WESTBY, Wisconsin—Spend any time with people who supported presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2016 and you quickly find out that the reasons they voted for Trump had very little to do with him.
It is likely one of the most misunderstood threads among this new conservative populist coalition. To get the real reasons for their support for Trump, you have to be where they are, have no preconceived ideas about who they are and have no prejudice for what you think their motivations are.
Tom Schaub, Ralph Petersheim, Donna Leum, Kris Amundson and Ben Klinkner are all sitting around a large conference table at the Westby Cooperative Creamery in this Vernon County town. There is a pot of coffee and an oversized box of doughnuts. The aroma that only bakery-fresh doughnuts can provide radiates throughout the room.
All four are dairy farmers. Schaub is president of the co-op. Petersheim has been recognized for his water and land conservation efforts by the county, earning him the Outstanding Conservation Farmer Award for his impeccable land efforts. Leum’s family owns a 53-cow dairy, and both of her adult children are in different aspects of the dairy agriculture industry. Amundson’s family produces 17,200 pounds of milk per cow each year for the cooperative. Klinkner is a sixth-generation farmer on his family’s organic dairy farm.
They are all board members of a co-op that was formed over 117 years ago by local dairy farm families searching for a way to develop a sustainable market for their milk and dairy products in their creamery.
Individually, they are superhumans. Not only do they work the dawn-to-dusk hours required to bring you cheese, yogurt, milk, sour cream and any other dairy delight that fills refrigerators (cows are milked twice a day every day of the year); they are devoted conservationists of the soil and water, and are tireless volunteers dedicating countless hours to the 4-H club, local schools, their churches and the co-op board.
They all said their vote for Trump wasn’t for him but rather for their communities.
It was an abstract and complicated decision that rarely makes sense to people who don’t walk in their shoes, live in their ZIP code or understand how long establishments within both parties have let them down, their parents down, their grandparents down and their children down.
“People who don’t know farmers or live near or in a farm community have little idea of why we feel so connected to our place,” said Leum. “But they do seem to have strong opinions about who we are, and when they find out we supported Trump, they look at us as that dumb farmer who doesn’t know any better.”