Trump’s America: ‘People are judging people for how they vote’
‘It shows just how desperate these places are if they are willing to take a chance on Trump’
From left, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Andrew Yang and Tulsi Gabbard during the Democratic Presidential Debate in Detroit, Michigan. Photograph: Scott Olson/ Getty Images
Leaving the sprawling urban centre of Detroit and heading northwest on the freeway, the city of Flint soon comes into view.
The small city of 100,000 people gained national prominence in recent years after the city’s water crisis hit the headlines. For years, residents had complained that the drinking water was tainted after local officials switched the city’s water supply in a cost-saving measure. It ultimately emerged that the water had been contaminated by lead, leading to severe illness and, in some cases, death among the city’s residents.
Film-maker Michael Moore, a Flint native, was among those who helped publicise the scandal, exposing how a rigged political system had abandoned a community left behind.
Sitting on this sunny weekday morning in a cafe in downtown Flint, signs of urban regeneration are evident. Like the city of Detroit and other towns across the midwest, strategic tax-breaks and motivated local politicians and business-owners have breathed new life into downtown areas. But local Democratic congressman Dan Kildee is honest about the problems still facing his home town.
“This is a very poor community, but it has a rich history. General Motors was founded here in 1908. At one point it was the largest company in the world and it started right here in Flint. But from the 1970s, it started to decline,” he says.
“It’s hard to avoid the reality that 40 per cent of the people who live in Flint live below the federal poverty line, and 60 per cent of children live in poverty.”
The industrial demise of broad swathes of the American midwest and how its voters turned to Donald Trump was one of the defining narratives of the 2016 presidential election
It’s a familiar story. The industrial demise of broad swathes of the American midwest and how its voters turned to Donald Trump was one of the defining narratives of the 2016 presidential election.
As the brash real-estate magnate from New York cut through the “blue wall” states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio on election night, Democrats watched as the blue-collar voters they had taken for granted for so long abandoned them in their thousands.
According to Kildee, who was elected to Congress in 2013 after a career in community activism and politics, the process of political disengagement started earlier.
“Policymakers at a federal and state level began to overlook these poor places, that somehow the economic conditions of the community were something that the people were responsible for creating – something that couldn’t be further from the truth,” he says.
“Trust became the biggest casualty of the water crisis. People with good reason no longer believed they could trust institutions that are supposed to represent them.”
He believes that from about the year 2000, there was a decline in voter participation and enthusiasm for the political process in Michigan, with the notable exception of 2008 and 2012 when Barack Obama was on the ballot, motivating older African-American voters in particular.
He lays some of the blame at the door of Democrats. “There was an implied message during the Gore campaign that you needed to elect Al Gore to continue the economic policies of Bill Clinton. Similarly, in 2016, the message was that you needed to elect Hillary to continue the policies of president Obama.
“The problem is that the people living here didn’t experience that expansion; in fact, during those periods we either declined or didn’t substantially grow.”
Then came Donald Trump.
“People here were looking for change, looking for someone who could shake up the system,” he says. “In fact, it gives a sense of just how desperate these places are if they are willing to take a chance on someone like Donald Trump,” a man he describes as a xenophobe and exploiter of people.
Two and a half years later things are very different. This week several Democratic candidates including Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar visited Flint ahead of the Democratic debates in Detroit. That the Democratic Party chose the Michigan city as the venue for its second debate indicates the party’s awareness that the path to 2020 goes through states like Michigan.
Next year’s Democratic national convention, which will select the candidate to take on Donald Trump, will take place in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, another rust-belt state the Democrats narrowly lost to Trump in 2016.
Sixteen months out from the election, the signs are good for Democrats.
Last year’s midterm elections were a big success for the party in Michigan. At state level the party flipped the governor, secretary of state and state attorney general seats. At congressional level, Democrats increased their share of seats in the House of Representatives from five to seven, despite battling extensive Republican gerrymandering in the state (a provision on the ballot to end gerrymandering was also passed by voters in a victory for Democrats).
Despite signs of fresh political engagement in the state, Donald Trump still commands significant support here
Turnout was the highest in 50 years, particularly in traditionally Democratic areas like Detroit. The city helped elect Muslim congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, one of the four female members of Congress targeted by president Trump earlier this month – an indication of the energy and political activism, particularly on the left, among Democratic voters in the state.
But despite signs of fresh political engagement in the state, Donald Trump still commands significant support here.
About an hour’s drive east of Flint, just north of Detroit, is the town of New Baltimore.
The pretty commuter town is one of the many majority white suburbs that developed around the greater Detroit area in the 1970s. Like many cities around the country, the phenomenon of white flight took root as a response to racial integration after the Civil Rights Act, with thousands of white residents fleeing the city centre areas to settle in the suburbs.
Downtown Detroit suffered more than most, as the car industry collapsed and the metropolitan area’s main employers received tax-payer bailouts at the height of the economic crash. Today, despite downtown Detroit undergoing significant urban regeneration and investment, the structural remnants of this racial divide still remain.
It is here, in communities like New Baltimore, that many analysts believe Donald Trump won the 2016 election.
While Donald Trump’s election victory in Michigan was tiny – he won by just over 10,000 votes in a state of 10 million people – much of his electoral strategy depended on flipping areas like New Baltimore.
The town lies in Macomb County, the third-largest county in Michigan which represents about 9 per cent of the state’s vote. But while much of Michigan’s voting preference in 2020 is already known – most of the rural parts of the state are solidly red, while urban centres like Detroit and around Flint vote Democrat – Macomb County is more politically fickle.
The county voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 but for Trump in 2016. It also has a slightly lower socio-economic income bracket than some neighbouring counties as well as a sizeable farming community that has been impacted by Trump’s trade policy. In fact, the non-partisan Cook Report argued that Macomb was one of just three counties across the US that secured the election for Trump – if the Republican candidate had not won here, along with York County in Pennsylvania and Waukesha County in Wisconsin, he would have lost all three states and hence the Electoral College.
The importance of Macomb was not lost on the future president – he campaigned here two nights before the election, in one of the final rallies of his campaign.
Today, it seems that the political picture has not changed much. It’s market day in New Baltimore, and the town is busy with visiting shoppers and local residents, many of whom have come to enjoy the lakeside view from the shore.
Many of the residents here say they voted for Donald Trump. Local man Jerry Helfer believes Michigan will again vote for Trump in next year’s presidential election.
“They’re going to lose it again,” he says of Democrats who are gathering nearby in Detroit for their debates. “The party is becoming more and more extreme, more liberal, they forget what real people are thinking. The economy is doing great – and that’s benefitting everyone, including minorities.”
Like many Trump supporters he is not perturbed by the recent controversy stoked by the president when he told four congresswomen to “go back” to the countries from where they came. “The Democrats are trying to start a race war. This isn’t about race. If you’re going to talk bad about America, maybe you should not be here. Trump is the kind of guy who fights back. He’s right to do so.”
Others are more reticent to talk about their political convictions. Tracy Newton says she doesn’t want to talk about politics, mainly because the issue has become so divisive.
“My grandmother and uncle are at loggerheads, because they support different parties,” she says. “It’s the same with my co-workers. I just don’t want to go there. People are judging people for how they vote in a way I never remember before.”
Meredith, a local resident who works in the pharmaceutical industry, is visiting from a nearby town with her mother. As we discuss politics she eventually leans in and says quietly: “I voted for Trump.” Though she voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, she says she felt the system needed to be changed. “Washington is just always the same; it doesn’t deliver. I think it is good to have someone shaking things up,” she says of Trump.
As for the Democratic candidates gathering nearby in Detroit, most residents of the town say it’s too early to tell who is going to emerge as the nominee to take on the US president in next year’s election.
Though Joe Biden is leading in the polls in states such as Michigan, Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, located just a few hours south, is also gaining some traction. As the youngest candidate in the race, he is a man of contradictions – a Democrat who served in Afghanistan, he would be the first openly gay president if elected. He is also a practising Christian who has talked about reclaiming religion from the Republicans.
People will make the decision based less on ideology, but on the individual
Ultimately, voters in Macomb County are likely to go to the individual who most inspires them. It is a point repeatedly made by congressman Kildee. “I think the ideological question – whether Democrats need a more liberal or centrist candidate – is overplayed. People will make the decision based less on ideology, but on the individual, someone who can demonstrate to people that they can relate to them, understand them.”
While Democrats are focusing on voter turnout, Kildee believes one of the most concerning statistics from the 2016 campaign was that almost 100,000 voters in Michigan voted on election day on down-ballot issues, but chose not to cast a vote for president.
“They couldn’t hold their nose and vote for Trump but weren’t motivated enough to vote for Hillary,” he says.
As for the local Republican Party, they are confident that Michigan’s vote for Donald Trump in 2016 – breaking an almost 30-year tradition of voting for Democratic presidents – will be repeated next year.
Michigan Republican Party chairwoman Laura Cox says this week’s Democratic debates in which candidates clashed over healthcare and immigration was good news for Republicans.
“I’m even more confident that president Trump will win Michigan in 2020,” she said. Accusing the Democrats of embracing “socialist schemes”, she says that ultimately Trump has “made the lives of Michigan families far better than they were four years ago”, an economic and political reality that Republicans believe will secure his path back to the White House.