In Pepin County, it’s neighbor against neighbor

To hear Politico reporter Michael Kruse tell it, Pepin County in Wisconsin might as well be Mars.

It’s in the middle of nowhere, a rural area where signals from civilized lands — Washington, I guess — don’t penetrate well.

It makes a great lab rat for a divided America.

Kruse wrote the story a year ago about the people who moved from the Twin Cities to idyllic Wisconsin, only to have their new state turn red on them with last fall’s election.

He returned recently to see how the folks are doing in Pepin County, his article just published in Politico Magazine.

They’re not doing well, apparently. They’re not talking to each other; they’re not doing business with each other. They hate each other’s politics.

Pretty much like the civilized world.

In Stockholm, Bruce Johnson, a member of the town board, invited people — many of whom were in Kruse’s first story — to talk about what’s happened to their town since and how people are getting along.

“I don’t expect that we’ll resolve any major issues of policy but perhaps we can share some histories and find some common ground,” he said in his invitation.

Of the three dozen people who showed up, only one was a Trump voter, he says.

The one them, the single Trump voter, was a 42-year-old union welder named Vic Komisar. Komisar, a father of four and a stout, barrel-bellied, lifelong Pepin resident, is the leader of the area ATV club. He’s talkative and affable, and gets along with Johnson, so he went to St. Sophia’s.

“No one was attacking Vic—no one was attacking—because he’s a local,” Steve Grams assured me. He owns the Stockholm Pie & General Store in the village of Stockholm, population 66. He is married to Alan Nugent, who operates the adjacent interior design studio and art gallery. “But everyone wanted to know,” Grams added. “Why?”

Why had Komisar voted for Trump?

“They were just dumbfounded,” Komisar told me when I caught up with him one night at the Pepin Sportsmen’s Club, where he was holding an ATV club meeting. Outside, there was a phalanx of pickup trucks parked around the plain, lodge-like structure. Inside, there were heads of deer mounted on wooden walls. This was nine months after the meeting at the church, and 10 miles of dark country roads and a world away.

There’s more to all of this than politics. There’s the urban vs. rural divide recognizable by anyone who’s ever moved into a small town with established families. No matter how many decades it’s been, you’re still a newcomer.

“They don’t want to bridge the gap,” Komisar said of the newcomers. “They want to be around people they agree with.”

“They’re all right, and we’re all wrong. I’m so goddamn sick of everybody saying, ‘You’re wrong.’

The mistrust apparently is deep. A woman who moved from the Twin Cities asked her farmer neighbor to sell her some hay. He didn’t have any, he said. It was moldy. She wonders whether it really was or whether he didn’t want to sell to someone who didn’t vote for Donald Trump.

Typically of our times, she didn’t ask him.

Kruse did.

“She thinks it’s because of politics? Oh … noooo,” he said, his Wisconsin accent stretching out his denial. He told me he doesn’t lie to people. He told me, too, that he could have used the money. “I’d have been more than happy to sell her 30 bales,” he said. “Good grief. It’s not because we voted different.”

His wife jumped in here.

“We voted differently,” she said. She wouldn’t tell me if she had voted for Clinton—only that she hadn’t voted the way her husband did. “And we’re still a happy couple,” she said. She looked at him, smiled and touched his face. He smiled back. High school sweethearts—he’s 62, and she’s 61—they’ve been married for 43 years. “I don’t have to like what he likes,” she said. “He doesn’t have to like what I like. That’s a good thing.”

“Neighbors need to talk to neighbors more,” Nelson told me before I left them alone. He pointed the finger gently at Myklebust. “She’s never said a word about anything political to me. It’s, ‘Hi, how are you? The hay is nice.’ That’s all. If she wanted to ask me something, well … ”

Residents say they don’t want to talk about politics with other residents. What good would it do? And so in Pepin County, people engage in — as Kruse put it — self deception.

Bruce Johnson says he’ll try to organize another meeting after the new Politico article is released.

In Pepin County, people have time to waste in a proxy fight with their own resentments.

(h/t: Paul Tosto)