Politics & Policy

Washington, Mich. vs. Washington, D.C.

Supporters of President Trump cheer at a rally in Washington, Mich., April 28, 2018. (Joshua Robert/Reuters)
What Trump’s rally says about the gulf between Democrats and the industrial heartland

Macomb County, Mich. — Michelle Wolf’s obscenity-laden rant at the Washington, D.C., White House Correspondents’ Dinner has been thoroughly dissected, but less attention has been paid to Donald Trump’s remarks here in the “other” Washington — Michigan’s Washington Township, where the president conspicuously took refuge Saturday night from his media enemies.

While the two contrasting Washingtons speak to the gulf between Beltway elites and Middle America, the meat of Trump’s populist, blue-dog-Democrat speech shows how far to the left Democrats have strayed from their working-class base. Remove Trump’s partisan campaign references, and the speech might have been given by any industrial-Midwest Democrat 20 years ago.

“So this is where all the Trump voters are!” exclaimed a group of Detroit media colleagues in the fall of 2016 as we drove through Macomb County, about 20 miles north of Motown. Block after block of modest, middle-class suburban lawns were peppered with “TRUMP/PENCE in 2016” signs.

For liberal journalists outside the downtown-Detroit Democratic-party media bubble, the sight was novel. And threatening.

But it shouldn’t have been. Macomb County, after all, was famously the home of the Reagan Democrats who swept the 1980 Republican nominee to power as working-class voters felt alienated from the Democratic party, economically and culturally. Clinton pollster Stanley Greenberg made his name with a 1985 study of the county’s Reagan voters, and a generation of journalists followed him here to write books and learn the lesson of Macomb. But today, 30 years on, a new generation of Democratic media aren’t interested in the lessons of the 2016 Trump Democrats. Marinated in partisanship, they only want to be part of the #Resistance.

Today, 30 years on, a new generation of Democratic media aren’t interested in the lessons of the 2016 Trump Democrats. Marinated in partisanship, they only want to be part of the #Resistance.

Thus the spectacle of last Saturday, as Wolf tastelessly ridiculed Trump Nation while the president basked in the admiration of the small entrepreneurs and working-class Democrats that liberals once claimed to represent (Trump won Macomb by 54 to 42 percent).

“For the first time, I feel like we might get back to what America was founded on,” self-described “Democratic Trump supporter” Lynn Vineyard told The Detroit News at the Total Sports Park venue.

Trump’s rally was a typically raucous, flag-waving affair. African-Americans wearing “Blacks for Trump” shirts and women waving “Women for Trump” signs behind the president muted media temptations to write of a “mostly white crowd.” The sea of MAGA-wearing fans cheered Trump’s love of country . . . and love of self.

Trump: “We honor our flag and we stand for the national anthem!”

Crowd: “USA! USA! USA!”

Trump: “One of the fake news groups this morning said: What do you think President Trump had to do with the (Korean leaders meeting)? I’ll tell you what — how about EVERYTHING!”

Crowd: “Nobel! Nobel! Nobel!”

The audience was dotted with Republican officeholders and aspiring GOP candidates, such as businessman Sandy Pensler, who is running to unseat Democratic senator Debbie Stabenow this fall.

But Trump’s speech, while extolling deregulation and opposing gun control, was hardly Republican red meat.

Indeed, much of it — the anti-free trade, border-securing, infrastructure-building, bring-our-jobs-back rhetoric — was straight out of the populist, Midwest Democratic-party playbook.

“We’re going to put new steel in the spine of our country, and breathe new life and new hope into our communities,” said Trump.

Democrats have lost their Macomb Democratic constituents to neglect.

The reference to steel tariffs echoed not Michigan GOPers, but protectionist Michigan Democratic senators Gary Peters and Stabenow, who have lobbied Trump against “Chinese steel dumping.”

Yet Democrats have lost their Macomb Democratic constituents to neglect. Peters campaigned in 2014 on the green-left fringe, taking $3 million from groups affiliated with anti-industry left-coast billionaire Tom Steyer. His anti-business, pro-climate-regulation agenda has driven away thousands of blue-collar jobs across the Midwest, from pet-coke transport in Detroit to Keystone Pipeline–related manufacturing in Niles, Mich., to coal jobs in West Virginia.

On Air Force One from D.C., Macomb GOP congressman Paul Mitchell urged Trump to fund the reconstruction of Michigan’s outdated Soo Locks, between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. It was a classic D.C.-swamp pork play on an issue that has bipartisan support across the Michigan delegation.

“There’s been no comprehensive improvement in the locks in over 50 years, and we are concerned we are on borrowed time,” said Senator Stabenow just last June, but Democrats never got the job done. So Trump stole the issue Saturday, playing it as part of his infrastructure hand.

“We’re going to build new bridges and airports and new highways all across this magnificent land. And you know what we’re doing with your locks as soon as I get back [to Washington],” rallied Trump. Then, for good measure, he threw in an anti–Iraq War line, stealing yet another Democrat theme as the crowd cheered: “After spending all that money in the Middle East, can you imagine we can’t fix that lock?”

Trapped by the impeachment obsession of party activists and moneymen like Steyer, Democrats responded to Trump’s visit with the back of their hand. “People are really sick and tired of all of the attacks and partisanship,” said Stabenow, who then attacked Trump over budget cuts and the environment.

Stabenow has been a staunch opponent of Trump’s corporate-tax cuts, which have been a boon to Michigan’s auto industry — putting $2,000 in the pockets of Fiat-Chrysler workers, for example. A climate alarmist who famously said she feels global warming when she flies, Stabenow also stood by two years ago as Obama’s EPA tried to outlaw the modification of production cars for racing — a huge cottage industry in counties like Macomb.

But Trump also got a dose of reality in Michigan.

On Air Force One, Representative Mitchell told Trump — amid an ongoing national labor shortage — of the importance of guest-worker permits to state industries like Great Lakes tourism and agriculture.

The result was speech whiplash as Trump bounced from stock lines — “We don’t have strong borders so we’re going to build a wall!” — to this:

“We have to have your workers come in. The unemployment picture is so good, so strong that we have to let people come in. They’re going to be guest workers. They’re going to work on your farms.”

The audience looked confused.

After Barack Obama won Macomb in 2008, even Stanley Greenberg declared that Macomb had “become normal and uninteresting” — no longer a barometer for swing voters. Rich swing suburbs such as neighboring Oakland County, he said, were the “new America.”

Clearly, though, there is a lot still to be learned in Macomb.

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