Hillary Clinton won Massachusetts by a big margin, getting about 61 percent of the vote to Donald Trump’s 34. But Trump flourished in several areas of the state, including the suburbs west of Worcester and Springfield. His strongest showing came in Tolland, on the Connecticut border, where he got 62 percent of the vote to Hillary Clinton’s 33 — a better result than he got in Alabama.
I traveled to Tolland to find out why.
To convey just how rural Tolland is, I could describe it as a few roads plunked down in the middle of the forest. Or I could note that that there are no retail establishments — no diner, no grocery store, no gas station.
Instead, I’ll let police chief Ed Deming recount something that happened to his predecessor around five years ago.
“It was like two o’clock in the morning, some noise out in his kitchen area woke him up,” Deming says. “He came out to find a bear in his kitchen.
“So he went back and got his revolver. He came out and took a couple shots at the bear. The bear ended up running out the window—over the table and back out the window, the way it came in — and we finished it off on their deck."
“It was not,” Deming says, “a nice bear.”
As you might expect from a place where that kind of thing occurs, Tolland has a strong gun culture. Deming — who is also the town’s highway superintendent — estimates that about three quarters of Tolland’s 504 residents own at least one firearm.
It seems clear that played a significant role in Trump’s big win. At Tolland’s tiny town hall, where the election results are taped to the door — 190 votes for Trump and Pence, 101 for Clinton and Kaine — I speak with a woman who didn’t want me to use her name but says she’s convinced that the right to bear arms is in jeopardy.
“I’m one of the people that believes the whole push is towards complete confiscation, and that’s not right, because it’s in the Constitution,” she says. “It’s ridiculous — it’s just an instrument, and your law-abiding citizens aren’t the ones you have to worry about!”
She also tells me that in Tolland “everyone watches out for each other.” That echoes a characterization I hear from Deming, who recalls having twelve people sleeping in his three-bedroom house during an ice storm a few winters ago.
But Jessica Kelmelis, Tolland’s tax assessor and library director, says that communal ethos coexists with a sense of rugged self-reliance.
“It’s a town in which you need to make sure your own life is very self sufficient,” Kelmelis says. “The basics: the heat, the shelter, the food — we store up a lot of things because it’s a long way to anywhere.
“When we get into a crisis, we’re very careful to make sure each and every neighbor is all set. But we’re very independent people. We don’t like a lot of help.”
In retrospect, Kelmelis says, that might be another explanation for Trump’s margin of victory.
“I was very surprised by the percentage,” she admits. “That kind of was an eye opener. Very much so. But I do think that regardless of what I think personally, I think that people are hoping for some form of change that isn’t going to be such an overwhelming government. And that’s what I can say on behalf of my fellow Tolland people.”
Deming puts it a bit differently. He’s a Trump supporter — and says that in Trump’s first year, he’s hoping for a shift in the federal government’s focus.
“People from other countries are coming in here, and we’re giving them all kinds of money, and places to live, and jobs,” he says. “We have our own people need help. Help our own before help others. That’s one of my main issues.”
Since some might disagree with this philosophy, I should offer a bit of disclosure. When I arrived in Tolland, my car ran out of gas, puttering to a halt on the side of a very isolated road.
I walked for about a mile to the town hall, where I met Kelmelis. She called Deming then drove me back to my car. He showed up a few minutes later with a tank of gas that restored my mobility. To be clear, I’d dropped into town totally unannounced and had never spoken with either of them before.
Later, when I interviewed Deming, he suggested I might have gotten a different response somewhere else.
“You’re going to have a hard time finding someone to come out and give you a couple gallons of gas in Boston as here,” he said. “We care about each other and our neighbors. Out in Boston, you don’t find many people caring for anybody.”
That characterization is debatable. But the welcome I got as a newcomer to the state’s most Trump-friendly town isn’t.