RUTLEDGE, Tenn. — An impeachment frenzy has roiled Washington, but it has barely created ripples in this deeply Republican farming community in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Many people are already weary of this new round of accusations against President Trump, who they say still deserves the benefit of the doubt. They sigh and call this latest controversy just another sign of partisanship and dysfunction in the nation’s capital — a far cry from the outrage heard from Democrats over the Ukraine whistle-blower complaint or the Civil War-type backlash that Trump has predicted from his supporters.
“It’s just Washington at work,” said John Cabbage, 53, a vegetable and cattle farmer here. “As long as we’re divided, nothing’s going to be done.”
People in this district that Trump won by 35 percentage points over Hillary Clinton in 2016 said they are more interested in everyday issues like health care, which many struggle to afford. And their fatigue from the D.C. scandal du jour suggests that Democrats’ formal impeachment inquiry could help Trump in places like this by feeding into his narrative that Washington is a corrupt, politicized swamp he is trying to clean up.
“People are just burnt out on it,” said US Representative Tim Burchett, a first-term Republican who represents the area.
In a small sheriff’s office tucked back from the main road, the frustration this week was on display at a town hall meeting Burchett held Tuesday night.
An after-work crowd, some in button-downs, others in overalls, a few parents with children in tow, packed into rows of benches in a courtroom. Burchett stood between the defense and prosecution tables, leaning on a lectern.
Immediately, Burchett faced two sharp criticisms from voters for his support of Trump amid the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
“I don’t think he’s put our country at risk,” Burchett fired back, defending Trump.
Then the questions turned to other topics. One woman asked the congressman to support a government-backed health care system so that she, and a colleague with cancer, could afford their medical bills. A man a few rows away quickly jumped in, railing against what he called “socialized medicine” and earning a round of applause. A woman told the congressman she is tired of her daughter having to perform active shooter drills at school because of the threat of gun violence. A man inquired about funding for the border wall with Mexico.
Impeachment never came up again.
“They just want Congress to do something that we said we were going to do,” Burchett said after the event. He said both parties share blame for the gridlock that results in little work getting done.
One overarching theme emerged at the forum — that Washington is a different planet, and a severely corrupt and broken one at that. Burchett cast himself as a humble East Tennessean trapped by partisanship.
“Leadership, to stay in power, they got to keep us fighting, and they’re doing a pretty darn good job of it,” he said.
Elsewhere in town, people echoed similar views about Washington and impeachment. Many were quick to say they don’t like the way Trump talks, or some of the things he does, but they believe he has been good for the economy. The impeachment proceedings don’t change their support — or distaste — for him.
“I think people need to hush and let him see what he can do,” said Robin Dyer, 58, as she took a break from serving breakfast at the Down Home Restaurant in Rutledge, where she has worked for 20 years.
“Almost four years into his term and they’re still trying to impeach him. I think it’s ridiculous.”
Across the restaurant sat Jan and Greg Draine, who made the 45-minute trip from Knoxville because they love the hearty biscuits and gravy and enormous omelets at Down Home.
Jan Draine, 65, is a rare Democrat in this region, and has learned to largely keep her mouth shut, especially on social media, where she said she would be “crucified” for her views. Her husband supports Trump. Where they align is on a frustration with Washington.
“We tell our daughter — don’t trust either party. Because they’re not for the average citizen, any of these parties aren’t,” he said. “They’re all in there for themselves . . . average joe, in my opinion, they don’t give a flip about us.”
Greg Draine, 64, said he is not sure there is enough damning information to impeach Trump.
“I think if he’s guilty of something, an impeachable offense, I say yeah,” he said. “But if it’s once again, if it’s all of this stuff they’re throwing up like this Russians stuff, that’s just bull.”
His wife disagreed.
“I just think there’s a lot we don’t know, period. I think there’s so much dirt that we don’t hear,” she said.
“There’s so much dirt on all of them. All the time,” Greg Draine responded.
A breeze tried to cool Rutledge Wednesday on an unseasonably warm fall day. Hot and dry temperatures have delayed the usual bright foliage this time of year. Along the highway that cuts through town are bales of hay, John Deere tractors, and leaning wooden barns.
Three miles down the road from the restaurant, 84-year-old Haskel James sat near the cash register at the Red Barn Produce stand. His son rang up customers, many of whom stop this time of year for pumpkins and apples.
James, in overalls and thick leather work boots, calls himself a Republican but can’t remember the last time he cast a ballot.
“I used to vote, but I quit,” he said.
James said he proudly raised two children as a farmer, with no help from welfare or food stamps. But it was easier back then. There was a big warehouse in Knoxville to sell produce and it was easier to get customers along the roadside.
If he had voted in 2016, James said, he would have voted for Trump because he believes he has helped the economy.
“Things are crooked everywhere you go. It starts in the counties and then it leads up to higher offices. But we’ve just got to deal with it,” he said.