- Don Whipple
- Bernard Peters
The regulars in the tiny dining room attached to Bob's Quick Stop in Irasburg said that Bernard Peters was the best person to explain how Donald Trump won the presidency. Aside from his time fighting in the Vietnam War, Peters, 70, has always lived in Albany or adjacent Irasburg. He is proud that his education occurred entirely in a one-room schoolhouse through the eighth grade.
Peters keeps a close eye on politics — local and national — and believed his vote for Trump was going to help his hometown.
"I keep hearing on TV, 'The uneducated people are for Trump,'" said Peters, who sported a low-sitting baseball cap and a bushy gray beard last Thursday at Bob's. He had just bought scratch-off tickets and coffee at the register. "Are you saying only smart people voted for Hillary, and people who voted for Trump are idiots? Anything Trump said, they said he didn't know what he was talking about. And all of it came true."
On Election Day, 56 percent of Vermont voters chose Hillary Clinton to be their next president, and the Green Mountain State was the first the Associated Press called for her — just before the polls closed.
Thirty percent voted for Trump. He won in clusters of towns in northern Franklin County, central Rutland County and around Barre. Vermont's most ardent Trump-loving town was tiny Searsburg, near the Massachusetts border, which gave him 61 percent of its vote.
But the biggest swath of red on Vermont's postelection map was exactly where anyone who follows Vermont politics would have guessed: in Essex, Caledonia and Orleans counties, the storied Northeast Kingdom in Vermont's top right-hand corner.
In the days after Trump's victory, Seven Days spoke with supporters and opponents alike to find out why he was popular there. Their answers were as varied and contradictory as Trump's statements have been during the past year.
"The people in Chittenden County don't think the same way we do," Peters said. "There's a lot more money down there. They're not used to doing things the way we grew up. Their idea of not a lot of money is $70,000. They don't know what struggle is. I think that's what happened. People have had it."
He continued: "Even though he's a billionaire, Trump could relate to the working person. He didn't struggle himself, but probably he knows what it's like."
The story of the NEK's economic decline has almost become a cliché: mills and factories shuttered, dairy farms consolidated, talented young people who flee at the first chance. While in the rest of Vermont, residents fought against Walmart, those in the NEK welcomed the superstore with open arms.
Locals eagerly remind visitors that the Kingdom is home to communities that didn't get electricity until the early '60s.
Historically, the region has suffered the highest unemployment and the lowest population growth in Vermont. The state's unemployment rate is 3.4 percent. It's 4.8 percent in Orleans County, 5.4 percent in Essex County and 4.1 percent in Caledonia County. For many, the explanation for the NEK's preference for Trump starts here.
"It's partly a vote of desperation," said Irasburg novelist Howard Frank Mosher, the Kingdom's foremost chronicler and a fierce Trump opponent. "The great problem we are facing and have been for decades is unemployment and underemployment. People are desperate and feel almost any change has got to be an improvement. I also think people in the Kingdom are notoriously independent-minded, and they pride themselves, almost to the point of self-delusion, on that. The idea of a candidate who had none of the establishment support delighted them."
Good job opportunities are few and far between: There's North Country Hospital in Newport and some state government work. The Ethan Allen furniture manufacturing plant in Orleans is holding on, though it doesn't employ nearly as many as it once did. For many locals, options are limited to logging or working on one of the remaining dairy farms or, as some interviewed said, getting assistance through programs such as Social Security Disability Insurance.
But while many lament the economic conditions, Bob's Quick Stop is coming off a very good year, according to longtime employee Holly Lefebvre.
Like most of her customers, Lefebvre is an ardent Trump supporter who felt that he would be good for the region.
"Everybody is very happy about it, because Donald Trump is more for our people instead of helping everybody else," said the thirtysomething cashier.
But Lefebvre's view of the Kingdom's economy is more positive than Mosher's. She pointed out that in nearby Derby, the Walmart has been searching for employees for months.
"It's not that there's not work here; it's that many people don't want to work. I know kids who get out of high school with food stamps." She attributed Trump's success to his stance on guns and dismissed his "grab them by the pussy" remark as overblown locker room talk that "all men" engage in.
Scott Wheeler, a Derby resident and editor of Vermont's Northland Journal, a monthly magazine that examines the region's history, also dismissed the economic concerns as a motivating factor. The area is traditionally conservative, Wheeler said, and many people simply voted for their party.
"The only people who talk about economic desperation are the people who don't live here," Wheeler said. "I'm not saying everything is rosy, but most of the people here are happy. The only time we read about how bad things are is when it's outsiders looking in, because people don't understand our way of life. I think what a lot of people did is, they at least respected Trump because you could see his flaws. He didn't even try to cover his flaws."
A devoted NEK historian, Wheeler jokingly offered a novel theory to explain Trump's support in the region: Trump's first wife, Ivana, spent a few years in the 1970s as a ski instructor at Jay Peak.
Two days after the election, plenty of signs for governor-elect Phil Scott and local legislators still dotted the NEK landscape. But Trump signs were scarce in towns such as Irasburg, Barton, Orleans and Lowell. Did many of his supporters, as some on the left have suggested, simply not want to draw attention to themselves?
A Trump flag flew from a tree in the front yard of a home in Irasburg. When Seven Days knocked, a woman in her fifties answered the door, and reluctantly chatted for a minute. She declined to give her name.
Her No. 1 reason for voting Trump? "Immigration," she said through her porch door.
Albany resident Gary Stevens had another theory about why his neighbors preferred Trump over Clinton.
"A lot of people said they wouldn't vote for her because she's a girl," Stevens said.
"They're just mad, I guess. I don't know. They didn't like the black guy and they don't like a woman, and the Republicans didn't give them anyone else."
Was racism a factor that drove voters here to support a candidate who supported sealing borders, keeping Muslims out and expanding stop-and-frisk policies?
Racism occasionally rears its head in the region, just as it does elsewhere in Vermont. Earlier this year, a Craftsbury resident came home to find a dead and bloodied black cat had been left near a Black Lives Matter sign.
Mosher recalled a dance near his home that he and his wife attended four years ago. An escaped neighborhood hound, with its leash dangling around its neck, crashed the party.
A member of the band, Mosher recalled, stepped up to the microphone and exclaimed: "Hey look at that — somebody's nigger-catcher has gotten loose!"
The Moshers immediately left. But no one else protested, he said. The party went on.
"I'm afraid to this day it's characteristic of the attitude in the Northeast Kingdom," Mosher said. "There's a lot of latent racism, and it's a half-step away from being a really dangerous and active racism."
Of course, no one who voted for Trump told Seven Days that race had anything to do with it. And many of the same NEK towns that backed Trump, including Mosher's Irasburg, overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012.
Peters said his vote was about the jobs that he believes business-savvy Trump will soon bring the area.
What about the women and minorities who are scared by what Trump has said? What about his temperament? What about his authoritarian instincts?
In a narrow store aisle, Peters spent 20 minutes trying to respond to each query.
"I don't think there's much to it, really," Peters said. "The president doesn't push the buttons. It's got to go through a lot of people. Now that he's president, he's trying. He could have been mean to Hillary during his speech, and he was a gentleman. And he has a lot of people around him to help tone it down. People are getting way too scared."