On a cold, gray, misty day in Pepin County, Wisconsin, on the state’s rural western edge, inside a snug, 19th-century cabin at Black Cat Farmstead, Andrea Myklebust fed a wood stove with a cluster of twigs and crinkled-up newspaper and turned back toward me to try to put words to her rage. “I just have been so angry for so much of the past year,” she said. “Really angry.” Myklebust, 51, is a wife and a mother, a sculptor, a weaver and a shepherd, and this is where she tends her menagerie of a pony, some geese, a dozen or so cats, too many chickens to count and some 70 sheep. She spins their wool into yarn on her looms, and turns that yarn into cloth, and turns that cloth into scarves and shawls. Gandhi was a hand-spinner, she told me, and it’s how he “achieved nonviolence,” or that’s her theory, or at least her hope. “Because I’ve been too angry to be a force for good in my community,” she explained. “You know, it’s like, harness your anger”—now, though, she made a sound that was a cross between a blah and a sigh. “No,” concluded the liberal farmer and artist. “It just makes me want to punch people.”
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Hillary Clinton was supposed to win, not Donald Trump, a man Myklebust considered morally unfit for the office he sought. Myklebust had moved the 80 miles from Minnesota’s Twin Cities in 2005 because she felt that the rolling landscape here was pastoral and restorative, and that she had found where she would live for the rest of her life. But in the immediate aftermath of November 8, 2016, Myklebust was distraught and suddenly disoriented in her adopted home. Pepin County, a reliably Democratic-leaning sliver of rustic Wisconsin, went resoundingly for Trump, revealing a schism in her own community she hadn’t seen. Myklebust was stunned, but also determinedly optimistic, believing this division could be repaired. “You have to engage with people with whom you disagree,” she told me not long after the historic jolt of an election. “We have to figure that out—if America is going to survive as a democracy.”
At the end of 2016, I had come to Pepin County because it appeared on the electoral map to be a glaring example of precisely the kind of place that had helped Trump win. Wisconsin as a whole hadn’t voted for a Republican for president since 1984, and Pepin County hadn’t voted for a Republican for president since 1972. And yet, the 2016 tally wasn’t even close. Over 58 percent of the voters chose Trump. Pepin is the smallest county in Wisconsin by area and has a population of barely 7,000 people, and I found it largely cleaved into two factions: the typically more conservative natives, most of whom voted for Trump, and the typically more liberal newcomers, the urban and suburban transplants, most of whom did not. The latter group hadn’t moved to a red state—a red state had moved to them. At best, Trump’s election was a jarring realization that this was not the place where they thought they lived; at worst, it was a wresting back of control by neighbors it turned out they didn’t know or understand.
A year has passed, a year in which the professional political class has been locked in a permanent state of chaos and conflict, and so I returned to this out-of-the-way part of Wisconsin, curious to see whether the corrosive bickering of Capitol Hill and cable TV also had infiltrated a place so far geographically, as well as temperamentally, from Washington. What I found, though, was not at all a community knitting back together. Myklebust’s furious, frustrated withdrawal might be extreme—but it’s not an exception. Republicans and Democrats, Trump voters and Trump haters, natives and newcomers, told me the same thing: The gap between them has widened. And this colder, more rigid strain of political division, I heard repeatedly, has curdled a regional habit of happy-faced avoidance into something that feels more like a toxic silence.
Conversations about politics?
“No,” Democrat Jean Accola said.
“No,” Republican Betsy Krajniak said.
“Everybody’s split,” Republican Gary Samuelson said.
“The divide is even greater,” Democrat Steve Grams said.
“There’s no question that Trump is dividing the nation further and faster than anybody has done in the past,” Dwight Jelle, a Democrat, a Minnesota move-in and the chairperson of the Pepin County Board of Supervisors, told me.
Trump is surely not the only reason for America’s worrisome and worsening partisan strife, with 80 percent of people in recent polling saying they see the country as “mainly or totally divided.” But his election framed that chasm in stark terms, an emotional choice that felt bitterly personal on both sides. And since taking office, the 45th president has only stoked the discord with his comments about “ungrateful” blacks, the criminal propensities of immigrants, his anti-Islam rhetoric and his equivocations on behalf of white supremacists. People here, in this demographically homogeneous, almost entirely white community, have plenty to say about all this—they just have chosen not to say it to each other. If there is a wall that Trump has built, it’s not the “big, beautiful” one on the Mexican border—it’s the figurative wall that has risen in places like Pepin County, Wisconsin.
I sat at a bar in Durand called the Cell Block one afternoon and listened to Bill Ingram, a GOP member of the county board, bluntly describe Republicans as “good” and Democrats as “evil.” I spent another evening in a cabin on a dark hill as deer hunters downed cans of Keystone Light while discussing what they viewed as a Trump-boosted economic surge—and the next night at a cozy, artsy concert venue where aghast liberals drank $4 bottles of craft beer and lamented the “erosion” of democracy. Myklebust characterized Pepin County as a Venn diagram with two circles that no longer touch.
And the cost of this divide, at least for one wool-weaving shepherd, can be measured in hay. Myklebust’s supplier, the man who grew what she had decided was the most perfect winter feed for her sheep, had voted for Trump, she believed. That knowledge had gnawed at her during the year—but as the days grew shorter and the harsher weather approached, she knew she would have to reach out to him, if only to do right by her flock. Myklebust sent a text message to Mitch Nelson. Nelson was born on the land he still farms.
“Hello Mitch,” Myklebust wrote. “I’ll be looking for hay about the end of this month. Will you have 30 big rounds I can buy from you?”
Nelson’s response came quickly, grammar what it was: “I didn’t get many the one’s I baled are moldy I still owe you 2 from last year I will bring those when u are ready.”
“OK,” Myklebust answered. “Suggestions for other sources here in the neighborhood?”
“I don’t know anyone who would have hay,” he wrote.
For Myklebust, the hay wasn’t just hay—it was her last tangible connection to a Trump voter. And she read Nelson’s curt last text as a door slammed shut, proof that these sorts of interactions with people she saw as less than like-minded were pointless. If she had spoken to Nelson, picked up the phone or even just asked him to deliver those two remaining bales, she might have learned something that could have corrected her assumption, or at the very least preserved an admittedly tenuous bond with a neighbor. But she didn’t. Despite what she had vowed to me a year ago, she hasn’t engaged. She has done the opposite. She has retreated. She’s ending her involvement with the board of the local history museum, and she left her position atop an area merchants association—not because these are groups stocked with Republicans, but due to her persistently grim mood. A couple of months ago, she said, she unfriended “the last conservative” in her Facebook feed.
Everything she considers so objectionable that is happening because of Trump, she believes, is happening because of these people in this place. “I cannot separate what I am seeing modeled and demonstrated and articulated, again and again and again, at the national level—I can’t separate it from the people who voted for that around here,” Myklebust said. “And that’s what it comes down to. I just don’t want to have a political conversation with anybody who thought that was OK a year ago, and thinks it’s OK now.”
The partitioning of Pepin County didn’t occur all at once. Before people retreated to their respective silos, they did try to talk. It didn’t go quite as planned.
Bruce Johnson had spearheaded the effort. Johnson, who moved from the Twin Cities seven years ago, serves as a member of the Pepin town board and is the head of the county Democratic Party. In February, he organized a meeting in the low-ceilinged basement of St. Sophia’s Liberal Catholic Church. The bulk of the invite list consisted of people who had appeared in the first story I wrote about Pepin County for Politico Magazine.
The article, Johnson said in an email to the invitees, “portrayed some stark divisions in how we see and understand the world but also, for many at least, our need to talk more with each other and develop understanding.” He continued, “I don’t expect that we’ll resolve any major issues of policy but perhaps we can share some histories and find some common ground.”
Roughly three dozen people attended, sitting two-deep around a long table. One had voted for Trump.
“One,” Myklebust said.
“The rest,” Terry Mesch, a pacifist Democrat and the county historian, told me, “were the rest of us”—us being “community activists in the liberal vein.”
The one them, the single Trump voter, was a 42-year-old union welder named Vic Komisar. Komisar, a father of four and a stout, barrel-bellied, lifelong Pepin resident, is the leader of the area ATV club. He’s talkative and affable, and gets along with Johnson, so he went to St. Sophia’s.
“No one was attacking Vic—no one was attacking—because he’s a local,” Steve Grams assured me. He owns the Stockholm Pie & General Store in the village of Stockholm, population 66. He is married to Alan Nugent, who operates the adjacent interior design studio and art gallery. “But everyone wanted to know,” Grams added. “Why?”
Why had Komisar voted for Trump?
“They were just dumbfounded,” Komisar told me when I caught up with him one night at the Pepin Sportsmen’s Club, where he was holding an ATV club meeting. Outside, there was a phalanx of pickup trucks parked around the plain, lodge-like structure. Inside, there were heads of deer mounted on wooden walls. This was nine months after the meeting at the church, and 10 miles of dark country roads and a world away.
Pepin County can give off a small-town, everybody-knows-everybody feel. People here run an active food pantry. They put on a monthly community dinner at a Lutheran church, with a motto of “getting to know your neighbors one dinner at a time.” The local governmental boards generally refrain from arguing and simply pave roads and submit balanced budgets. Residents wave while driving by. On a bulletin board at a gas station, next to postings selling a rifle and a trailer and tools, I spotted a flyer for a fundraiser for a woman who had been injured in a car wreck.
But the we’re-in-this-together ethic is undercut by the urban-versus-rural divide, a national phenomenon that’s tangible here. It has led to the kind of resentment that contributed to Trump’s Wisconsin triumph—a stew of perceived economic and cultural slights and distrust felt by people here directed toward Madison, Milwaukee and Washington, and the academics, urbanites and “elites” who live there. As Komisar described the February meeting, it became clear that sentiment featured prominently in the room that night: He called the liberal attendees “tourists” and “transients,” even though some of them moved here from Minnesota decades back.
“They were bitching about Trump and how they were offended by whatever the hell he said that moment or that day or how Hillary lost,” Komisar told me at the Sportsmen’s Club. He was dressed in blue jeans and a flannel shirt while drinking one Coors Light after another. “I sat there and listened to them … how they were just floored that rural America, this area especially, is for Trump, and I’m sitting there going, ‘I don’t know any of you people,’” he recalled.
“They don’t want to bridge the gap,” Komisar added. “They want to be around people they agree with.”
Kevin Kosok, chairman of the Pepin town board, who has worked more than four decades for the county highway department, was sitting next to Komisar at the Sportsmen’s Club. He agreed. “You got all these people who move in and buy a little hunk of land here,” said Kosok, 59, “and the first thing they do is put up gates. Like we’re thieves.”
In February, at the end of the meeting, the loose resolution was “to meet again,” Mesch told me. There has been no second meeting. And if there is one, Komisar told me, he will not attend.
“It’s all one-sided thinking,” Komisar said of the liberals in Pepin County. “They’re all right, and we’re all wrong. I’m so goddamn sick of everybody saying, ‘You’re wrong.’
“Why go back to a meeting like that?” he asked.
Not long after that meeting, Alex de la Peña arrived at his new 404 Coffee Shop in the village of Pepin. On that morning in late February, he found a piece of brown cardboard left on the front stoop. It bore a message written in thick black marker.
“GO BACK MEXICAN.”
De la Peña was born in Racine, Wisconsin, and grew up in Eau Claire. His father is from Spain, and his mother’s family is from the mountains of Kentucky—“very hillbilly,” he told me. He is politically uncommitted, so “discouraged with the whole process” he doesn’t even vote. He’s 52 and has long brown hair and moved here five years ago because it’s “beautiful” and makes him feel “at peace,” and he has friends who are farmers, artists and musicians. Never, de la Peña told me, had he experienced anything like this hateful sign.
“It was a total shock,” he said when we met in late November at the 404, which takes its name from its street address. “Was it someone using … everything that’s going on right now?” he wondered. “All this racism stuff coming to the surface?”
It certainly seemed that way to a segment of the population. A woman from Eau Claire dropped off one of the bumper stickers she had made after hearing about the “Mexican” incident on the local news. “CHOOSE LOVE,” it said. “Say ‘No’ To Hate.” De la Peña thanked her and put it in the window of his door. And Bruce Johnson organized another meeting, but this one was not to foster a conversation with Trump voters. On March 25, approximately 75 people gathered in the village hall for a “Welcoming Community Conversation.” For the occasion, Johnson and Myklebust co-wrote a resolution to be shared with local village, town, county and school boards, asserting that “fostering an atmosphere of tolerance and acceptance … is critical to the preservation of civil society” and that “people in Pepin County have come here from many places over time”—outsiders writing in defense of outsiders.
The police put a camera in a nearby tree to watch the shop, but as of late November, there were no suspects. “I think it’s just somebody who did not know who Alex was, and probably had some racism, unfortunately,” County Sheriff Joel Wener said when we met in his office in Durand. “But that’s America. That’s the world.”
It’s also Pepin County. A few years ago, Grams, the pie shop owner, found “FAG” written in chalk on the outside of his store. Around that time, a 64-year-old Laotian Hmong man from a nearby county was hunting squirrels and wandered onto the land of a younger local, who beat him almost to death. Up until last year, residents could see these as fringe incidents, not expressions of some deeper-seated anger. But now? As excitement for Trump’s candidacy spiked in 2016, more and more Confederate flags flew—in a state that had contributed more than 90,000 men to the Union Army. Earlier this year, in the unsettling aftermath of Trump’s election, some undocumented Mexican dairy workers fled and returned home, while others who stayed were harassed more openly.
These are not data points from which everyone draws the same conclusions. Racism and the problems it provokes are not top-of-mind issues in Pepin County, say many longtime residents. When I met at the Cell Block Bar with Ingram, the member of the county’s board of supervisors who told me Republicans are “good” and Democrats are “evil,” he asserted, with a trace of pride, that there were no “fringe groups” in Pepin. “We don’t have Black Lives Matter,” he said. “We don’t have Antifa. We don’t have the gangbangers. We have, you know, a bunch of Norwegians, Swedes and Germans—and I have yet to see a Swedish gangbanger, or a Norwegian drug cartel.”
Following the deadly far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past August, after which Trump said there were “very fine people” on both sides, approximately 50 people got together near the edge of the Mississippi River in the village of Pepin for a candlelight “solidarity vigil.” Most of the people there had attended the meeting in support of de la Peña from the 404 and the meeting in the church—the newcomers, the liberals. Myklebust was one of them. For her, Charlottesville and the Pepin County response only drew more clearly the lines of us versus them.
“There was definitely a sense of, ‘Look around this circle right now, because these … are the people that will look out for you, and these are the people that I would look out for,’” Myklebust said. “Because these are the people who showed up to say, ‘Nazis are bad.’”
A month and a half later, she texted Nelson for hay. And she made an unflattering assumption in the absence of other information. “Was it truly a wet year and his crop was poor … or did he decide he didn’t want to sell to me?” Myklebust wrote to me in an email at the time.
“I don’t know. I didn’t ask.”
Nelson lives three miles from Myklebust’s Black Cat Farmstead, at the end of a long dirt road in a modest tan house. He opened his door before I could knock on it. Wearing jeans, a flannel shirt, wire-rim glasses and a bushy moustache, the taciturn farmer stood on his stoop in his socks. He was wary but willing to talk.
Nelson, as Myklebust had correctly surmised, had voted for Trump. “Of course,” he said. “We needed a change. Simple as that.”
For him, though, nothing much actually has changed, he said—corn prices are still lousy, he’s still struggling to make a living, and Washington, Trump or not, continues its general indifference toward farmers and people who live in the country. “Politics sucks,” he said.
Behind him in a cluttered mudroom were boots and bric-a-brac. His wife, Janene, had shown up in the doorway, eyeing me and listening to him. I asked him about the moldy hay.
“The crop wasn’t good—the weather was damp,” he said. “It was a cruddy year. Weather is everything.”
I told him about Myklebust’s suspicion he was holding out on her out of ideological spite.
“She thinks it’s because of politics? Oh … noooo,” he said, his Wisconsin accent stretching out his denial. He told me he doesn’t lie to people. He told me, too, that he could have used the money. “I’d have been more than happy to sell her 30 bales,” he said. “Good grief. It’s not because we voted different.”
His wife jumped in here.
“We voted differently,” she said. She wouldn’t tell me if she had voted for Clinton—only that she hadn’t voted the way her husband did. “And we’re still a happy couple,” she said. She looked at him, smiled and touched his face. He smiled back. High school sweethearts—he’s 62, and she’s 61—they’ve been married for 43 years. “I don’t have to like what he likes,” she said. “He doesn’t have to like what I like. That’s a good thing.”
“Neighbors need to talk to neighbors more,” Nelson told me before I left them alone. He pointed the finger gently at Myklebust. “She’s never said a word about anything political to me. It’s, ‘Hi, how are you? The hay is nice.’ That’s all. If she wanted to ask me something, well … ”
Who knows what might have happened if conversations like that had been attempted? Back down in Stockholm, at the pie shop, I met with Steve Anderson. On my first trip to Pepin County, Anderson, 67, was one of the most interesting Democrats I met. He’s a Minnesota move-in but also a Vietnam veteran, a retired firefighter and a motorcycle enthusiast. He is active, too, around the county, serving on the town board in Stockholm, as well as on the overall county board of supervisors. He used to be the chief of his area’s volunteer fire department. On occasion, outside the firehouse, he would smoke a cigarette, even though he doesn’t really smoke, just to have a chance to spend more time talking to his fellow firefighters, many of whom are not nearly as liberal as he is. If anybody was having substantive conversations about politics and Trump and partisanship, I thought it would be him. But no.
We ended up having a conversation about what he doesn’t talk to people about.
“What that puts them in position to have to do is either defend themselves or admit that they were taken in or that they’re plain old wrong,” Anderson told me. “Because I know these people to be good people.” They volunteer on the fire department. On the ambulance. They serve on local boards. “So, what do I gain by putting these people into a corner, by making them, or trying to make them, admit, ‘Yeah, I was stupid,’ or, ‘Yeah, I was taken in.’”
“Do you think they would say that?” I asked.
“No, I don’t think they’d admit that,” he said.
“Do you think they think that?”
“He really is a pig,” Anderson said of Trump. “He really is an uncaring, unfeeling, disconnected, amoral pig.”
“Do you think they think that but just won’t admit it?” I asked again.
“I do,” he said again.
He reiterated for me why he thinks they think this way: “Because they’re good people. Because they’re good people.” And he added: “I think a lot of them—not everyone—but I think a lot of the people I know, that I know are on a different political spectrum than I am, I think they realize this guy is wrong, this is wrong.”
“But you’re not comfortable with them enough to ask them that,” I said.
“No,” he said.
He thought for a second.
“I don’t see,” he said, “what is to be gained by asking that.”
What Anderson seemed to see almost as an act of mercy—a desire to not put his politically different neighbors on the spot, or to make them feel bad—in reality was a kind of retreat of his own, and ultimately an act of self-deception. Because his assumption that “good people” who had voted for Trump now were regretting it and simply choosing to stay quiet was not what I heard from Republicans throughout my return trip to Pepin County.
“I think he’s doing great,” Ingram, the Republican member of the county’s board of supervisors, told me.
“I think he’s doing very well,” said Gerald Bauer, another GOP member of the county board.
“He talks too much. He tweets too much,” said Samuelson, a Republican who voted for Trump last year in large part because of his utter distaste for Clinton and his desire for a conservative judge to be appointed to the Supreme Court. “But I think some of his ideas are really good.” He cited specifically how Trump so far has handled North Korea.
“I look at our president now as it doesn’t matter what he really does as long as he sticks to changing the way it was going,” Komisar told me at the Sportsmen’s Club. And he said something, too, that felt foundational to his ongoing affinity for Trump: “Do I care people think he’s an asshole? No. People think I’m an asshole.”
My last afternoon in Pepin County, I went back to see Myklebust. I told her I had talked with Nelson, and what he had said. She thanked me.
“That actually helps me in my sort of dark place where I live these days,” she said. It had been difficult, she told me, thinking about why Nelson hadn’t had hay for her and her sheep. “The sense of not knowing—does he really not have hay, or did he just decide he didn’t want to sell hay to me?—that not knowing is like a seeping poison that can color everything else,” she said. “And yet, it’s like, I don’t feel like I’m in a position where I want to get into—I wasn’t going to drive over to his place and say, ‘Do you really not have hay for me?’”
“You could have,” I said.
“No. No, no,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to.”
Instead, Myklebust got year-old hay from a different nearby farm, run by a young, politically simpatico husband-and-wife team with deep roots in Pepin County who moved away before returning.
“I’m just building my fences and my gates and closing the storm windows,” she said. “Because, seriously, if people don’t even grasp why we’re upset, there’s no point—there’s no conversation to be had there.”
At that, I thanked her and left her old cabin, with her wood stove and her wool and her looms. Outside, the sun had come out. Wispy white clouds brush-stroked the blue sky, and a soft breeze tickled her wind chimes. It was winter in Wisconsin.
A week later, I got an email from Bruce Johnson. He is hoping to organize another meeting, like the one in February at St. Sophia’s, “after your article is published,” he wrote.