How is Trump playing in Janesville?

By: - October 19, 2020 6:00 am
President Donald Trump speaks at a Duluth airport hangar for a campaign rally on Sep. 30, 2020. Photo by Ricardo Lopez.

President Donald Trump speaks at a Duluth airport hangar for a campaign rally on Sep. 30, 2020. Photo by Ricardo Lopez.

The last time Trump came to Janesville, in the spring of 2016, he mocked then-Gov. Scott Walker, who was backing his rival Ted Cruz, saying he didn’t look like a real Harley guy, and got the crowd to boo House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Janesville native, who had been calling for civility during the Republican primary campaign. 

On Saturday, Trump was back, at an airplane hangar owned by ABC Supply, the company run by Beloit billionaire and Trump megadonor Diane Hendricks. Trailing Joe Biden in the polls, and looking, increasingly, like a liability for state Republicans in the November election, the president held his mass rally in the midst of a coronavirus hot spot, as COVID-19 infections in Wisconsin, one of the top four states for number of cases reported in the last seven days, according to the CDC data tracker, set new consecutive records for COVID infections on Thursday and Friday according to Wisconsin Department of Health Services data.  

Trump, recently released from White House quarantine after coming down with COVID-19, waved away the pandemic. “I wish you had a Republican governor because, frankly, you’ve got to open your state up. You’ve got to open it up,” Trump told about 8,000 rally-goers, many of whom were not wearing masks.

Fresh from a rally in Michigan, at which he got the crowd chanting “lock her up!” at Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who was recently the target of a kidnapping plot, Trump touted his support for law enforcement, said the nation was “rounding the corner” on the pandemic, derided Democrats for supporting Black Lives Matter protesters, and claimed to be the best president for African Americans since Abraham Lincoln.

He made it clear why he came, declaring, “If we win Wisconsin, we win the whole ball game.” 

Janesville, which lost an estimated 9,000 jobs after the GM plant closed 12 years ago, is a Democratic city in a Republican congressional district, and home to many of the “forgotten men and women” Trump promised to help when he ran the first time, criticizing NAFTA and saying he would restore U.S. manufacturing jobs.

But the area is not exactly Trump country. 

In 2016, Rock County, which surrounds Janesville, went for Hillary Clinton over Trump by 52.4% to 42%. In 2012, it went for Barack Obama over Mitt Romney by 61% to  37.8%.

What’s remarkable about those vote totals, says former State Sen. Tim Cullen — who represented the district for decades, and who was out knocking on doors and handing out Biden signs on the weekend as Trump flew in for his rally — is that Romney and Trump got nearly the exact same number of votes. Rock County clerk records confirm this: Romney, received 30,517 votes in 2012, while Trump got 31,488 in 2016.

In other words, the plant closing, economic upheaval and Trump’s appeal to white working class voters who felt betrayed did not result in a huge partisan sea change in this area.

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The difference in margins between those two election years was larger for the Democrats. Clinton got about 10,000 fewer votes in 2016 than Obama got in 2012.

“Democrats were not happy with Hillary,” Cullen concludes. “But it’s telling that they didn’t turn against the party.”

In his informal survey of Janesville households, Cullen has found that the large number of retired UAW members in the area are solidly pro-Biden.

As he knocks on doors, Cullen says, he finds “people who are absolutely for Trump are living in low-income houses or renting. They’re generally white males between the ages of 30 and 60.”

One big difference Cullen notices between this year and the many other years he has been out in his community knocking on doors, is that “a lot of  people don’t want signs this year, because the politics are so vicious.”

“An older lady told me she always had yard signs, but now, she says, I have to worry about safety for me.”

Renters have told him they have to check with their landlords before they can put up signs (although Cullen explains to them that they have the right to put up their own signs on rental property).

“Some don’t want to because they know their landlord is for Trump,” he says. “I’d never heard that sort of deep concern before — ‘I gotta check with my landlord.’ ”

Cullen thinks it might have to do, in part, with the postponement of rental payments during the pandemic: “If you’re not paying rent, you don’t want to irritate your landlord,” he surmises. 

So what about Trump’s promises to bring back manufacturing and dignity to the people who lost their jobs in Janesville when the plant closed? Do they feel he’s done anything to make life better for them?

“That sort of logical question I don’t think applies,” said Cullen.

The way the Trump voters in his area see things, he added, “the world economy hasn’t treated them well for whatever reason, and Trump’s trying to blow the place up and make their life better. It makes sense if you’re them.”

“Biden’s the perfect candidate they don’t want to switch to,” he added. “They see him as a Washington politician who hasn’t done anything for 47 years.”

But Cullen’s impression on the street is that the polls are accurate and voters who are not part of the unpersuadable, hardcore base are turned off by Trump.

In his speech, Trump didn’t say much about Janesville or the struggle to bring back good manufacturing jobs here — an issue that has obsessed local politicians of every stripe for the past two decades.

He made a passing reference to Foxconn, the Taiwanese company that was recently denied its 2019 tax credit for failing to create thousands of promised jobs.

According to a recent audit, Foxconn has only created 281 jobs of the 13,000 projected when Trump and Walker celebrated making a deal with the plant that involved a $4 billion taxpayer subsidy. “I get in, companies like that will put more money in than they even promised,” Trump said, suggesting that his re-election will mean a renewed Foxconn deal. 

Meanwhile, things are not looking much better in Janesville and the surrounding area after four years of Trump. 

Dollar General has opened a local distribution center, Cullen notes, but there’s been no big company sweeping in and offering the kinds of family supporting jobs that left in 2008.

“All manufacturing now is nonunion,” Cullen says. “Wages are in the  $14-$20 an hour range. That’s OK if you’re at the $20 level, but you compare that to 2008, when the lowest paying jobs in the plant were $30 an hour.”

Trump warned at his rally that if Biden is elected the country will fall into a depression, while his re-election will usher in a huge economic rebound.

“If you vote for me, prosperity will surge, normal life will fully resume and the next year will be the greatest year economically in the history of our country,” he declared.

But reality in Janesville is not so dramatic.

“The economy’s never gonna come back fast unless some company comes and 3,000 jobs show up,” Cullen said. Most likely, “the comeback is gonna be a long, slow slog.”

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.

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