The Sundown Town Vote in Wisconsin: Race-ing the Trump Victory
This post first appeared in Counterpunch.
Early in the evening during which Donald Trump’s election as president unfolded, I talked to a union activist friend in Wisconsin about something unrelated. In signing off, he said he expected to stay up late seeing if the Democrats regained a Senate seat in the state, Hillary Clinton’s victory being assured. A few hours later, it became clear that Donald Trump had instead carried Wisconsin by a razor-thin margin. Who, MSNBCers wondered, were these hidden Trump voters that delivered in Wisconsin one of the three Rust Belt victories paving Trump’s road to the White House.
Coming myself from a “sundown town” — that is, one which for most of the twentieth century remained whites-only, in part by disallowing even visits by African Americans after nightfall — I had read the work of the sociologist James Loewen on such places with great care. In the massive volume, Sundown Towns, and on the website accompanying and updating it, Loewen paid special attention to Wisconsin. Partly this was because, proportionately, so many of its towns fit into the sundown category and partly because their histories were so typical. Many had an early Black presence that was removed over time or in a hot moment. Some featured billboards warning of their policies. They included small towns, but also growing industrial ones, whose good, sometimes union, jobs became the property of whites.
Did sundown towns elect Trump in Wisconsin? My research assistant, Kathryn Robinson, and I tried to find out. Since it is much easier to get county-level election returns than municipal ones, we concentrated on “sundown counties,” those having a county seat that could be established as a sundown town or likely sundown town in Loewen’s mapping. An incredible 58 of the state’s 72 counties fit into such a category. Of the 58 sundown counties 31 are 1% or less African American (and only eight more than 2%), suggesting that the proxy of the county seat works in identifying sundown areas at the county level.
The simple answer on Trump and sundown towns in Wisconsin is: “Clearly they elected him.” Sundown counties gave Trump almost 935,000 votes to Clinton’s just over 678,000. His margin in the sundown areas exceeded 256,000 votes. That Clinton won the fifteen non-sundown counties by almost 230,000 votes could not make up for Trump’s 58% to 42% margin in the sundown ones. Just short of two/thirds of all Trump voters in Wisconsin came from sundown counties. Only nine sundown counties chose Clinton with 49 for Trump.
If anything, these hard facts understate sundown support for Trump’s candidacy. Three relatively large counties that went for the Democratic candidate by a margin of about 18,000 votes are perhaps the most questionably sundown counties in the state. Two of the three are counties hosting significant state universities (Eau Claire and La Crosse Counties), and the third (Rock County) is a long-time, though now lapsed, place of auto production with considerable United Automobile Workers (UAW) union strength. Each has a significant nonwhite population, and Rock County is the lone example of a county with a sundown seat of government but also a Black population of more than 5%. If totals from these questionable sundown counties are removed, Trump’s margin in sundown counties verges on 60% to 40%.
However, the Rock County example ought to remind us of how much more than aggregate vote totals in the presidential race matter in indexing the sad influence of sundown social relations. In 2012, during the last meal I had with the late UAW oppositional leader, Jerry Tucker, he reflected gloomily on the closure of the big GM production facility in Janesville, the sundown county seat in Rock County and a textbook example of sundown job discrimination. We talked about how the politics of race and taxes kept the UAW from defeating Janesville’s Republican congressman, Paul Ryan. By the 2016 election, Ryan, as the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, kept Trump tenuously tethered to mainstream conservatives and therefore electable. Rock County delivered a comfortable majority to Clinton in 2016, but likewise afforded one to Ryan, who lives in Janesville’s downtown.
The sundown foundations of Trump’s victory in Wisconsin ought not to be minimized. At the very least, it is worth reminding ourselves of how little racist politics in the U.S. are based on lived contact and how much and tragically that they rest on talk radio, imagination, rumor, representation, and whitelore. Such is probably the case even when we move beyond Black and white. Wall Street Journal reporters Janey Adamy and Paul Overberg have stressed lived experience in a Wisconsin sundown county in a pair of stories on Trump and immigration, one written just before and one just after the election. They filed the first story from Arcadia in Trempealeau County, which is still far less than 1% black but suddenly 5% Latina/Hispanic after the expansion of chicken processing and furniture manufacture. Arcadia itself had gone from being an almost all-white “dairy farming hamlet” in 2000 to now being one-third Latino/a with schools that are 73% non-white.
Whatever the merits of Adamy and Overberg’s general argument that rapid influxes of Latinos/as into the rural upper Midwest greatly strengthened Trump’s appeals, rural Wisconsin is a weak example, still only 6.3% Hispanic, and that population is highly concentrated in Democratic Milwaukee and Madison and in surrounding counties. Much of the transformation in Arcadia had occurred by 2010, but Obama handily carried the 2012 election in Trempealeau County. Trump did so in 2016, the first GOP victory there since Reagan, but with only 54% of the vote. The national map accompanying the second Journal story colored areas changing votes dramatically in light of very rapid immigrant influxes. On that map Wisconsin remains colorless. Of the five sundown counties with significant minority indigenous populations, two voted for Clinton in 2016.
More generally, the too-easy analysis that supposes, ala Hillary Clinton, that white rural “deplorables” are always and especially in the service of white supremacist reaction is challenged if we look more closely at the 2016 returns, and devastated if we take an historical approach. Among the 58 sundown counties in Wisconsin, there are 15 that are especially small and isolated, with total populations of less than 20,000. One is 2.1% Black, one 1.1%, and the others quite less even than that. Their votes split 58.2% for Trump and 41.4% for Clinton, mirroring the sundown counties in general almost exactly. In contrast, the three populous suburban counties in the Milwaukee metropolitan area — two sundown counties and one not — delivered a 107,000-vote majority for Trump, favoring him roughly by a 2 to 1 margin. The suburbs, not the hinterlands, constituted the strongest base of Trump’s support.
Our appreciation of the critically important historical dimension to sundown voting — both Robinson and I are trained in that discipline — ironically came through a sociologist. That is, when I contacted Loewen to outline the project to him, he mentioned having recently been to Calhoun County, a tiny sundown county in Illinois near where I grew up. That county, he told me, had voted for Obama in the same proportions as the rest of the country in 2008. I then looked up its 2016 vote, a landslide for Trump. Robinson and I had reason to wonder if a similar swing from Obama to Trump characterized the 2008 to 2016 trajectory of sundown county voters in Wisconsin.
The pattern could hardly been more striking. In 2008, Barack Obama defeated John McCain in all but eight of Wisconsin’s sundown counties. These virtually all-white counties delivered to the African American candidate a majority of nearly 143,000 votes. The fifteen very small sundown counties discussed above supported Obama in 2008 by 57.4% to 42.6%. The countervailing continuity lay in the metro Milwaukee suburban counties, where the vote went to the conservative candidate in both 2008 and 2016, by overwhelming margins in both cases. The intervening 2012 election proved a halfway house, with the Milwaukee suburban counties solidly for Romney but Obama splitting the other sundown counties with the Republican ticket. By 2016, just under 400,000 votes had switched from the Democratic to the Republican candidate in sundown Wisconsin. Outside of the sundown counties the pro-Republican swing from 2008 to 2016 was just 17,000 votes.
Such evidence of fluidity hardly suggest that sundown counties present no difficulties for centrist Democratic candidates, especially if those candidates are female. Even as we note that the sundown vote is unpredictable, it is necessary to acknowledge that it is capable of moving rapidly to the right, as it just did. The disaster, economic and otherwise, of the presidency of the second George Bush’s terms as president surely shaped Obama’s 2008 successes more than an incipient anti-racism. The decline of rural areas under Obama hurt his own sundown county appeal in 2012 and Clinton’s in 2016. In a system in which so little is at issue in the political economy between the two parties beyond the pace of retrenchment — some Wisconsin radicals would emphasize the Bernie Sanders won the Democratic primary over Clinton and would have defeated Trump by offering modest class-based demands — wild swings and serial disaffections are likely to be the order of the day. It is constricted, miserabilist policy debates, far more than the voters, which are deplorable. The white supremacist past and present lived in sundown towns, and especially in sundown suburbs, continues to provide oxygen for reaction and to extinguish possibilities for transformation.
Kathryn Robinson is a PhD student in American Studies at the University of Kansas. She received her BA with honors in History from Florida State University, and her past research focused on women in the East St. Louis Race Riot. Her interests include Black intellectual history, civil rights and liberties, racial violence, Progressive-Era politics, labor history and Midwest history.
David Roediger is the Foundation Professor of American Studies at University of Kansas where he teaches and writes on race and class in the United States. He is the author of Seizing Freedom: Slave Emancipation and Liberty for All.