Rust Belt Independents

2019-12-06T16:20:18+00:00December 3rd, 2019|

How one Indiana community rejected Trumpism

By Ryan Schnurr

Last month, Huntington, Indiana, like many places in the country, held local elections. Huntington is on the Wabash River in northern Indiana, thirty miles southwest of Fort Wayne. The population of the city is around seventeen thousand people; the county is double that number. The community is ninety-five percent white, and the local economy revolves around agriculture and manufacturing. In 2016, seventy-two percent of voters in Huntington County voted for Donald Trump.

Some people would find all this reason enough to call Huntington “Trump Country.” Earlier this year, that description seemed to hold water. In the Republican mayoral primaries, Brooks Fetters, a two-term incumbent and moderate, was defeated by County Commissioner Larry Buzzard. Buzzard is a Trump-like figure in many respects. His campaign was focused on, among other things, lowering taxes and bringing businesses back to the community. He publicly aligned himself with the president and his policies. He used Twitter to insult political opponents and make demeaning comments about women. A couple of years ago, he moved his business, a bike shop, out of town, blaming the business environment of the city, which, he said, forced him to do it.

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Buzzard had previously lost to Fetters in the primary—twice, the last time in 2015. This time he had momentum. But after the election, Richard Strick, a Republican who sat on Huntington’s city council, announced that he would be running for mayor as an Independent. Strick, a former pastor at a local church, ran on a platform of, among other things, economic investment, housing and parks development, and making public information more accessible. He leaned on character and community values as a selling point, regularly sharing quotes to that effect, from people like Teddy Roosevelt, on social media. His campaign slogan was “We Believe in Huntington.”

Strick initially seemed like a long shot, not least because Huntington has recently been a reliably Republican town. But a lot of people still liked Fetters, the incumbent. Fetters endorsed Strick, claiming “Huntington over party.” Grassroots support mobilized among moderate and progressive voters in the community, and Strick appeared to be gaining, driven in part by a transfer of support from Fetters. In late September, Fetters received a letter from the Huntington County Republican Party notifying him that his membership in the party had been terminated because of a failure to support the nominee. The letter was signed by three officials, including the party chair, Rise Buzzard—Larry’s wife.

I was in Huntington the weekend before the general election, in early November, visiting my wife’s family. I know the community fairly well. I spent four years as an undergrad at the local liberal arts college and lived in town for a few years as an adult, including during the 2016 election season. (I know Strick socially and met Fetters once; I do not know Buzzard, though I bought bike parts from his shop while it was still in town.) Driving around town, a yard-sign analysis suggested the election would at least be close. But the margin wasn’t as slim as I’d expected—and swung the opposite way. When the results were tallied, Strick won with fifty percent of the vote; Buzzard received thirty-eight percent.

As I’ve talked about the election with people I know in Huntington—an unscientific sample—a few themes have emerged. None of them are surprising. People generally care about the health and vitality of their community and want a candidate who will make it a better, more livable place. They don’t want to have any of their core principles violated. They want someone who takes them and their problems seriously, and they’d like that person to be kind. (Also, though nobody explicitly said so, it didn’t hurt Strick’s chances that he, like Buzzard and Fetters, is both white and a man.) All else being equal, probably the biggest consideration was character. Strick leaned into that angle, positioning himself as the anti-Trump, the thoughtful candidate with a sense of decency and gravitas. And by all accounts, it worked.

I don’t have some Grand Unified Theory of Trump Voters. In Huntington, as in Phoenix and New York City and everywhere else, people chose their candidate for a constellation of reasons—party loyalty; religious convictions; misogyny; racism; the promise of jobs; his status as a political “outsider.” (Perhaps the best predictor of a Trump vote was demographic—nearly sixty percent of white people, and sixty-three percent of white men, voted for Trump; non-white voters, especially those who were also not men, voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton.) Twenty-two percent of Huntington voters pulled the lever for Clinton instead of Trump. For reasons including disenfranchisement and disillusion, lots of other people didn’t vote at all.

Here is what I know: In 2016, Trumpism worked for a majority of the people who voted in Huntington. In 2019, it wasn’t enough. ■

 

*Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Strick’s campaign slogan was “For the Love of Huntington.” In fact, the slogan was “We Believe in Huntington.” “For the Love of Huntington” was the slogan of Fetters’s campaign.

 

 

Ryan Schnurr is editor of Belt Magazine.

Cover image by J. Ryan Wall via Flickr (Creative Commons).

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