Divided Together: Welcome to Lynden, the Washington town where Trump visited in 2016
This story is the first in a three-part series, “Divided Together,” looking at the urban-rural divide in the United States through the lens of one town: Lynden, Washington. The project was funded by a grant from Election SOS, which works to improve news coverage of elections. You can read this story in Spanish here.
In Washington state, it takes just a few minutes of driving to find a community with radically different values and ways of life.
A 30-minute drive from Bellingham, known as a left-leaning college town, will bring you to Lynden — home to just 15,000 people and more than 40 houses of worship in and around the town.
"Lynden is the only community that I've had the people say, 'Hi,' on the streets," said Troy Luginbill, director and curator of the Lynden Pioneer Museum. "So, ideal small-town America."
In 2016, the town's Front Street was voted the best Main Street in America. That same year, Donald Trump held a campaign rally in Lynden — on one of just two trips he made to hold rallies in Washington state.
Residents of Lynden take pride in the town's friendliness, its tradition of supporting residents and businesses in need, and its connection to agriculture. Whatcom County, where Lynden is, is one of the top producers of raspberries and blueberries in the United States.
Lynden, in recent years, was also home to some of the Washington state's most pointed backlash to pandemic-related business closures and a rally that drew hundreds of people opposed to a Black Lives Matter-aligned march.
KNKX's Bethany Denton spent months getting to know residents of Lynden as she worked to understand the cultural divide between rural communities and cities in the United States. The first story in this series explores how residents of the town see themselves and how they view the urban-rural divide.
You can listen to that story above and read the script below.
Will James: When Donald Trump was first campaigning for the presidency in 2016, he didn’t spend much time in Washington state. But on one of his two trips here, he came to Lynden — a town of just 15,000 people, a few miles from the Canadian border.
Donald Trump: And I want to thank everybody. I mean, to have this kind of a turnout — where the hell do you all come from? It’s true.
Will James: The Trump years deepened cultural and political divides between cities and rural communities like Lynden. The small city has had some of the loudest opposition in the state to pandemic-related closures, and a counterprotest against the Black Lives Matter movement that drew hundreds of people. But what is driving residents of rural communities and cities to seemingly grow further apart? KNKX’s Bethany Denton spent months getting to know people in Lynden, trying to answer that question. This story is the first in a series.
Bethany Denton: When I was a student at Western Washington University, there was this rumor I heard about a neighboring town. People would say, “You know that town Lynden just north of here? It’s the town that the movie ‘Footloose’ is based on.” In truth, Lynden did not inspire "Footloose" — but it did once have a city ordinance banning dancing anywhere that served alcohol. There are reasons for its reputation as a clean-cut, conservative place. That’s the view from outside Lynden. And it made me want to know how Lynden sees itself.
Troy Luginbill: Lynden is the only community that I've had the people say, “Hi,” on the streets. At the very least, they'll meet your eye and give you a, you know, “Hey, how you doing,” salute type of a thing, or, you know, a tip of the hat type of a deal. So, ideal small-town America.
Bethany Denton: Troy Luginbill runs the Lynden Pioneer Museum, and has spent most of his adult life here. He says there are three major things you need to know about Lynden in order to understand the place. First, it’s got a lot of churches. Lynden has 15,000 people and more than 40 houses of worship in and around town. Many businesses still close on Sundays. Second, it’s politically and culturally conservative. The same year Donald Trump visited, the town won "best Main Street in America.” There’s a reverence for a certain brand of Americana that people are protective of.
Troy Luginbill: Lynden is proud of its friendliness. But, you know, a lot of people will say, “Well, Lynden doesn't let outsiders in.” To an extent, that's true. You know, if you're moving into Lynden and suddenly expect that you're going to walk in and say, “Well, we need to do this, this and this,” and change and change stuff, Lynden's very resistant to that kind of change.
Bethany Denton: And third, it’s got a lot of farmers.
Ben Elenbaas: I always wanted to be a farmer. Always. I mean, I'm a I don't even know how many generation Whatcom County farmer.
Bethany Denton: Ben Elenbaas grew up in Lynden and sits on the Whatcom County Council. When I asked people, “Who is a prominent member of the community to get in touch with?” Ben’s name came up over and over again. He’s also a cattle farmer. I watched him take blood samples to do DNA testing on newborn calves. From the DNA, he can tell things like how marbled their beef is going to be.
Ben Elenbaas: I know, he’s such a nice calf. Look how handsome he is.
Bethany Denton: From Ben’s perspective, the urban-rural divide comes down to the fact that most people are disconnected from agriculture, a major industry in Whatcom County. A hundred years ago, more than half of Americans were farmers, or at least grew their own food. Now only about 10 percent of Americans work in agriculture. In Whatcom County, that’s more like 3 percent, even though Whatcom County is one of the top producers of raspberries and blueberries in the U.S. And because of that disconnect, Ben says, city dwellers vilify farmers as ecologically destructive.
Ben Elenbaas: We are told that we can either have agriculture or we can have clean water. We can't have both. We can either have industry or we can have clean air; we can't have both. But I think to those of us who actually do some of this stuff, you know, who are out here producing the things that people need every day, our reality is that we can.
Bethany Denton: So that’s one version of this story: The urban-rural divide is mainly about economics. Some people are in touch with where our food or energy comes from and others aren’t, and that’s created misunderstanding and resentment between different communities. Ben sees a lot of this misunderstanding coming from a city just 15 miles south of Lynden: Bellingham. That’s where the university is, where I went to school. If Lynden can be caricatured as your typical conservative farming town, then Bellingham might be caricatured as your typical crunchy, liberal college town full of old hippies and student activists. It's common for people to frame Bellingham as Lynden’s foil, and vice versa.
Ben Elenbaas: Both very passionate cities, full of people that want to do good. But I think when someone in Lynden says, “I'm tolerant and I love my neighbor,” I see that more. And I think when someone in Bellingham says, “I'm tolerant and I love my neighbor,” and then I'm getting screamed at in the next breath, and maybe that's just because they classify me as, as someone from Lynden, right?
Bethany Denton: Ben’s views are in line with how a lot of residents see their town: as welcoming, down to earth, a refuge from some of the tense, Trump-era political debates they see playing out in cities like Bellingham. But other people say your view of Lynden depends on whether you’re considered an insider or an outsider. Marco Daniel used to feel like an insider. He’s originally from Mexico and used to travel to Lynden to work the berry harvests before moving here in 1986. Marco told me that just a few years ago, he would have agreed that Lynden was a welcoming place.
Marco Daniel: Back in the day, believe it or not, it wasn't like it is right now. There was not that polarization, that political thing. It wasn't like that. No, absolutely not. We were welcome everywhere we went as Latinos. It's not like now. Now is different. After Trump came into office, things changed.
Bethany Denton: The way Marco sees it, Trump’s presidency changed Lynden. It’s not that Trump invented racism. Whatcom County, where Lynden is, has its own history of white supremacy movements. In fact, as recently as 1994, somebody burned a cross in front of a home where many Latino farmworkers lived just outside of Lynden. But Marco thinks Trump did make racism more socially acceptable. Marco says he notices more harsh stares in the grocery store, and fields more suspicious questions about his immigration status and nationality. I think back to the things that Troy told me, the three things that make Lynden Lynden: farming, conservatism, faith. And in many ways, those things describe Marco. He was a farmworker for decades, and he’s always admired Lynden’s commitment to tradition. He even translates local church services to a Spanish-speaking congregation. Marco says when people talk about the urban-rural divide, he wants them to remember the word "rural" is not a stand-in for "white people." It means him, too.
Marco Daniel: It’s this urban-rural thing, that rural America is white. No, it’s not.
Bethany Denton: There is no one story about the source of the urban-rural divide. Where you feel that divide, can depend on who you are.
Will James: That story from KNKX’s Bethany Denton is the first in our series “Divided Together,” about the urban-rural divide. It’s funded by a grant from Election SOS. Tomorrow, we’ll hear about a clash over racial justice in Lynden and how it took unexpected turns in this conservative town.