Nancy, born in 1946 in North Dakota, didn’t want to talk directly to me, but she gave her daughter, Lynn, permission to do so on her behalf. This turned out to be a gift because what I got was a conversation with a woman who has been struggling for much of her life to understand the psychology behind her mother’s politics, which are so at odds with her own.
Whereas many of the women I’ve spoken with voted for Trump with the hope that he would shake up the status quo, Lynn feels her mom’s motivations were the opposite. Nancy, she says, is fearful of change. She voted for Trump in an attempt to stop changes, specifically those she sees in her own community.
Nancy has witnessed firsthand the changing demographics of her state. Over the last decade or so, the number of immigrants to call North Dakota home has skyrocketed. For the most part, these are legal immigrants who applied for asylum in the U.S. from countries in Northern Africa such as Somalia. They move there to work in the poultry processing plants and other farming-related industries. (The higher paying unionized jobs of the Dakota Access Pipeline are another major source of imported workers, though these tend to be American-born workers from other states).
As the faces of her neighbors and community members have changed, Nancy has not found herself in a welcoming state of mind or curious about the backstories of these people from faraway places whose customs are so different from her own. Instead, she feels threatened; she thinks her personal safety is endangered. She blames Obama; she believes Clinton she would have further escalated this trend.
Lynn has encouraged her mom to take a closer look at the forces changing North Dakota. She has tried to explain that many of the companies employing foreign-born workers, particularly refugees who have achieved legal status, receive financial incentives from the government and that these sorts of arrangements have a long-standing history in the U.S. and aren’t tied to any one administration. Corporations advocated for these deals with the argument that the local workforce is inadequate to meet their needs. Trump may have talked tough on immigration, but the changes in North Dakota are actually caused by corporate subsidies, which is an area he is unlikely to do anything about and, if anything, will probably protect and expand upon.
Lynn has also tried to explain that the immigrants who are relocating to North Dakota have gone through years of waiting and layers of bureaucracy to achieve this “dream.” They just want to live quiet, peaceful lives.
Nancy does not embrace the more complex story of her state’s changing demographics presented to her by her daughter. This doesn’t surprise Lynn, though Lynn finds it baffling because in an indirect way her mom benefits from the arrangement. If the factories in the region did not import workers, they would likely relocate and the local economy would suffer, compromising the services her mother relies on to live a comfortable life.
Here, Lynn’s tone takes on a somber note, one that speaks to me of a woman who is resigned to the fact that the person she loves most won’t change. Lynn says she has come to accept that her mom’s mindset is deeply ingrained, and is probably the result of thinking that goes back generations in her family. Lynn sees it not just in the realm of politics, but in the personal, too. Her mother doesn’t want to delve beneath the surface on any topic for fear that an analytic eye will find its gaze on her own life, exposing truths better left unexamined.