Watching the State of the Union in the Heartland
CRESCO, Iowa — It was one of the biggest applause lines of President Trump’s first State of the Union address, both inside the House chamber in Washington, D.C., and in the back room of The Pub, a bar in this town of 4,000.
Trump had just praised Preston Sharp, a 12-year-old boy who organized a campaign to put miniature flags on thousands of veterans’ graves on Veterans Day.
“Young patriots like Preston teach all of us about our civic duty as Americans,” the president said, before looking up into the gallery at the boy, who sat delightedly next to first lady Melania Trump. “Preston’s reverence for those who have served our nation reminds us why we salute our flag, why we put our hands on our hearts for the Pledge of Allegiance, and why we proudly stand for the national anthem.”
“Very nice, very nice!” said Charis Hovden as a few others clapped. “He’s serving up crow on a silver platter,” chimed in Chris Chilson, a Navy veteran. “They’re standing up a lot more than they want to,” Charis’s husband, Terry, said of Democrats in the House chamber.
I had convened a focus group of a dozen or so people at the bar. And Trump’s line about the flag, pledge and anthem elicited the most spirited response of the night.
Almost everyone in The Pub praised Trump’s speech. Hailing from nearby Lime Springs, Chilson said that he “got everything [he] expected” from Trump’s speech, including on immigration and the economy. Chilson is a Republican who considers himself “on the far right” on immigration. Still, he thinks Trump is wise to back a reform plan that would grant a pathway to citizenship to 1.8 million illegal immigrants. The plan would also end chain migration and the visa lottery and make a down payment on a border wall with Mexico. “It’s all about compromise,” he said.
Overall, Chilson said that while Trump wasn’t his first choice in the Republican presidential primary two years ago, he’s come around. “I’m more and more becoming a big fan of Trump, because it’s all about the economy,” he said. “It really is.”
Those in my focus group are residents of Howard County, located in the rural northeast part of Iowa on the border with Minnesota. It’s is one of the most politically interesting places in America. It’s the only county that voted for Barack Obama by more than 20 percentage points in 2012 before giving Trump a more than 20-point victory in 2016. This dramatic about-face had many causes, as I discovered when I spent more than two weeks here last summer.
A major cause was that Trump’s spoke to the concerns of people in the rural Midwest—their love of God, guns, and an honest day’s work.
“I really like that he talked about uplifting people,” Charis Hovden said. “People don’t want to have stuff handed to them. People feel better about themselves when they feel productive and aren’t just sitting around all day. That’s what America is all about, lifting people up.”
There are a lot of Republicans in Howard County these days. And there were a lot of Republicans at The Pub for the State of the Union Tuesday night. I intended to bring together an equal number of Republicans and Democrats. But two of the latter backed out at the last minute. Two others said they loathed Trump so thoroughly that they decided that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to watch the speech.
In the end, eight Republicans and four Democrats showed up. One Democrat who made it was Mike McGuire. A staunch liberal, McGuire provided a running commentary of criticism during most of Trump’s speech. “Then legalize marijuana,” he responded when Trump discussed giving terminal patients access to experimental drugs. “Is that what you call tweeting?” he said when Trump mentioned that his administration is “waging a campaign of maximum pressure” to prevent North Korea from getting nuclear weapons strong enough to threaten the U.S.
Mike Gooder noticed that Trump was primarily looking out to his right, toward the Republican members of Congress in the audience and largely ignoring the side where the Democrats were sitting. “If you want to attract bipartisan support, he should look left more [toward the Democrats],” said Gooder, a Republican Trump supporter.
The Republicans in my group made fun of Democratic congressmen who seemed uncertain whether and when to stand and applaud. At one point when the camera panned across the audience, showing Democrats looking glum, someone said, “Oh, come on. You don’t have to look like that!”
When the camera showed black lawmakers sitting stone-faced as Trump declared that black unemployment had declined to an all-time low, participants responded with comments such as: “I don’t get it” and “It doesn’t make sense.”
Later in a one-on-one conversation, McGuire said he had expected Trump to “blow his own horn more” in the speech. When I asked him whether there is anything Trump could do to win his vote, McGuire said no. “He’s too erratic, and the tweeting. … I really think he is prejudiced.”
Another Democrat, Dave Daley (a “conservative Democrat,” he was quick to assure me), supports many of Trump’s policy positions. But he has a problem with Trump’s “methods,” by which he meant the president’s “irrational, silly tweets” and his racially charged rhetoric on immigration. That said, Daley thought Trump’s speech was “good -- pretty much what I thought it would be. Now I want to see what happens.”
The other two Democrats in my focus group were Barb and Jim Holstrom. They were pretty much compelled to attend because they own The Pub. Barb recounted recently being in Belgium and feeling embarrassed at being an American in the Trump era. “Europeans look at us and shake their heads,” she said. She couldn’t bring herself to watch much of the speech because “Trump drives me up a tree.”
Self-described conservative Republican Jerry Anderlik said he liked what he heard from Trump, including on immigration. He said that personally knowing DACA recipients has made him think that there needs to be a compassionate solution to the impasse, which he believes Trump’s plan represents.
At the end of our interview, I asked Anderlik to assess the state of the union at this time. “It feels really good to me,” he said, capturing the majority sentiment in the room. “It feels like the beginning of the Reagan era. It feels like we have reason to be proud again of our nation.”