Trump took the oath of office, a group of them huddled in the back room of a tavern, still trying to grasp how the election went awry.

Bob Welsh met Hillary Clinton at a rope line in Iowa and asked her to visit Wisconsin. But she didn't come a single time during her campaign against Trump, and Welsh thinks that confirmed in the minds of many that Democrats are disinterested in white working people.

Welsh wears flannel shirts and suspenders. He grew up on a farm, worked as a herdsman, and drove a school bus until he was 76 years old. He's 78 now, and knows his neighbors as kind, hard-working people, and could barely believe they voted for a man he finds reprehensible. But the left-right, blue-red vitriol that has cleaved apart the country has not left the same scars here, where wives reported not knowing how their own husbands voted and husbands said they never asked their wives.

Welsh said he hopes Trump finds a way to keep his promise to build his friends better lives.

"If he does that then he'll change my mind," he said. "And I'll be the first to admit it."

Bernard Moravits hosed the mud and cow dung off the boots pulled up over his jeans and headed for his truck, to drive to town to talk to a banker about keeping his farm afloat. Moravits — everyone calls him Tinker — works on his farm outside of town at least 12 hours every day, and usually a lot longer. He diversified to minimize risk and has dairy and beef cows, and acre after acre of corn, beans, alfalfa.

"You don't hit a home run that way, but you don't get your ass kicked either," he said. "But this year could be the ass-kicking year."

The price of milk and agricultural goods has plummeted, and it's hard to keep things running.

Change is what he looked to Obama for and now expects from Trump. He wants the president to reduce red tape and renegotiate trade deals to benefit American farmers. And he hopes people make more money and spend more money, which eventually trickles down to him.

"I think he's a shrewd businessman," he said. "He's been broke several times. He keeps bouncing back, and he knows how big business works."

He has several choice words for Trump's move to build "his stupid wall." Moravits employs Hispanic workers who have been with him 15 years. He built them apartments. He trusts them to do a dirty, difficult job that he says white people aren't willing to do.

"A lot of people don't treat them like people," he grumbled.

Unlike many transfixed by Trump's presidency, Moravits doesn't stay up-to-the-minute on the news. In the morning, he checks the agriculture prices and the weather. As protests over Trump's immigration ban raged for days, Moravits wasn't paying attention.

"The play-by-play don't mean bullshit," he said. "It's like watching the Super Bowl. What counts is how it ends." He took over this farm at 18 years old, when his father died of an aneurysm while milking cows. He said he plans to die here, too. He'll retire when "they close the casket lid."

But if nothing changes and changes soon he might have to borrow against his equity.

Moravits isn't sure Trump is going to "Make America Great Again" for farmers. But he feels he had to take the gamble. "He might have us in a war in two weeks," he said. "We'll come back here in six months, drink a 30-pack of Busch Light and talk, because no one knows now what's gonna happen."

He laughed, then shrugged and pantomimed rolling the dice.