OTTUMWA, Iowa — In struggling Wapello County, a swath of southeast, Iowa Donald Trump was the first Republican to carry in 44 years, his earliest and most devout supporters cheer the new president’s quick action on health care, trade, energy and immigration, including accelerated construction of the long-promised Mexican border wall.
And yet, even these voters, to whom Trump disproportionately owes his presidency, roll their eyes at his ongoing fixation with his popularity.
“He’s said what needs to be done, and he’s doing it,” said Viki Wilson, a retired trucking company operator from Ottumwa, Wapello County’s seat. “He’s just got to sort the small stuff from the big stuff.”
Far from the cacophony enveloping Washington in Trump’s first week in office, the Iowa voters who helped him capture the state and the presidency last November give the president high marks for reversing eight years of Democrat Barack Obama’s policies. But they shake their heads at his widely debunked claims about the crowd size for his inauguration and voter fraud costing him the popular vote.
Wilson is like hundreds of Trump supporters in this county of about 35,000 people, a former Democrat in a once union-heavy city who embraced Trump’s candidacy out of frustration with the region’s high unemployment.
Like Wapello, working-class counties that were once home to thriving union Democratic precincts, such as Racine County, Wisconsin, and Macomb County, Michigan, voted decidedly for Trump in November, and helped him carry the entire northern arc of states from Iowa to Pennsylvania.
Cherie Westrich of Ottumwa had never been politically active. But the 51-year-old antique car rebuilder had researched the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement between the United States and Asian nations, and concluded the treaty would benefit U.S. corporations, not its workers.
By signing an order withdrawing from the 12-nation treaty brokered by Obama, Trump made good on what he argued was a pledge to protect U.S. workers from competition in low-wage Asian countries.
“No matter if you agree or disagree on this campaign promise, there’s no question he’s jumping right on it,” said Westrich, who became an active volunteer for Trump in Ottumwa last fall.
It’s the kind of promise that drew hundreds of newcomers to Wapello County’s Republican presidential caucuses almost exactly a year ago when Trump finished a surprising second to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Wilson and Westrich, like thousands of other voters in this onetime coalmining and manufacturing hub, had drifted away from their Democratic roots, emblematic of the region’s shift from labor unions.
For decades, the voters backed Democratic presidential candidates after supporting Richard Nixon in 1972.
Vestiges of Ottumwa’s better days — rows of once-majestic Victorian homes — loom on bluffs overlooking the Des Moines River where barges used to haul coal to the Mississippi. Gone are the mines and dozens of manufacturing plants, replaced by a JBS — formerly Swift — non-union meatpacking plant is the county’s top employer with about 2,400 workers. John Deere’s Ottumwa plant is the city’s lone heavy manufacturer and, while still a union shop, employs about a third as many as the Swift plant.
Making good on his trade promise and immediately giving federal agencies leeway to ignore Obama’s health care law have Wapello County Republicans feeling vindicated. It has eased concerns that Trump is too easily distracted by his image and refighting his 18-month campaign.
Westrich was among the 1,200 Wapello voters who attended the county’s Republican presidential caucuses, twice as many as party officials had planned. She supported Trump on the hope that the brash billionaire could help revive what was once a thriving manufacturing base.
Trump won her county in the caucuses nearly a year ago. And in November, he won Iowa, which was carried by Obama in 2008 and 2012.
But the election is over, Westrich said.
“He borders on being embarrassing. And I wish he’d stop,” she said. “But when it comes to doing things that mean something, he’s coming through.”
Trump complained last week that news organizations had underreported the size of the crowd assembled on the National Mall for his inauguration. He has repeated the false claim that he lost the popular vote — despite his Electoral College win — because millions of immigrants ineligible to vote cast ballots. Trump wants an investigation.
“I don’t like that he wanted to choose crowd-size at his inauguration as a fight to wage on his first day. That’s piddly,” said Mark Feller, an early Trump devotee from Dennison, in conservative western Iowa. “And you can’t tell me he didn’t win. C’mon.”
Instead, Feller is happy Trump revived plans to construct the Keystone XL petroleum pipeline, which was halted under Obama.
Even Trump’s equivocation and uncertainty about deporting children of immigrants in the country illegally is forgivable, in light of the list of other action he’s tackling, said Sandy Brus of rural Crawford County near Dennison. On Wednesday, Trump signed executive actions to speed construction of his promised U.S.-Mexico border wall and cut federal grants for immigrant-protecting “sanctuary cities.”
Brus, a retired teacher, is concerned the influx of immigrant children into Dennison, with a roughly 70 percent immigrant enrollment, is overburdening the district and underserving the students, including immigrants.
“He’s got people around him that are encouraging him to think things through,” Brus said. “Now, they just need to take away his Twitter.”