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Happy people who treat everyone nicely

Fairfield, Illinois, which voted even more for Trump in 2020 than it did in 2016, supports him still.

Luncheon with the Rotary International in Fairfield, Illinois, January, 2017. The town of about 5,000 is in Wayne County, which voted 84.6 percent for Donald Trump in 2020, even more than in 2016. Both times, it was the Illinois county with the highest percentage of Trump votes.
Luncheon with the Rotary International in Fairfield, Illinois, January, 2017. The town of about 5,000 is in Wayne County, which voted 84.6 percent for Donald Trump in 2020, even more than in 2016. Both times, it was the Illinois county with the highest percentage of Trump votes.
Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Not much changes in Fairfield, Illinois.

“Honestly? No. It really hasn’t changed much,” said L. Bryan Williams, who owns an insurance company there.

The seat of Wayne County is right where we left it four years ago, 275 miles due south of Chicago, when I visited just before the inauguration of Donald Trump.

Why go then? Well, if you line up Illinois’ 102 counties by how they voted in the 2016 election, Cook County was at one end, with 74.4% voting for Hillary Clinton. And Wayne County was at the other end, with 84.3% voting for Trump.

Why return now? As we enter the Joe Biden administration at noon Wednesday, it seems worthwhile to circle back to Fairfield, and see how they’re doing and what they think about the four years past, where we are now, and where we’re going. Perhaps it’ll give a glimpse of what’s ahead.

There is one change here: even fewer jobs. When I visited in 2017, the big employer in town, Airtex, an automobile fuel pump manufacturer, had just shut down, sending nearly 1,000 jobs to Mexico and China. But the lights were still on and several dozen people were still here, administering. Now the lights are off. Even the skeleton crew is gone.

”The community has adapted to not having Airtex here,” said Williams. “It’s become a little bit more of a bedroom community. But you wouldn’t see anything startling.”

That depends on what startles a person.

Tom Mathews, publisher of the Wayne County Press, in his office in Fairfield, Illinois in January, 2017.
Tom Mathews, publisher of the Wayne County Press, is the newspaper’s fourth publisher in 150 years. He despises the press, generally.
Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Tom Mathews, publisher of the Wayne County Press — its fourth publisher in 150 years — laughed when I called.

”It’s a crazy time, no doubt,” he said. “There’s been a lot of COVID here.”

Most people in the Sav-a-Lot wear masks to ward off the virus.

“According to the health department, over 40 people have died because of it,” he said. “I do know three of them, people in their 60s, 50s, people who shouldn’t have been dying. It’s not a good thing.”

Unlike the president.

”I can only speak for myself,” Mathews began. “This county again voted for Trump, right on the same number.”

That it did — 84.6% for Trump, a smidgeon more than in 2016 and again the highest in the state.

”There still lots of strong support for Trump,” Mathews said. “Right before the election there was a huge parade, cars and flags that stretches four or five miles, then toured two or three neighboring towns. People, they still like Trump. I personally like Trump.”

Because he was a successful president?

”He was,” said Mathews. “He rebuilt the military, reinforced our southern border, was in the process of lowering taxes, certainly cut a lot of regulations that stymied business.”

But that success didn’t reach Fairfield.

“I don’t think they blame him for the situation we’re experiencing here,” said Mathews. “They like a lot of the things he’s done. He’s built the wall. With me that is a very big thing, trying to close our borders so not just everybody could come in.”

And yet many elsewhere look askance at Trump.

”I can only speak for myself,” repeated Mathews. “I am upset, the way things turned out in the past week. What the guy has had to put up with. He has been lied about, in the mainstream media, which I absolutely detest, and here I am, a member of the media. I don’t know how the man has stood up as well as he had under this continual assault. ... It’s just unfortunate he didn’t get another four years. He won another four years. I truly believe when they stopped counting the votes, they brought in ballots. That was when the theft occurred.”

Stolen?

”My own personal opinion is the election was stolen,” said Mathews. “He clearly would have won. Biden never got out of his basement. When he had a rally, he was lucky if he had 50 people. When you saw the rallies Trump was staging, my God, they were huge.”

Here I might have drawn a connection between the two candidates’ widely differing approaches to COVID and the relative size of their rallies. But I was in listening mode.

My visit to Fairfield has become a sort of reference point for me when the subject of Trump supporters comes up, something that made it harder to fall into generalities, into cliches. These are very real, very specific individuals, who welcomed an inquisitive stranger who held different beliefs. When I visited in 2016, I was invited to speak at a Rotary luncheon. Beforehand, we sang “My Darling, Clementine.” Afterward, they gave me a pie.

Chuck Griswold, in 2017 when he was still mayor of Fairfield, Illinois, presiding over a Rotary Club meeting.
Chuck Griswold, presiding over a Rotary Club. meeting in January 2017 when he was still mayor of Fairfield, Illinois.
Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

”I baked that pie,” said Chuck Griswold, the mayor then, now retired. He did express regrets.

“Trump is kind of a mixed bag,” he said. “I think he could have been one of the greatest presidents ever if he kept his damn mouth shut and stayed off Twitter and Facebook. He shot himself in the foot so many times with his mouth, that’s disappointing. I don’t quite get it. If you look at some of his original cabinet members, he had some talented men and women. He’s been a severe disappointment to me because he was good for the country for a while, he’s made a mess of it for a while. It’s painful.”

Does he think the election was stolen?

A long sigh. A silence.

”Boy ... that’s a tough call,” Griswold said. “There’s very little evidence. That for me is just a tough call. I have no firsthand evidence that it was done.”

But it was done?

”I would say yeah, probably. I hate to say this, the Democrats, particularly in Illinois, have been good on that for years. All they had to do is grab the Illinois playbook and execute it.”

Despite that view, however, folks in Fairfield are not preparing to resist.

”It is what it is,” said Williams. “People down here are remarkably resilient. We will react to whatever happens. We expect a peaceful transition. We will continue to live our lives. There was no rioting here and there won’t be. We’re pretty peaceful, pretty happy people you saw when you were here. We treat everyone nicely.”

The Sun-Times visit in early 2017 was front page news in Fairfield.
The Sun-Times visit in early 2017 was front page news in Fairfield.
Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times