It was cruelly cold the night I got to Wisconsin, but I’d been expecting that. It was the sound of the lake that surprised me. From blocks away, you could hear waves thudding against the crags of ice that limned the shore—partly a function of the total silence that had descended on the streets of Kenosha that evening. I took this at first for the silence of desolation, which I’d also been expecting, but it turned out to be only the mundane quiet of a city whose residents had someplace indoors to be after dark. On this particular night, that place was anywhere showing the divisional playoff game between the Packers and the Seahawks. I had nowhere better to be myself, so I bundled up in my favorite winter coat, which I normally have little use for, and settled in at the first corner bar I found.
By the second quarter, the Packers were up 21–3, each touchdown punctuated by free shots of green liquor and a burst of almost unbelievable exuberance. Everyone danced along to Todd Rundgren’s “Bang the Drum All Day,” a song that for reasons no one there could explain had become the unofficial anthem of the Packers—the only nonprofit, fan-owned major sports franchise in the country, a great example of Wisconsin’s public-minded tendencies. “This is what this state is like,” a drunk man in an orange zip-up sweater told me. “We have all our weird traditions we do together.” Everybody seemed to be smoking, so I bought a pack of cigarettes from the bar and gambled in a back room with a trio of young guys from nearby Racine while watching Aaron Rodgers close out the game. Having recently finished an electrician training course, the guys were complaining about how little practical utility their new credential offered, as recent graduates in any field are inclined to do. I commiserated, saying it was tough everywhere. “Not if you’re in Kenosha,” one of them said. “Kenosha is kind of where it’s at these days.”
The city of Kenosha is a gray, exurban strip of Lake Michigan frontage with barely a hundred thousand residents. Until this magazine offered to send me there, I had never heard of it. But Kenosha was once an iconic union town—home to a massive United Auto Workers local, to say nothing of the Jockey, Snap-on, and American Brass plants that had, not too long ago, made it one the world’s great manufacturing centers. You can probably guess that most of this has passed into history. And you can also probably guess why this magazine might send me there: In 2016, after having supported Democrats in almost every election for almost every office for forty-four straight years, Kenosha County broke for Donald Trump. This was by a margin of only 238 votes, in a state that he won by only 22,748 votes, despite statewide polls days before the election that showed Hillary Clinton leading by at least five percentage points. Kenosha County and neighboring Racine County were among only a small fraction of counties in the country that voted for Trump after voting for Obama in both 2008 and 2012.
By December, when I made my travel arrangements, it appeared as though Wisconsin would be the site of several crucial political battles in the weeks and months to come. It seemed likely that Democrats would have to win both Kenosha and Racine in 2020 to carry Wisconsin, and certain that they would have to win Wisconsin to beat Trump nationally. More immediately, the Wisconsin primary, coming in April, looked like it would be crucial in determining the Democratic nominee. And the Democratic National Convention was scheduled to take place in August in nearby Milwaukee. “People understand,” Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez told a Milwaukee TV station in January, “that this is the tipping-point state.”
I was slightly reluctant to accept the assignment—no one could possibly think there was anything left to learn from a reporter flying in to a largely white Midwestern town, relitigating the 2016 election, and flying out again. But I was taken with the plan we’d worked out: I’d rent a house and live in Kenosha for a month. I’d go to churches and social clubs and bars, maybe make some friends. I wasn’t going to focus on 2016, to give the millionth explanation for Trump’s appeal. He was already the president, and had been for what felt like eons. Instead I’d talk to Kenoshans about what kind of politics might inspire or excite them, or at least seem palatable, in a world where Trump was no longer a mysterious anomaly but a fact of life. I thought that describing a politics that could win in Kenosha might point a way for Democrats to take back the presidency.
In January, I sublet my studio apartment in Los Angeles, flew to O’Hare, rented a purring silver Audi A4 from an unmarked garage miles from the airport (this was somehow the cheapest option), and headed north to begin my winter in a little lakefront house. The night after the Packers game the weather warmed up slightly, and I went for a long walk along the crashing shore. While I was out someone broke into the Audi and stole my prized winter coat. There was plenty else in the car to steal, but only the coat was missing, which I took as a sign of a basic decent Midwestern impulse to take just what you need. I didn’t bother calling the police, and got to settling into my new home.
Soon after I arrived, I met Rick Gallo, a genial retired postal worker and the president of Kenosha’s AFL-CIO labor council. His office was located in a drab building that houses a dozen or so local union offices, though hardly anyone else seemed to be around. When Gallo took over in 2017, the council had only a few thousand dollars in its bank account and about a thousand members. Back in the 1960s, it had twenty thousand. I expected him to be nostalgic about labor’s heyday, but at the time we spoke, just before the economy started to collapse again, he told me that Kenoshans had adapted to a new era. “People do have jobs,” he said. “They may need two or three jobs to make what they had, but they have them.”
Four years of news stories about white working-class voters looking to Trump in a fit of desperation had primed me to expect streets lined with boarded-up houses and vacant lots, so it took me a few days to realize that Kenosha was actually doing pretty well. When Trump took office, the area’s job growth was two-and-a-half times the national average. The city was a landscape of orderly blocks of small houses with well-kept lawns stretching west toward the new expanses of fenced-off Uline, Meijer, and Amazon distribution centers. In its relative prosperity, Kenosha resembled many of the 205 other counties that had swung to Trump, very few of which looked like the devastated towns that had become popular getaway destinations for political reporters. Kenosha’s downtown was grim and icy, and the deepwater harbor was frozen solid, but it was easy to imagine how delightful it all would be in the summer, with sailboats on the water and windows of the downtown’s many bars and restaurants thrown open to the lake air. “When you think of all of the issues we’ve gone through as a community,” the Democratic mayor, John Antaramian, told the Kenosha News as he kicked off his unopposed reelection campaign the week I arrived, “It’s a pretty good place.”
The pensions and paid-off homes that still exist in Kenosha are remnants of a union culture that developed on the shores of Lake Michigan almost a century ago. The UAW Local 72, which represented workers at the lakefront American Motors Corporation plant, was once the largest local in Wisconsin. The unions were both social hubs and vehicles for political engagement. They ran campaigns to educate their members on the political issues most pertinent to their lives, and published their own fat weeklies as counterweights to business-friendly newspapers and TV channels. In the annual Labor Day parade, workers marched seven abreast, in columnshalf a mile long.
Kenosha was a place where solidarity had a concrete public meaning, one formed in large part by the power of the local. “When they went on strike, you know, the whole community was on it,” Gallo said. “So if they were picketing out at the plant, or say out at American Brass, we would go pick up hamburgers or something at their local places and bring them over and give them to the strikers, bring them wood to burn to keep warm.” By the 1960s, southeastern Wisconsin had one of the highest per capita incomes in America, and hence the world—not because it was home to a handful of rich people, but because collective action had made it possible for ordinary people to live pretty damn well. “People joined things,” said Gallo, be it a union, a fraternal organization, or a church. “You would join groups much more readily than today.”
The erosion of this lifestyle is a familiar story. It began with manufacturers moving South in the 1980s, looking for cheap labor in states with right-to-work laws and weak unions. By the 1990s, when Democrats and Republicans had reached a consensus that what was good for the boardroom was good for America, corporations had begun looking abroad. In 1993, President Bill Clinton ratified the North American Free Trade Agreement over the desperate opposition of labor groups and Midwestern Democrats such as House majority leader Dick Gephardt, who called the treaty “a threat to our wages and our standard of living.”
That standard of living in the working-class Midwest fell away. Incomes stagnated, life expectancies began to fall, and suicide rates began to rise. Gallo thought that Clinton hadn’t understood what NAFTA would do, and had signed it because advisers and business leaders told him that global free markets were the inevitable future. “In hindsight, I would call it a betrayal,” Gallo said. “But at the time I don’t think that we foresaw how much of a difference it would make—on the entire sector, on the union movement itself. And, you know, on this area.”
In much of the Midwest, auto-assembly plants were the last to leave, allowing automakers to sell cars as “American-made” even as the production of parts shifted to Ontario, then Mexico, then China. But factory closure came early in Kenosha: Chrysler bought AMC in 1987 and shut down the lakefront plant. The county began rebuilding with non-union warehouse jobs, eventually attracting the Amazon and Uline distribution centers by offering tax breaks and free land. In 2009, Chrysler received $12.5 billion in government bailouts, then promptly announced that it would be shuttering its only remaining factory in the region, an engine plant a mile inland that employed some eight hundred people. Activists distributed postcards to the workers to be sent to Obama, who had just won industrial counties in Wisconsin by margins a Democrat hadn’t achieved in a generation—in part by promising the first sweeping legislative expansion of labor’s organizing power in decades in the form of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). “Dear President Obama,” the cards read, “It would be a betrayal of your goal of investing in America if Chrysler is allowed to close the Kenosha plant and import the very same engine from Mexico.” By October 2010, the plant had closed, and two years later it was demolished. The EFCA was never passed.
I mentioned to Gallo that, despite decades of apparent deception from the Democratic Party, people in Kenosha didn’t seem very angry. “After forty years of filing grievances and screaming and yelling at people,” he said, “I probably have gotten to a point where I’m not jumping up on the table anymore.”
After a week or so I started to settle into a routine: every night I would either try out a new bar or stop by the Family Video to pick up a DVD and a pack of CBD gummies, since it turned out my house didn’t have Wi-Fi. I bought a new suit, in case I got to meet Mayor Antaramian, who had not been returning my calls. I took up snowshoeing, and fished for winter-run steelhead behind an abandoned motel in Racine where gruff old anglers in waders rubbed elbows with homeless people and teenage potheads. I couldn’t recall reporting from any place where politics was less on display, from the lack of yard signs to bar conversations that tended to avoid the subject entirely. (The chief exception was a single group of retirees holding anti-Trump signs on Main Street in Racine.) This invisibility was partly a product of Trump supporters looking to avoid offending their more union-sympathetic friends and neighbors. But it was also the result of a broader Midwestern reticence, a reluctance to discuss subjects on which opinion might be split.
Shortly into my stay, the Democratic primary race had sharpened into a choice between Bernie Sanders and everyone else, as he began to take on the role his devotees had always hoped he would: running not only as the farthest-left option but as a candidate who rejected outright the political consensus of the past fifty years. In Wisconsin, the Sanders campaign was cochaired by Mark Pocan, a congressman who had grown up in Kenosha and paid his way through the University of Wisconsin by doing magic shows at the Local 72 union hall downtown. He was as disillusioned about the state of our politics as anyone: “There’s fifteen hundred pharmaceutical lobbyists in Washington, D.C.,” he said when I visited his Madison office. “That’s three for every member of the House and the Senate. I don’t know who my three are, but that’s fucked-up.”
Pocan’s diagnosis was simple: people would be won away from Trump only when they recognized that he was never going to change the fundamental economic structures that had wrecked their way of life. “People thought at first, ‘Oh he’s going to fight China, this’ll help,’ ” he said. “They thought, ‘Yeah, I don’t see anyone talking about my interests. I’ll just stay home.’ ” He believed that talking about guaranteeing health care, keeping jobs in Wisconsin, and reclaiming some of the power that corporations wield over our daily lives were the keys to getting out the vote, and to winning. “Folks are realizing that no matter how much they thought that Trump was going to support them, it hasn’t turned out better,” Pocan told me. At the time, this sounded to me like a persuasive pitch.
Pocan was one of a few people who mentioned the weekly newspapers that Kenosha’s unions once published. Curious, I went to the downtown library to check out the archives. In the course of my (ultimately failed) search, I stumbled upon something more recent: the January issue of a cheery little paper called the Labor Times. It was clearly a passion project, with helpful notices about benefits, meetings for union retirees, and local political happenings. I called the contact number listed and found myself invited into the cozy ranch house of a woman named Mary Modder, a retired special-education teacher and mother of five who had been elected president of the local teachers’ union in 2009. “It’s the biggest union left in Kenosha now,” she said.
The year after Modder took over the union, Wisconsin elected as governor Scott Walker, a square-jawed, dourly religious career politician then known as the mostly uncontroversial executive of Milwaukee County. “Teachers didn’t really get out to vote,” Modder said. “The union people didn’t really get out the vote.” They hadn’t known what to expect. Wisconsin had a homegrown tradition of political congeniality and soft egalitarianism that traced its origins to the days of Robert La Follette and the Progressives. Even in 1948, when Joseph McCarthy was a Wisconsin senator, Milwaukee had a Socialist mayor (Frank Zeidler, who served until 1960). The state’s earnest belief in cooperative good government had a name, the Wisconsin Idea: a “deep conviction that the role of government was not to stumble along like a drunkard in the dark,” as Adlai Stevenson put it, “but to light its way by the best torches of knowledge and understanding it could find.”
Wisconsin was still far from paradise. Despite the friendly trappings of state politics, the southeastern part of the state was—and remains—harshly segregated, like many heavily unionized industrial areas. According to one analysis of recent census data, the quality of life for black residents in Milwaukee and Racine is among the worst in the country. But many still believed that the Wisconsin Idea offered a framework to address some of these issues, and its long history meant that Modder was caught by surprise when Walker set out not only to depart from the state’s collaborative traditions, but to kill them off entirely. Almost immediately after taking office, Walker shocked even his fellow Republicans by pushing through a law that outlawed collective bargaining for public-sector workers. The legislation, known as Act 10, represented a push to dismantle workers’ rights, but also signaled a war on the Democratic Party’s capacity to maintain a political base in Wisconsin. “If Act 10 is enacted in a dozen more states,” Grover Norquist wrote in 2017, “the Democratic Party would cease to be a power in this country. It’s that big a deal.”
The state was torn apart by months of protests, but Walker remained resolute. He wanted to divide the state, a fact that many Wisconsinites found hard to believe at first. Modder had been used to seeing the governorship swap parties. “Either way there wasn’t a huge difference,” she said. “You have a Republican for a few years, you have a Democrat for a few years. Nothing really changes.” That complacency was a key factor in Walker’s victory—voters were excited that someone was changing something. He signed a right-to-work bill that cut union membership in half over three years, and oversaw a redistricting effort so extreme that in 2018 Democrats won 53 percent of the votes for state assembly candidates but ended up with only 36 percent of the seats.
Democrats were stuck complaining about Walker while lacking a clear alternative vision, and ended up losing gubernatorial elections in both 2012 and 2014. Finally, in 2018, amid the broader sweep of the midterms, Wisconsin Democrats managed to beat him. Gallo, who turned out to be a friend of Modder’s, had told me he knew a lot of union voters who stuck with Walker even after Act 10. “You’ve got hundreds of thousands of people protesting, and still . . . some of those folks continued to support the other side,” he said. “Doesn’t make sense.”
“It was divide and conquer,” said Modder. She seemed truly sad to see how quickly the state’s political traditions had fallen apart. “There were such hateful comments about teachers,” she told me, remembering the wars over Act 10. “I had never heard people talk that way about teachers, unions, or the public sector.” She gave me a back issue of the Labor Times that she thought I’d be interested in, about a workshop she had attended with her husband, Marvin, called “How to Disagree Without Being Disagreeable,” part of a national dialogue-building project. “It was fine,” she said, but it was hard to find Republican voters who wanted to participate. “The red side here doesn’t seem real interested in engaging,” Marvin interjected. “Well, they’ve been called a lot of names,” she said charitably. “And they’re feeling a little defensive.”
This defensiveness helped to solidify Walker’s support: as Democrats spent the better part of a decade attacking Walker’s actions as outrageous or beyond the political pale, the governor’s voters only grew more committed. Twenty-four of the state’s seventy-two counties flipped Republican in 2012 after voting for Obama four years earlier. Every single one of these counties went strongly for Trump in 2016, some of them by thirty points or more.
After my visit with Modder, I tried the mayor again, having already called him a dozen or so times without a response. When I didn’t get an answer I headed off to the local Swedish-American club, where they held weekly games of euchre, which I’d grown up playing in Ohio. I arrived too late to join, but I sat down at the bar and was invited to play trivia by a letter carrier in her fifties named Debbie Whitefoot. She knew Gallo, too, from their years working for the Postal Service. Everyone seemed to know everyone. She had grown up on a dairy farm out in the rural reaches of the county. “It was all stern old Germans,” she said. “They liked hard work and they liked beer.” She was not what anyone would call conservative, but she liked the traditions and routines that living in the same place all her life had imparted, which she thought everyone needed. She hadn’t voted for Trump—she thought he was rude—but she didn’t understand the frenzy that he provoked in Democrats: “It seems like they always just want to jump up and complain about whatever he says.” If anything, the reactions he induced had only endeared him to her. “I’d probably vote for him, but I’m worried he’ll privatize the Postal Service,” she said. “I don’t think he’s perfect. But I don’t think he’s doing such a bad job.”
We dominated trivia, thanks to my ability to identify the six states that border Nebraska and Whitefoot’s to correctly name—in order—the six most popular breakfast cereals in America. We won a $15 gift certificate.
Spending time in Kenosha led me to notice a lazy tic in American political writing, one that I was as guilty of as anyone: the tendency to assume that the driving force in our politics is rage. Trump voters, in this conception of things, are angry at elites and immigrants, Bernie diehards are angry at billionaires and landlords, MSNBC-watching liberals are outraged that Trump’s presidency is a Russian intelligence operation.
Many people these days do have political views that are shaped by indignation—especially the sort of people who spend too much time watching cable news or reading Twitter, as most journalists do. But I hadn’t met anyone in Kenosha who seemed nearly as angry as I constantly felt, my brain whipped into a fizz of hyperstimulation every morning as I scanned Twitter before heading off for a day of reporting. One evening, I went to an evangelical church to hear a talk given to a thousand or so parishioners on how to vote one’s Christian conscience in the age of Trump. I had been invited to the event by Crystal Miller, a young mother of three who was a co-organizer of the Southeastern Wisconsin Republican Women’s Association. She considered herself a pro-life, pro-business conservative who was left with Trump as her only option. Her son, she told me, was a different story. He had taken a bus up to Milwaukee to attend a Trump rally, and had a giant poster of a shirtless Trump firing an automatic rifle on his wall—a gift from his grandparents. At the church, he was dressed in a make america great again hoodie. I asked if everyone at his school was a big Trump fan, and he smirked. “No,” he said. “It’s just what I’m into.”
While it was likely that the majority of attendees were going to vote for Trump, they mostly seemed comfortable and middle class, which made sense given that the Trump revolt was fundamentally a bourgeois one—the median household income of his primary voters was $72,000, compared with a nationwide median of $56,000. This was as true in Kenosha as it was nationally, and hinted at something that liberals would find even more frightening than working-class rage: the notion that even the relatively comfortable feel dissatisfied, alienated, anxious about the future—that they, too, might doubt that the economic, technological, and social upheavals that have marked modern American life have actually been for the better.
No one in Kenosha thought Trump was going to resurrect the glory days of American industry, but everyone, no matter which side they were on, shared a sense that something had been lost—that not so long ago life in Kenosha had been defined by security and stability, that one could have invested time in a church or a social organization with the expectation that one’s children would someday invest time and care of their own.
I decided to change tactics, to stop talking with the sorts of people who followed politics or were directly involved in it, and instead seek out people whose opinions I couldn’t anticipate before turning on the recorder. This meant talking to people in their thirties or younger. Almost none of the younger people I met in Kenosha cared about party politics. “My dad used to tell me about the Eighties,” a thirtysomething sheet-metal worker named Britton told me when we started talking downtown at an Irish dive that served $5 hamburgers. He wore a long, black beard and huge gauges in his ears, the kind favored by Midwestern punks in the early 2000s. “You come into a bar, they already know your order. You sit in that same seat, they already set out your change because they know what you’re gonna pay with.” He gestured to indicate some empty stools. “You get twenty guys lined up after work, they’re all relaxed because they know the money’s good. Think about it—you’re making eighteen, twenty dollars an hour back then. Everyone was a king.”
Britton, the son of a sheriff’s deputy, was a member of the tin-workers’ union. He told me about the punk shows he used to attend at the Swedish-American club, which I figured would make him a natural Sanders supporter, but Britton had little interest in politics. He found his own union useful for landing jobs, but he took no particular pride in being a union member and seemed faintly puzzled by the idea of a union as a vehicle for politics or community engagement. “The union reps are mostly, like, egotistical kinds of people,” he said.
He knew a lot of Trump guys from high school, and he saw aspects of the appeal: the flag-waving, the camaraderie, the thrill of losing yourself in loyalty to a distant figure, all of which had more to do with why anyone I talked to in Kenosha voted for Trump than his promises to restore lost jobs. Britton offered to introduce me to some of these Trump supporters, but then thought better of it. “You gotta understand,” he said. “Some of these guys are really racist.” I realized I had been detaining him somewhat—he had to hustle off to make a pizza for his girlfriend and their child. “I just don’t follow the politics,” he said before leaving. “I try to make little changes around here. I really think that’s the only thing that makes a difference.”
A few days later, I stopped into a storefront social-services center across from the closed brass foundry. My parents were both social workers, and I had an idea that members of the profession were as likely as anyone to understand the effects of politics on the lives of Kenoshans. A fatherhood support group was just wrapping up, and the office administrator suggested I talk to the meeting leader, a tall, deep-voiced, black thirty-one-year-old named Sharmain Harris. Harris had started selling drugs after he graduated high school, becoming a dealer of some renown in the majority-black Uptown neighborhood before he was set up by an informant and sent to prison for two and a half years. After his release, and the birth of his first child, Harris joined the support group and began volunteering as a recruiter of new members. After successfully growing the program, he was offered a full-time position as a group coordinator. Harris’s appealing redemption story had since made him into something of a local celebrity.
While Harris had little sympathy for Trump supporters, he didn’t think Trump’s presidency had been quite the calamity that others made it out to be, mostly because the Democratic alternative no longer seemed very different. “Obama wasn’t perfect either,” he said. “It’s like, an agenda gets talked about, and then historically we’ve seen them get in and do some Bill Clinton shit.” Harris, like Britton, seemed to miss a kind of life that he had never actually known. Plenty of the fathers in his group had jobs at Meijer or Amazon distribution centers, but they weren’t career jobs like his grandfather’s union job at AMC. His father was a pastor, and Harris was religious, but he thought a lot of pastors had abdicated their roles as social and political leaders and were more concerned with money than with the issues that affected their parishioners’ lives. “The church has become a feel-good type of place,” he said. And the NAACP in Kenosha, he told me, “is out for themselves.”
He asked me whether I knew the names of any of my great-grandfathers, and seemed surprised when I said I did. People of our generation, both black and white, were living without a sense of community or history, he thought. He told me about a conversation he’d had with Bob Wirch, Kenosha’s longtime Democratic state senator. “I told him who my dad was, and he said, ‘Oh, you come from good stock.’ ” Harris laughed. “I was like, ‘What the fuck you mean stock—like I’m a slave?’ But then I asked my dad and I understood what he meant.”
Harris’s words echoed much of what I had heard from other Kenoshans: that money and self-interest drive even the few noncommecial social institutions—trade unions and churches—that we have left, that neither politicians nor politics are to be trusted. This isn’t to say that Trump’s supporters aren’t motivated by factors like racism or xenophobia, which is manifestly the case. But narratives of Trumpism’s rise often gloss over a reality of American life that Democrats, with few exceptions, have refused to admit: many people in the country no longer believe that the ideals of America are worth buying into.
If only a small fraction of the people in Kenosha County who disliked Trump and his diehards but saw no other reason to care about politics could be persuaded to vote, a Democrat would win there in a landslide. But to win them over, the Democratic Party would have to acknowledge that something much bigger than Trump has gone wrong in our society. It would take letting go of the mythical American story of steady, forward progress. And this is a myth that Democrats don’t seem ready to abandon.
The night after I met Harris, I stopped in at Kenosha’s unofficial gay bar, which I liked because it was cheap and raucous, and because the owner had once brandished a liquor bottle at me for talking politics; ever since, I had gone there when I needed a night off. But this particular evening, the bartender surprised me by launching into what I took at first to be a rant about Trump, but was actually about one of his customers, an old man sitting alone in the dark back room, watching Tucker Carlson and drinking a glass of ice water. “He thinks I give a fuck about Trump,” the bartender said, “but what I care about is that he makes me put on that TV and he sits back there and drives away business.” I invited myself to sit down next to the man, who introduced himself as Bob Watring. He was seventy-six, a former UAW member who’d done maintenance work at the AMC plant back in the 1970s, and he seemed glad for the company. Watring turned out to be something of a dean of local Republicanism and had made a good living as what the Kenosha News had once called a “rogue developer,” transforming cornfields into subdivisions during the slow collapse of Midwestern family farms, a process that had hit Wisconsin harder than almost any other state. He lived down the street from the bar, in a luxury condo tower he’d built on land reclaimed from the old American Motors plant. “I worked my ass off,” he said, “gambling and taking chances on real estate. And it paid off.” He’d been a Republican since the Nixon era, but he told me he was a great lover of unions, a fact that he didn’t regard as contradictory. “They did NAFTA, and they crushed our unions,” he said. “Can you show me a Democrat that’s out for the little guy? I like Trump because he’s for the little guy.”
I ended up spending a lot of time with Watring. He took me around to the Moose Lodge, and out to a three-dollar dinner at Bob’s on Sheridan, where he introduced me to a dance teacher from the YMCA who was so fond of Trump that she once got hypothermia standing in line for a rally. Watring also brought me to see John Pence, Mike Pence’s nephew, give a talk to a packed room of Trump volunteers, already in full campaign mode two weeks before the Iowa caucuses.
Given Wisconsin’s key role in the election, I had assumed that locals were going to be paying close attention to the caucuses. On the evening of the contest, I set off early to find a bar showing the returns. Having no luck in Kenosha—at one bar I tried, the bartender asked me what “caucuses” meant—I headed up to Racine. Soon I’d been to six places, every single one of which had been showing a basketball game between North Carolina and North Carolina State. I finally convinced a bartender on Main Street in Racine to put on the Iowa coverage, which she routed through the bar’s sound system because I was the only patron. As the results came in, it was apparent that Bernie would not, as I had expected, storm to an early win. I glumly got drunk.
Two men walked in and sat down while Elizabeth Warren was giving her speech. “Turn that off. I can’t stand her voice,” one yapped at the bartender. “What’s happening, an election?” We watched in silence as the coverage shifted to Pete Buttigieg. “I heard that faggot was in the army,” the same man said. The other shook his head. “That’s crazy.” “The Democrats are funny,” said the first. “If you hate Trump so much, why are you always talking about him?”
I was beginning to get sick of talking about him, too, and was getting ready to leave Wisconsin. But before I did, I went to a bar in downtown Kenosha on a Saturday morning for its monthly all-you-can-eat Labor Breakfast. Gallo and Modder were both there, and they introduced me to a bewildering array of elected officials and union figures. It turned out that a number of people had heard that there was a reporter in town and knew who I was. I had never been in a place where so many people were so excited to talk to me. For much of the breakfast, I spoke with a small, elderly man with a gray ponytail who’d been in the UAW and for whom the custom of the breakfast was a point of great pride. “We never had less than thirty people here,” he said. “Not once.”
I was still standing with him when I was pulled aside by a richly mustachioed figure. This was Mayor Antaramian, who had served two nonconsecutive stints in office, spanning three decades. I reproached him for ignoring my interview requests. “I figured we’d run into each other eventually,” he said.
I had been struggling with how to write a piece of political analysis about a place that wasn’t doing so badly by the measures that we typically take as objective standards—employment, per capita income—but that was nonetheless suffused with a sense of powerlessness and rumbling dissatisfaction. I thought that the mayor would find this vague and insubstantial, but when I asked him why he thought Trump had won the county, he surprised me by more or less echoing my own thoughts. “You’ve got a lot of these older folks,” he said, “who don’t feel involved anymore.” I said I didn’t think it was just older folks, and he nodded.
“You’ve got a group of people out there, and a fairly large group of people, that are angry, and they feel like they’ve been left behind,” said Antaramian. “I don’t know if NAFTA was reversed they would come back. I think it’s not policy but root policy.”
By root policy, Antaramian was talking about offering ordinary people a sense of meaningful participation in public life. And even though I hadn’t seen much outright anger, I thought I knew what he meant—that the anger he saw wasn’t so much rage against elites or ethnic resentment or a hankering for lost industrial glory as it was a desire for an America that was actually responsive to their voices and input. At the time, I believed that Sanders was offering such a root policy—an aggressive vision of a more equal and caring country, of American life as a cooperative, public project—and I thought that if he ended up losing the nomination, the Trump movement would end up being the only force left with any political vitality, making the idea of flipping a county like Kenosha unthinkable. But it turned out that the mayor spoke for most Democrats when he told me that his chief political purpose was getting rid of Trump, and that he didn’t know what exactly would come afterward. “That’s sort of a great question in American politics right now,” he said. “What is the political vision that energizes people across. . . . ” He trailed off. “And clearly no one knows the answer.”
He got up to give his monthly speech to the breakfast attendees. The topic was the lakefront. Kenosha is built right up against the water—lake shipping was the cheapest and easiest way to move heavy goods when the city was developed. On windy days, the waves carry such force that they surge over the seawalls and jetties and toss ice and boulders through windows and onto the streets. The old AMC plant was built so close to the water that an owner once threatened to lock striking workers out and toss the keys over the fence and into the lake. The mayor explained that water levels in the Great Lakes had historically risen and fallen predictably, but that the pattern was starting to shift as climate change led to increased precipitation. Water levels were at a record high, and were expected to keep rising, threatening to overwhelm the seawalls that protected downtown. What they’d thought was a simple swell now looked like it might turn into a flood.
I left Wisconsin in mid-February, telling everyone I’d see them soon, when I returned for the convention. I followed the Sanders campaign to New Hampshire and was at a Trump rally in Manchester the day before the primary, where I witnessed his infamous theorizing about the novel coronavirus: “When it gets a little warmer it miraculously goes away.” And I was there the next day, when Sanders won. In the days that followed, the coronavirus began to spread across the country and mainline Democrats seemingly made an unofficial pact to unite behind Biden. By April 7, when Wisconsin was to hold its primary, Biden and Sanders were the only candidates left in the race.
Despite the worsening pandemic, Republicans insisted on in-person voting, seemingly because they thought it would help their chances in a state Supreme Court race the same day. (The Republican-backed candidate went on to lose.) “The Wisconsin coal mine is knee-deep in dead canaries,” the state’s Democratic chairman said ahead of the vote. “Every possible alarm bell about a partisan divide so extreme as to be potentially lethal in a literal sense has been rung.”
Watring, unworried despite his age, voted in person. “I was in and out in fifteen minutes,” he said. “I told the TV station my mind, that the governor can’t just change an election at the last minute. You can go to a liquor store and get beer—why can’t you have an election?”
Biden won the primary, of course, and Sanders dropped out the following day. Over the next few weeks, Kenosha and Racine quietly became pandemic hot spots, but on May 13, following a lawsuit from state assembly leader and former Walker ally Robin Vos, the state Supreme Court struck down the Democratic governor’s stay-at-home order. Bars across much of the state promptly reopened and filled up. “The place is bustling,” Trump said of the state. Coins, a sports bar on 52nd Street in Kenosha where I had once lost five dollars in a game of darts, was packed as soon as the order was lifted. Most of the other bars in town stayed closed at first, not wanting to risk public health just to serve drinks. But there was money to be made, and soon after, bar owners along I-94 were doing a lively trade, serving partiers driving up from locked-down Chicago.
A few weeks earlier, I had called Modder to check in. She had just finished a new issue of the Labor Times. “Good gracious, we’ve got the big yard and the hot tub, so we’re okay,” she said. “Sorry if that’s too much information.” She’d been able to get her quadriplegic son-in-law out of an assisted-living facility, and had mostly stayed at home, occasionally leaving the keys in her truck so that volunteers from her church could use it to pick up supplies in Milwaukee for the local food bank. She’d voted early. “I posted a picture of Robin Vos on my Facebook,” she said. “Man, there were people wanting to kill him! I had to take it down, because I don’t need death and destruction on my Facebook.” She said she was happy about Biden. “He’s an old guy like us,” she said. “And regardless of whether he’s as progressive as one might hope, we like him well enough. What I’m excited about is that we might get a woman vice president,” she added. “So if Biden, you know, were to step down, we might get a woman president. And wouldn’t that be exciting?”
She was relieved to finally have a nominee to get behind, and that the process hadn’t been nearly as long or ugly as most people had expected. But I had trouble imagining most ordinary Kenoshans sharing that enthusiasm. In early May, there were reports about safety conditions at MKE1 and MKE5, two of the big Amazon distribution centers that had been such a large part of Kenosha’s rebirth. The facilities hadn’t started requiring masks until April 16, but no one knew how many people were getting sick, because Amazon had barred the county from conducting inspections. By May 21, at least thirty-two workers at Kenosha’s Amazon facilities had fallen ill, and the head of the county health department floated the idea of using the National Guard to force Amazon to allow inspectors inside. The employees themselves had little recourse. “There’s talk of it all the time,” one worker at MKE5 told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, with regard to collective organizing. “The problem is we’re all strung out, pushed to the limit, there’s just no energy left. They wear people out, wreck their knees, shoulders, backs, and replace them.” These struggles far predated the Trump presidency, and it was going to take much more than a change in political scenery to fix them.
Meanwhile, as police brutality protests spread across the country after the murder of George Floyd—less an uprising over a single killing than a public reexamination of the stories this nation has always told itself about justice and progress—it became even more evident that many Americans weren’t interested in steadiness or incrementalism. They were ready for a radical overhaul, whether or not our politicians were on the same page. The protests made it impossible for Biden to credibly appeal to an imagined center. The divide was clear: you either believed that it was reasonable to call in the military to stop people from busting windows in strip malls, or you saw in the passion of the protests the potential for a new and better country. Biden thus made a show of embracing the energy of the streets, visiting a protest and taking a knee in front of a young black protester.
A few days later, the Biden campaign announced that it rejected the idea of defunding police departments, one of the demonstrators’ central demands. The Democrats had returned to their guiding principle of moderation, even though the only forces with the political energy to match Trumpism—the protesters so fed up that they were willing to physically challenge police, or the legions that Sanders mobilized for his campaign—are almost as disdainful of this style of politics as they are of Trump’s.
Still, the Democrats’ strategy might work out this November. Trump’s response to the pandemic and the protests has been so wanton and self-serving that enough Americans might be convinced to vote for a candidate offering steadiness. But tacking toward the middle will do nothing to sway the Kenoshans I met, among the many Americans who have decided that voting changes very little, and that both parties are more beholden to the elite than to ordinary citizens.
In the long run, a Democratic Party that wants to govern is going to have to respond to this feeling, not by offering incremental reforms in policing, or tweaks to existing health care laws, but by beginning a real transformation. It will require new structures—we have not yet tried to govern a metropolis without a police force, but we soon might—as well as a recommitment to things that the Democrats have abandoned, like organized labor. It will take admitting that the morass we’ve ended up in was not created by accident. It will take naming the people who brought us to this point, and it will take a willingness to confront them and to make enemies—something Republicans have long been happy to do. It will, finally, take a political project that can match the feeling of participation and excitement that the Trump movement has offered. Democrats picked a candidate who has promised to return the country to normal. That may end up being the most dangerous choice of all.