'Y’all Sent Me to Washington at an Interesting Time'

A freshman Republican lawmaker tries to stay on the right side of his constituents—and his principles—deep in Trump Country.

Paul Morigi / Getty / Katie Martin/ The Atlantic

ANGOLA, Ind.—The congressman and I were sitting in the back of a car somewhere between Auburn and Fort Wayne, Indiana, when I turned and asked him the day’s most pressing political question: What did he think of “covfefe”?

Representative Jim Banks, a Republican serving his first term in Congress, was momentarily at a loss for words.

“I—I haven’t had time to think about it,” said Banks, who had spent the day so far doing normal congressman things: touring local businesses, checking in with local leaders, speaking at the Rotary Club. Notably, none of his constituents had yet brought up the president’s inscrutable midnight keystrokes. But while Banks was motoring earnestly around Northeast Indiana, covfefe had acquired a pronunciation, an etymology, a proliferation of interpretations. It had become a full-fledged scandal, complete with battle lines.

These are weird times to be a Republican lawmaker. On the one hand, your party is in charge of basically everything. On the other, your president and ostensible leader is Donald Trump, and you never know what he is going to do or say or tweet on any given day—but whatever it is, it is eventually going to land in your lap.

These days, you can blink and miss an entire Trump-related controversy. They blow in and out like an autumn wind, leaving little trace. (There are others, of course, more lasting and consequential.) And so poor Jim Banks had been too busy doing his job to fully grasp the significance of covfefe, or to be briefed about where he ought to come down on it. “Should I—should I be thinking more deeply about that?” he asked me, beseechingly.

Banks, a straitlaced 37-year-old former state legislator, wore a blue-and-brown plaid blazer and a Fitbit on one wrist. His short, nut-brown hair was lacquered sharply back from his forehead. Thinking some more about the matter at hand, he settled on two potential explanations. “It’s either that he’s authentic and fat-fingered a tweet, or that he’s unserious about how he communicates,” Banks said. Between the two alternatives, he declined to choose.

A first-term back-bencher from a safe Republican district, Banks is not exactly the Great GOP Hope. To the extent he is regarded at all in Washington, it is as a serious but not particularly flamboyant up-and-comer. A self-described movement conservative and protégé of the irreverent Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, Banks voted for Trump “with reservations.” He disagrees with Trump on issues like foreign policy, trade, and fiscal policy, to name a few, but he voted for the president’s health-care bill, describing it as a step in the right direction.

He is, in other words, a fairly ordinary Republican congressman, trying to find his way in Washington in not-so-ordinary times.

On the other hand, it is his first term, so who is he to say this isn’t normal? “I don’t know the difference, really,” he told me at one point. “You could have told me it was just like this a year ago, and I would have believed you.”

During the day we spent traveling his district recently, Banks was frank with me about the challenge this poses. Six months into a job he had every reason to expect would consist mostly of opposition to the party in power, he has been protested by the liberal Resistance, and he has been yelled at by members of his own party who want him to be more pro-Trump. Given that 70 percent of his district voted for Trump in November, though, it is more often the latter.

“I don’t work for the president,” Banks told me. “Where were we, Paul, last week, when I was lambasted on that subject of whether or not I was going to blindly follow the president?”

From the front seat, Banks’s district director, Paul Lagemann, reminded him that it was a meeting of the Allen County Republican Party where he’d asserted his independence. Some in the room, Banks said, “felt that was maybe an act of disloyalty,” while others agreed with his stance.

“I’m trying to navigate it,” he said. “I’m trying to figure out how to navigate that tightrope. I’m choosing to approach my job by maintaining my independence, and maybe I’ll be defeated for doing so. But I also look into the future—I’m 37 years old, and I intend to be around in the post-Trump era, to continue to be a player in the conservative movement.”

I asked Banks if he believed there would still be a conservative movement post-Trump. “I believe that there will be,” he said.

In Angola, Indiana, where a quaint downtown of mom-and-pop stores wraps around a central traffic circle, Banks stopped at Sutton’s Deli to chat with the owner, John Sutton, a tall, buzz-cut man who emerged from the kitchen wearing a white apron. They talked in front of the ice-cream case, next to a poster of Lady Liberty and a bald eagle.

“Any questions about what the heck is going on in Washington?” Banks asked.

“It’s all good, isn’t it?” Sutton said.

“It turns out y’all sent me to Washington at an interesting time,” Banks replied. “I’m learning a lot.”

Like so many Republicans last year, Banks never saw Trump coming. He was a bright kid from a blue-collar background who met his wife in the College Republicans at Indiana University and learned conservatism from working for campaigns and free-market think-tanks.

Indiana, not usually a major primary state, ended up being the turning point of the 2016 GOP primary, as Ted Cruz made his last stand—supported by the state’s governor, Mike Pence—and dropped out after Trump steamrolled him. Banks, who voted for Cruz, also endured a tough primary, against a businessman who sold himself as a Trump-style political outsider and slammed Banks as a “career politician.”

The primary provided the first inkling that something odd was happening in the electorate in places like Northeast Indiana. Banks’s campaign had based its voter targets on a projected turnout of 80,000 to 100,000 voters. Instead, nearly 140,000 showed up, including a massive number who had never voted in a Republican primary before. Banks won narrowly, with 34 percent of the vote.

Quiet and thoughtful, Banks is not a man blessed with a surfeit of personality, and he describes himself as an introvert. He grew up in a trailer park in Columbia City, a small town 20 miles west of Fort Wayne, with a father who worked at an auto-parts factory and a mother who was a cook at a nursing home. Banks was the first member of his family to go to college, where he found the exposure to a new diversity of viewpoints inspiring.

After working on campaigns to put himself through college, he went into commercial real estate while climbing the ladder of local elected office. He also joined the Navy and served in Afghanistan during his last state senate term, while his wife, Amanda, replaced him in the legislature.

The people where he came from, Banks said, had a pervasive “sense that the deck was stacked against us.” He didn’t know how to match his belt to his shoes before he met his wife, or that it was possible to spend as much as $50 on a meal at a restaurant. “The idea that I could grow up and be a congressman one day would be outrageous where I came from,” he told me.

It occurred to me that the formality with which Banks carries himself was the posture of a man not born into the world he occupies, still warily feeling out its customs. Surrounded by local poo-bahs at civic events, he kept being asked whether he played golf, and kept having to politely demur. Banks’s district was once represented by former Vice President Dan Quayle. “I’m a little bit different from Dan Quayle,” he noted.

Two years ago, Banks recalled, he’d already begun hearing from family members who’d never previously offered him their political opinions, but who were firmly on board with Trump. “Over time, I realized there was something resonating there that I didn’t understand, I didn’t get as an ideological conservative,” he told me—a passion, he said, that led to plenty of difficult conversations, and that remains strong today.

Given the politics of his district, Banks has more to fear from a Republican primary challenge than from any Democrat, and he wonders if his party’s pro-Trump base will decide to take him on. “I think if I were going to have a primary, less than a year from now, it could be an opponent who runs on a more populist message—is more Trumpian, is that the right word?” But so far, he has seen no evidence of any person or group mobilizing against him.

Banks refers to the current chaos in Washington as “the frenzy,” a word he uses often as a sort of euphemism. “I have a sense that much of the frenzy is brought about by those who are trying to disrupt an agenda that I largely support,” he told me. “But much of it, as well, is brought about by unnecessary distractions created by the administration. It’s that frenzy environment that Republicans, at this point, are failing to look past so that we can get back on track and address the big issues.”

Banks’s stance on the federal investigations of Russian election meddling and the firing of the former FBI director, James Comey, is that the allegations are “troubling” and he supports the efforts to get to the bottom of them. “I don’t know where it leads,” he told me. “They have to lead somewhere, to a conclusion, and once there is a conclusion—the FBI investigation the congressional investigations—then members of Congress like myself can make better judgments about where to go from here.”

On the sunlit campus of Trine University, a private college in Angola, Banks listened as the school’s president, Earl Brooks, brought up his concerns. Brooks said he supported Trump’s lifting of some higher-education regulations. But he was worried about proposed cuts to the Pell Grants that help lower-income students attend colleges like Trine. The engineers and physical therapists who graduate from the school stay in the region, he said, helping reverse the area’s brain drain and bolster the economy.

The men paused under a poster of Bobby Knight, the firebrand former Hoosier basketball coach, who endorsed Trump before the Indiana primary and campaigned for him through November, when Trump took the state by nearly 20 percentage points. The picture reminded Banks of a slightly unflattering story about the president.

“When I met the president for the first time in the Oval Office, I had to get the obligatory photo behind the desk, and I asked if the vice president could be in the picture too,” Banks recalled. “The president asked me, ‘Did Bobby Knight or Mike Pence do me more good in Indiana?’ I said, ‘Definitely Bobby Knight.’

“I don’t know if Pence appreciated that. But the president looked at him and said, ‘See, I knew it!’”

Just down Wayne Street from downtown Angola, a payroll company bore a marquee reading, “CONGRESSMAN JIM BANKS WELCOME TO ANGOLA AND PAYSERV.” A big, bald, bearded man in jeans and a blue velvet blazer came half-limping, half-bounding out the front door. Todd Saylor, the company’s president and CEO, told Banks he had just had back surgery, but skipped taking his painkillers so he could drive through the night from Detroit, two and a half hours away, to meet Banks.

The men walked past a fluorescent-green wall bearing the words “Do you want to be average?!!!” and settled into a conference room. Saylor considered himself a Trump supporter, but he was worried about the effects of Trump’s immigration policies. Running a staffing company, he could see how many jobs were being left unfilled. “We have huge hiring rates—we can’t keep up,” Saylor said. “Why are we scaring people out with ICE? I’m Mr. Trump’s advocate, but we’re going to start running out of resources.”

Saylor gestured at a man sitting at a table in the front of the office. “That man walked in off the street, and we’re going to put him in a job today,” he said. “But what if he’s an immigrant? Why can’t I put him in my system? We can’t fill jobs fast enough, and there’s an employment force that wants to work.”

This was a consistent theme of Banks’s visits to local businesses: Many had more jobs than people to hire. He heard it at Sutton’s Deli; he heard it at the Nucor steel plant in Waterloo. In Indiana, where the unemployment rate is just 4 percent, Banks sees more prosperity than despair. We were deep in the American heartland, deep in Trump country, but it was not quite the landscape Trump describes, the “American carnage” of “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.”

Banks heard over and over again from constituents who supported Trump in theory—but were counting on him to preserve the federal grant that keeps them afloat, protect the military base that supplies local jobs, bolster the drug-treatment program for local opioid addicts, secure more funding for local roads and bridges. He criticized the meager increase in defense spending Trump has proposed, which he said “falls far short of addressing our military readiness crisis.” But he also said it will be necessary to make tough choices to address the national debt, and criticized Trump’s refusal to cut entitlement programs.

The day before, Banks told me, he spoke to a local businessman who sang the praises of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump has called a job-killing horror. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump nixed shortly after taking office, also would have been a boon to the area’s agricultural exporters.

The slow pace of Washington frustrates Banks, who told me he was known in the Indiana statehouse as a “prolific” author of bills addressing issues large and small—bills that, with a Republican governor and Republican majorities in both houses, often made it into law. He spoke proudly of tax cuts, right-to-work legislation, and eliminating the state’s inheritance tax.

He could see little leadership from the White House, and wasn’t sure Congress had what it took to pick up the slack. “I respect Paul Ryan—he’s certainly wonky and thoughtful,” Banks told me. “In this short period of time, I don’t have a good sense of how strategic he is at managing the process.”

At a meeting of local leaders in Auburn, Banks heard from superintendents worried about education funding and a foundry owner concerned about skilled workers retiring. The local prosecutor, ClaraMary Winebrenner, said crime would fall if people had more incentives to work. Afterwards, I chatted with her about Banks, whom she found impressive, and Washington, which she did not.

“I figure it’s going to implode,” she said. “We’ve reached a point of chaos at the national level.” And what, I asked, did she think of the president? Winebrenner laughed. “I don’t want to talk about the president,” she said. “I’m a Republican leader in this area, and I believe that if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

Back in the car, I asked Banks about immigration. He said he didn’t like Trump’s rhetoric, and that this region would need an influx of immigrants to remain economically viable. He talked about an interpreter he worked with in Afghanistan, who risked his life for American troops but hasn’t been able to get a visa to come to the U.S. “That’s a small part of the immigration debate, but for me, it embodied those who are willing to do extraordinary things to have a shot at the American dream, and we make it so difficult,” he said.

I could see why Trump supporters might be displeased with Banks. In our day together, he had expressed more criticism—albeit measured and cautious—than praise of the president. I asked him if he understood his constituents’ support for the president he found so flawed.

“They know that Trump is imperfect,” he said. “But they elected him, 70 percent of them, to reform the system that’s left so many Hoosiers behind.” When he criticizes the administration’s “unnecessary distractions,” he said, “that’s the point: These distractions are preventing us from moving forward an agenda that the voters also elected me to go to Washington to advocate for.” In his district in November, Banks won more votes than Trump, but not by much.

The voters here believe in Trump. They also believe in Jim Banks. He only hopes they don’t have to choose between the two.