Credit: David Kroman
Dennis Chamberlain knows what I want to ask. Chamberlain is a lean 53-year-old who’s lived in rural parts of the Northwest for most of his life — first on the edges of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, now beneath the big skies of central Washington. He’s settled here in Ritzville, a town of fewer than 2,000 souls that survives on the paychecks of farmers and the tens of thousands of drivers who stop here on their way to Spokane or Seattle or somewhere — anywhere — else along I-90 or Highway 395.
Chamberlain wears a cowboy hat and a black vest as he staffs the counter of his downtown shop, Uniquely Washington, which trades in knick-knacks, booze and a bit of bulk candy and smells like an old-time saloon thanks to the distillery next door. When he’s not here, Chamberlain’s also a Ritzville city councilman.
But a week and a half after the election, Chamberlain is sure I’m not here to talk about all that. After all, I’m from the other side of that Iron Curtain, the Cascade Mountains. And from what folks over here have heard, we’ve been tearing ourselves apart.
In a subtle drawl, he asks straight away, “I would imagine one of the things you want to know is, what do we think of the rioting and stuff that’s going on?”
Before I can say that I have seen no such rioting, Chamberlain offers an answer to his own question: “It’s complete nonsense in my opinion.”
Ritzville is in the heart of Washington’s Trump country. Beyond where the land flattens out and the trees disappear, past the wind turbines along the Columbia River Gorge, the town is one of a relative few in the sagebrush desert and wheat.
Adams County, of which Ritzville is the seat, voted 67 percent for Donald Trump. If it weren’t for a sizeable Latino population in Othello, roughly 50 miles to the southwest, that number would have been even higher. In the almost exclusively white Ritzville, Trump received 77 percent of the vote.
Drive in this country at the right hour and the radio turns to talk of Hillary Clinton’s emails, Benghazi, even the baseless fear of a “Christian genocide.” One host parrots a claim made by Trump himself — that had he tried, he could have won the popular vote, too.
Adams County is also among Washington’s poorest, falling right in line with the state’s overall trend: 25 of Washington’s 26 least prosperous counties voted for Trump. Had it not been for Pullman, home of Washington State University, which tilted Whitman County to Clinton, Trump would have racked up a perfect score.
Ritzville proper is something of a time capsule from the ’50s. Even the names of the throwback storefronts hint at this — Memories Diner, the Ritzville Pastime Bar and Grill. It’s also got a Starbucks closer to the highway and the people of Ritzville are proud to tell you it’s are among the most successful in the state — thanks to truck drivers and travelers making one last stop before the final push to Seattle.
Two main streets run parallel on either side of a set Northern Pacific railroad tracks, headed south toward Tri-Cities. One street’s got the gas stations and the motels while the other is where the old stone buildings and “character” of the town lies, including Chamberlain’s shop. Every few hours, an Amtrak or a multi-engine train pulling coal or oil or grain lumbers by and the town is cleaved in two.
It seemed like a place to test the dominant narrative that has grown out of the election: This, supposedly, is the place government has forgotten — the home of the poor, rural, white masses that flipped the national electoral map for Trump. While cities flourish, the story goes, agrarian backwaters like Ritzville have fallen off of the map for public officials. Frustrated, residents of towns like this turned to Trump, casting a vote for change, even if it came from a man further from these parts of the world than any candidate in history.
Yes, Donald Trump turned Grays Harbor and swaths of Washington’s Timber Belt red. Yes, factories have closed and union members have leaned farther right. But the people I spoke to in Ritzville and nearby Lind don’t go right to economic hardship when asked why they voted for our new President-elect. They meander toward other things like refugees and Trump’s proposed wall along the Mexican border and, yes, the “rioters” in Seattle before arriving at economic anxiety, if they ever get there at all. Many out here are doing just fine.
Ask to see the mayor of Ritzville and you might get Kris Robbins instead. The mayor is relatively new, but Robbins has been the city’s clerk-treasurer since 2009.
Ritzville City Hall is a onetime doctor’s clinic in the shadow of a grain silo. On a Wednesday afternoon, it’s bustling as several men build a plastic Christmas tree. Robbins’ desk is in a windowless room where, were it not for her family, she says she might spend 15 hours a day combing through the budget.
At first glance, Robbins is the rural Republican Puget Sound liberals imagine. Minutes into our conversation, she recalls her “extremely Republican” father and talk of seceding from western Washington. She understands land conservation as an idea, but doesn’t believe proponents see the whole picture or how it affects communities like hers.
But unlike the coastal stereotype of red Washington, Robbins is nuanced, wonky and empathetic.
When I ask about how the recession hit the town, Robbins shrugs. Sure, people hurt in the downturn, just like anywhere, but “locally, nothing has changed much,” she says. “The majority of our funding comes from passersby. Whether or not you’re in a recession, you still travel.”
Adams County as a whole lost jobs during the recession, to be sure, mostly in the service sector. But according to an analysis by the State of Washington, “agriculture saved the day for the Adams County economy during this period,” floated in large part by longstanding government subsidies.
And since the end of the recession, jobs have been recovering, more slowly than in other parts of the state, but recovering nonetheless. Last year, 11 houses sold in Ritzville, a boom for a town of its size. A Love’s travel stop just opened up and the residents expect a new taxidermy museum to be a real draw.
Aimee Guiles owns a combination coffee shop-garden store on the main drag. “We’re doing good,” she says, as she pulls a shot of espresso. “You can buy a house here for $50,000. An expensive house is like $180,000.” She jokes about how most of the area does fine because of crop insurance. “The farmers get paid even if they don’t grow anything.” That’s good news for retailers like her.
Like everyone I meet here,Guiles voted for Trump. “Put a businessman in there,” she says. “Why not?” There is no anger in her voice.
I’ve had plenty of conversations within communities of color on the west side of the mountains about being “forgotten” or “left behind” by the economic recovery — grievances backed up by hard data. And yet the notion of being left behind is rarely ascribed to those communities when we discuss motivations for voting one way or another. That distinction goes almost exclusively to the “white working class.”
Perhaps it is like snow on a mountain. We notice because it changes with the seasons. Yet, underneath that dusting are the mountains themselves, the vast base that elevates the snow in the first place.
I ask Dennis Chamberlain and his friend in the store, Barry Boyer, specifically why, considering the narrative that communities like theirs are being left behind economically, they think African American communities voted exactly the opposite of a place like Ritzville.
“The difference is, I don’t want the government to give me anything,” Chamberlain, quickly answers.
When asked if that’s what they thought of people in cities, Boyer replies, somewhat cryptically, “There’s definitely a group of people.”
Aimee Guiles in the coffee shop says something similar: “You can’t throw a paycheck at someone every time they screw up,” she says.
As they answer, I can’t help but think of a joke I hear several times in Chamberlain’s shop, Memories Diner, Pastimes Bar and City Hall about the farmers’ wives who drive Cadillac’s thanks to federal subsidies. I ask Guiles about these subsidies and wonder aloud, Is that not getting help from the government?
She laughs. “It’s funny, isn’t it?”
To be clear, Adams County is not rolling in cash. But some of the biggest issues that plague the place, says Robbins, in fact originate from somewhere other than the economy.
Local government officials, including Robbins and Lind Mayor Jamie Schmunk, point to initiatives put forward by Tim Eyman (and passed with support from many of their fellow Republicans) that limit the ability of towns and cities to levy new taxes. Specifically, they talk about Eyman’s initiative that limits property tax hikes to one percent of assessed value per year.
“You can drive across the state and see the effects of Tim Eyman,” says Robbins. She’s a Republican who voted for Bill Bryant for Governor. But Ritzville and Lind don’t have the diversity of revenue like Seattle.
“[Property tax] goes up, but you have no additional revenue source,” Robbins says. “We’re depleted to a point where we’re on an alarm basis.” As a result, Ritzville and other small town can barely afford to maintain a police department. Many have already dissolved local law enforcement and now contract with the county.
Still, Robbins understands why Eyman’s measures win consistent approval in this part of the state: “The argument was, and still is, ‘We’re going to control the state.’”
Resistance to outsiders is real here, more real than most western Washingtonians understand.
And perhaps for good reason: Regulations can be onerous on the understaffed government in small town Washington. Ritzville pays about $20,000 a year in state-required financial audits. For a town this size, that’s a cop car they can’t afford. How it spends utility fees is limited to utility work, a major hassle when you’re trying to pay the salaries of non-utility workers. Promised revenue from liquor and now marijuana taxes seems miniscule. Anti-embezzlement laws sometimes require more public employees than a city can employ.
All of this just feeds the resentment eastern Washingtonians already feel toward the state and federal governments. “Those are the places where voters make up their mind,” says Robbins. If knee-capping state tax collection is a way to push back on that, so be it.
That resistance to the outside goes deeper than politics. Chamberlain, Boyer and two or three other shoppers who come through the door, skip fluidly between reverence of the past and fear of change. They talk of shifting attitudes and who’s coming and who’s going. They talk about how women now get offended when they call them “girls,” and how you can’t talk to black people the same way you can talk to whites.
“It’s OK for a culture to change slowly over time,” Chamberlain says. “But if you change it too fast, you’re gonna have stuff like rioting on the streets. We cannot do it that fast.”
From this kernel, the conversation slides easily into the proposed border wall and Muslims, including some well-worn myths: “The Islamics,” Boyer says, “if you ask them, do you support sharia, do you support honor killings of your daughters, most of them do.”
Obama’s acceptance of Syrian refugees (no matter how few) is the hot-button subject, “You can still be helping the same number of people and just be bringing the Christians in,” says Chamberlain.
“But they won’t do it,” says Boyer.
“They won’t do it,” Chamberlain agrees. Then he seems to remember for a moment where I’m from, and the Seattle rioters, and he pauses, but pushes forward. “That’s one that I’ve got to be careful on. I’m 53 and all my life, Americans have been dying and fighting protecting Muslim countries and trying to help them and they’ve been doing nothing but blowing us up. I still remember on 9/11 when the towers came down and the Palestinians all cheering and happy about that happening.
“You got to know yourself,” he says. “If I have a prejudice, it’s against that kind of stuff.”
Boyer finishes it off. “There’s a conflict between Muslims and Christians and Jews.” Muslims, he says, are “dedicated to the end of Christians and Jews.”
When I ask if they know any Muslims, they all say no. “I’m sure there are some around here,” says Chamberlain.
Everyone I meet, I ask, How can Donald Trump help Ritzville, specifically? Usually the answer has to do with regulations. The Environmental Protection Agency, Chamberlain says, is “a dirty word” out here.
But the smalltown gripes people harbor here are often divorced from the national picture: I hear a lot about changing farming practices, the irrigation techniques of new companies and the automation of the industry. I hear about past city councils that never wanted to take on debt. I hear about old cop cars and an outdated high school.
I find few direct lines between resolving those issues and Donald Trump. When it comes to the presidency, what people want more than anything is to be left the hell alone, a feeling that stretches into politics and culture alike. Is Trump beloved? No. Some call him an asshole, even. But like the Eyman initiatives in Olympia, if Trump throws out the scalpel and pulls out a hatchet in Washington, D.C., great, they say.
There are tones of the “forgotten class,” sure. But those tones can be found in many places. Perhaps the white working class pushed Trump over the top, but it’s the towns like Ritzville and Lind that elected him. As Boyer says, “These people inherited Republicanism.”
As I’m sitting in Chamberlain’s shop, an older man named LR walks through the door. He’s easily in his 80s and gaunt. His belt buckle, I notice, is a morse-code telegraph. He thrusts his pelvis out slightly and taps it occasionally as he talks. He used to meet with a group of friends who shared his love for the dits and dahs of the old technology. But he’s the only one left, says Boyer. The last one just passed away and LR’s been a bit lost ever since.
Walk down the main street of Ritzville and notice the stone and brick and the theater marquee. It’s a nice place — so small that the woman who gave me a hotel room turned out to be my waitress at the diner down the road. Coupled with the long winter light against church steeples and grain silos, it’s hard to not sense nostalgia, although for what it’s unclear.
Maybe it’s a sort-of personal nostalgia in an aging community — LR for his telegrapher friends, Boyer for his recently deceased wife. But in general, it’s more of a feeling than anything, like the vagueness of the word “Again” in Trump’s now famous slogan.
For all the shock folks in western Washington may feel about the election, for folks on the east side of the mountains this was not some revolutionary statement about people being fed up. It was just a red county doing what it’s always done and voting, locals say, to keep it that way.
Correction: A previous version of this article misnamed Aimee Guiles as Amy Boxwood. It has been updated to reflect this name change. Crosscut regrets the error.