SUSANVILLE, CALIFORNIA —
Major polls show that more than half of American voters disapprove of President Trump’s performance in office, with the president’s approval ratings ranging from 33 percent to 44 percent in national surveys. Trump remains popular, however, in many rural areas, including Lassen County. This sparsely populated region in northeastern California defied the state’s liberal tilt and gave Trump 72 percent of its vote in the election, a 51-point margin over rival Hillary Clinton. And people here say they don’t believe the national polls.
“I think Trump’s doing a fantastic job,” said rancher Jeff Hemphill, a member of the five-member county board of supervisors. Hemphill raises cattle and chicken, and grows hay. He says that Trump understands the concerns of rural voters.
Hemphill complains about high fuel taxes in rural California, where people routinely travel long distances for work or shopping. He helps his cousin make the 80-minute drive to Reno, Nevada, for ongoing cancer treatments, and he is frustrated with the limited medical services in his community. He also chafes at regulations on everything from guns to the environment, which he says make life difficult for ranchers.
Hemphill knows that Trump faces opposition from Democrats and some Republicans, and he applauds him for his “character” for staying in the job despite attacks he sees as politically motivated. “I think a lot of lesser men would just quit,” he said.
Lassen County is a place of stunning vistas, is off the beaten track, and it covers more than 12,000 square kilometers of mountains, rivers and lakes. It was home to a thriving timber industry, but the last lumber mill here closed 10 years ago. Locals blame over-regulation for job losses in logging and timber, and they are frustrated with a sagging economy.
The county has a population of 31,000, a figure that includes nearly 9,000 inmates in one federal prison and two state prisons. More than 60 percent of workers are employed by some branch of government, and 60 percent of the land is government owned or controlled.
That’s a source of frustration for voters, who have an independent streak, according to Toni Poulsen, who teaches political science at Lassen Community College. People here are “100 percent redneck conservative,” Poulsen said. “We’re also very religious” and adhere to traditional values, regardless of party affiliation, she added.
Says local radio talk show host Chris Montgomery, Trump’s message that “we’re going to take care of the little guy” resonated in rural America. He believes Trump’s problems stem from a liberal media and judges who want to block his agenda. “The left,” he said, “is not letting President Trump do his job.”
But there also are Democrats here. One in five Lassen County voters supported Hillary Clinton in the last election, and Cheryl Aschenbach, who teaches English at Lassen Community College, is one of the 21 percent of registered Democrats in the county.
“I’m really frustrated,” she says, saying she worries that Trump is dividing the country. Aschenbach is most concerned about his conservative appointees to federal agencies.
Others say the president is doing what he promised, clearing the swamp of Washington politics. “He’s staying on point, he’s doing things,” said Dava Dee Montgomery, the mother of the radio talk show host. “Maybe not as fast as he should because he doesn’t have a lot of support, but I do believe the people are behind him. I would vote for him again,” she insisted.
From immigration to tax reform to opening federal lands to private development, Trump gets high marks, said Chris Cole, chairman of the Lassen County Republican Party. Cole is critical of Republican leaders who don’t back the president, but he says the party’s rank and file remains committed to him as someone who understands forgotten voters like those in this county.
“I wish he would stay off Twitter” added Cole’s son, Christopher, a student at Lassen College. “I think sometimes he has a tendency to maybe go off topic, but I think he’s doing what he said was going to try to do” as a candidate, he said.
That’s rare, says Republican voter Mike Pickens, who says politicians seldom keep their promises the way he says that Trump does.
And there’s a method to the tweeting, argues rancher Hemphill. “[Trump] controls the media every day with his tweets. He runs the news cycle” and gets his message directly to supporters, said Hemphill.
The mood in Lassen County is optimistic, says Navy veteran Gary Felt, who sports a “Veterans for Trump” sticker on his sports utility vehicle. “People really do feel good again about the country,” said Felt.
College student Noah Lindeman worries that Americans are divided. “It’s like, you’re either with us or against us,” he said of the mood in both parties. “I don’t think that’s a good way for politics to happen.”
David Teeter, one of Lassen County’s five supervisors, shares the same concern. He holds a nonpartisan office but is a registered Democrat and worries about political “ideologues” and the lack of moderation in policy debates.
Voters across the political spectrum agree on one thing, that rural counties like this one have been ignored by the two parties, and that Trump’s election shows politics as usual won’t work any more.