If there is a “Suburban Lifestyle Dream”—if there is a throwback Leave it to Beaver existence still offered in modern America—it is found in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, an idyllic hamlet nestled in the wooded splendor of Ozaukee County. Cedarburg is impossibly comfortable and categorically safe, its rates of crime and unemployment impossibly low, the sort of place where people leave front doors unlocked all day long. Downtown is straight out of Norman Rockwell’s daydreams, an elm-lined stretch of Americana where locals strut through morning power-walks and sip designer coffee and duck into boutique spice and wine stores. The only trouble in sight is a dog doing its business on an immaculate flowerbed.
This is a very different type of Trump Country from the one most commonly mythologized—just swap out the camouflage for cardigans, the flannels for Patagonia fleeces. In 2016, the president carried the WOW counties by yawning margins. Washington was decided by 40 points, Waukesha by 27. Ozaukee was the tightest of the three: 19 points, prompting whispers of a slow political realignment due north of Milwaukee.
While it’s true that Ozaukee is as Republican as any county in America—no Democratic presidential hopeful has cracked 40 percent of the vote in more than half a century—it’s also true that Trump has some unique problems here. The president won 56 percent of the vote in Ozaukee County but ran nearly 10 points behind GOP Senator Ron Johnson on the same ticket. It was a vivid display of the misgivings many Republicans had about Trump. Some split their ticket. Others voted for the Libertarian nominee. More than a few simply left the top of the ballot blank.
There is an opportunity here for Biden to break that 40 percent threshold, to take advantage of soft Republican support for the president. The bigger opportunity, however, belongs to Trump.
The 2020 election is shaping up as a clash of tribes—the ultimate binary choice on everything from politics to lifestyle to shared identity. With the electorate even more polarized now than it was in 2016, it’s difficult to imagine 7.2 percent of Ozaukee voters siding with a third-party candidate, as they did last time. If I’ve heard one thing from Americans over the past four years, in conversations from coast to coast, it’s that they feel forced to pick a team. Trump’s most essential task is to remind Republicans—especially in Wisconsin, without whose 10 electoral votes the president will struggle to win reelection—which side they’re really on.
This urgency for Trump echoes far beyond Ozaukee County. Although the suburbs in other swing states are more diverse—the communities around Detroit and Philadelphia bear little resemblance to those around Milwaukee—there are pockets of voters everywhere like those in Ozaukee. Identifying these people and persuading them to remain true to their Republican roots is Trump’s only chance to hold down his margins of defeat in metropolitan areas—which, in turn, may be his only chance of securing a second term.
You’ll know whether he’s successful by watching a place like Cedarburg. It voted in 2016 as a perfect representation of Ozaukee: 88 percent turnout (87 in the county), 55 percent for Trump (56 in the county), 37 percent for Clinton (37 in the county). Four years later, on a September afternoon in downtown, I talked with residents about the changes they see locally—the proliferation of partisan yard signs, the generational shift in attitudes toward racial justice, the one issue they prioritize above all others—and whether Cedarburg could symbolize Trump’s last stand.
“Unfortunately, we only have two real parties in this country, so our options are pretty limited,” said QUIANA VERBETEN, a 31-year-old mother of three. “I voted for Trump last time, but I cried. Literally—I cried while voting. I did not want to vote for him. But I decided I had to. And I actually feel better about him now.”
“Honestly, I’m pretty close to a one-issue voter. Abortion is the thing I care about most,” she said. “Trump is the only president to ever speak at the March for Life. That meant a lot to me.”
PETER VERBETEN, who works in software, let out a chuckle. “It’s funny, we actually disagree. I feel much worse about him now,” he mused. “But I’ll probably vote for him again, and for the same reason. The abortion issue, the conservative judges he’ll put in place—those things are going to last much longer than his presidency. I’m voting for those things. I’m not voting for Donald Trump.”
Quiana, who trained as a hair stylist but now stays home with the couple’s daughters, said she and her husband are outliers among their peer group. “I’m of the belief that America’s values have been ground down for a long time, that our public schools have pushed an agenda on our kids, and that indoctrination has worked. We’re seeing that now,” she said. “Our generation has grown up with these values that have pushed them further to the left. They’ve got a different foundation from previous generations. That’s why we’re homeschooling our kids.”
Like nearly every person I met in Cedarburg, she spoke of a city 60 miles south: Kenosha. After the police shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man, a mix of demonstrations—many peaceful, some violent—engulfed the city’s streets, bringing the summer of social unrest that much closer to home for the suburbanites of the WOW counties.
“It’s difficult to make sense of what’s happening right now,” Quiana said. “I’m pro-life, and I really do think that every life matters, so I want to support these causes. But I can’t support the organization Black Lives Matter because the organization itself is hateful. I’m all for peaceful protesting. And there needs to be real police reform. I’m just in that gray area. We want to support the police, but we also want to support people who are oppressed.”
JEFF MOSES wanted to talk it out.
“Look, I disagree with Trump on a lot of things. I’m for immigration. I’m for a lot of these social justice causes. I break with Trump on some pretty fundamental issues. But, on the other hand, I disagree with Democrats on a fundamental issue: abortion. And it’s hard for me to get over that. How can you advocate for social justice but approve of killing unborn babies? It makes no sense to me. So, what am I supposed to do?”
He thought for a long moment. “I don’t know. I’m really not sure if I can vote for Trump again. But I definitely don’t think I can vote for Biden.”
Moses, a 57-year-old investment analyst, was waiting outside the bank for his wife to complete a deposit. They live a short walk from downtown. Daisy, the family’s chocolate lab, moaned impatiently throughout our conversation. I asked Moses for his opinion on the Democratic Party. Under the watchful eye of his wife, LINDA MOSES, who had just emerged from the bank, Jeff measured his words.
“I am very, very concerned about what we’re seeing from the far left. And look, trust me, I know there are radicals on the right, too. But the media is so biased; they spend all their time on the right-wing radicals and give the left-wing radicals a pass. And honestly, that’s part of the reason I’ll probably wind up voting for Trump again. The media hates the people who voted for him last time, and they don’t bother understanding how they could possibly vote for him again.”
Linda frowned. “I have a slightly different view,” she said.
“This isn’t about the far left, or the radical right. This is about Donald Trump,” she continued. “I don’t trust him at all. People like that he’s not politically correct. Well, OK. But that doesn’t mean he’s trustworthy. I think he has no personal ethics whatsoever. None.”
Linda explained that she is a longtime Republican who, in 2016, voted for Hillary Clinton for president—and Ron Johnson for Senate. She plans to do the same thing this fall, splitting her ticket between Biden and congressional Republicans. She’s not excited about it. But she feels it’s her duty. “Biden is the lesser of two evils, just like Hillary was,” Linda said.
Does she still have a home in the Republican Party? “I don’t know. I’ve moved left a little bit,” she said. “But I’m not exactly a Democrat. I mean, I have strong feelings about certain things, like the environment and social justice. But, you know, we raised our kids Catholic, we instilled in them certain values. And I don’t believe Democrats represent some of those values, particularly when it comes to life. The abortion issue is a big problem for me.”
I asked them both whether Biden could break through in Ozaukee County this November, putting the area in play or at least substantially closing the historic gap between parties.
“There’s a big change occurring here. People want to get out of places like Chicagoland and Milwaukee and come up this way for the better schools, the safe communities, and really, with Covid, more space to work from home,” Jeff said.
“Yes, and there’s a much bigger movement against Trump now,” she said. “There’s much more diversity, at least diversity of thought, in this community and in the surrounding areas. And I know some people would disagree, but my personal feeling is that the Black Lives Matter movement helps Biden’s cause here. It really highlights how people are afraid of this white supremacist movement gaining stream—and how Trump seems to be a part of it.”
Jeff grimaced. “The white supremacist people are nuts, no doubt about it, they’re causing violence and they need to be put away,” he said. “But when you look at these riots in Kenosha—burning down blocks of small businesses, that’s not peaceful protest. I’m telling you, it’s changing peoples’ minds about how they view the racial justice movement. We don’t want chaos and destruction. That’s not peaceful protest. That’s not what Dr. King was about. And when you see it happen in Kenosha, it scares you.”
In the picture-book atmosphere of downtown Cedarburg, only one thing appeared out of place: DAVE BREIDENBACH.
The 68-year-old retired salesman stood in front of a local storefront holding a sign: “Pray to End Abortion.” His silver Ford SUV, parked a few feet away, was plastered with similar pro-life signage. Against the placid backdrop of his hometown, Breidenbach stood out—not just for his scruffy white beard and red MAGA cap, but for his willingness to stir the pot politically. I had noticed, since arriving in Cedarburg, the remarkable reluctance of locals to speak on the record. Never in the past year had I encountered so many people unwilling to put their names to statements. I chalked this up to a general tendency I’ve noticed throughout my career, that wealthy white people are the most averse when it comes to discussing their politics.
Breidenbach, who stood courting conversation (and sometimes, he admitted, confrontation) on the corner of Washington Avenue and Turner Street, offered a more urgent explanation.
“These people are timid. They don’t want to get harassed. They don’t want to ruffle any feathers,” he said. “Cedarburg is conservative but lackadaisical. These people don’t realize that it could happen here.”