Inside Trump County, USA

How white working-class voters in the Midwest helped propel Trump to victory, and what Democrats can do to win them back

A November 6th Trump rally in Sterling Heights Credit: Jeff Kowalsky/AFP/Getty

One afternoon last August, Hillary Clinton made her first and only campaign stop in Macomb County, Michigan, a cluster of largely working-class suburbs just north of Detroit. For a candidate struggling with her past associations, an appearance at a factory called Futuramic Tool & Engineering must have seemed too perfect. One of more than 1,200 manufacturing facilities in the area, Futuramic was founded in the mid-1950s as an auto-parts supplier, taking its name from a beloved model of Oldsmobile; about 15 years ago, though, Ford, its primary client, started buying cheaper parts in Mexico. In her speech, Clinton focused on the hopeful coda of the story, the fact that Futuramic had successfully reinvented itself as an aerospace company, nabbing lucrative defense and NASA contracts. After marveling at two halves of an F-35 nose cone, she also noted that Detroit automakers had just had their "best year ever" and promised to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, acknowledging, in an awkward nod to her husband's administration, "It's true that too often, past trade deals have been sold ...  with rosy scenarios that did not pan out."

County Executive Mark Hackel, Macomb County's top elected official, a Democrat who supported Clinton, thought she hit all the right notes. A former county sheriff who seems able to rattle off the point spreads on every local election going back decades, Hackel stuck around Futuramic after the event to chat with the workers. "I said, 'So what'd you think? You were on CNN!'" Hackel recalls. "And almost to a person, they said, 'Yeah ... but I'm not voting for her.'" Around that time, Hackel made a three-part bet – "breakfast, lunch and dinner" – with one of his top aides: Trump would win Macomb County, the state of Michigan and the presidency. "I have never seen as many election signs in this county for a presidential candidate as I have for Donald Trump," Hackel says. "And I'm sitting there going, 'I know signs don't vote. But that's a statement.'"

Macomb County, where I grew up, has been known since the 1980s as home of the fabled "Reagan Democrats," blue-collar union members who tossed aside party loyalty to vote for Ronald Reagan. A few weeks after the 2016 election, speaking at a forum at Harvard University, Tony Fabrizio, the Trump campaign's chief pollster, acknowledged Trump's narrow victory came down "literally" to four counties in Florida and one county in Michigan. He didn't name the counties, but in Michigan, he meant Macomb, where a majority of voters had come out for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 – and then, last year, flipped to Trump, who bested Clinton in the county 54 percent to 42 percent. As David Bonior, a Democrat who represented Macomb County in the U.S. House of Representatives for three decades, told me, "Trump comes in and ends up winning the county by almost 50,000 votes. And the margin in Michigan was 10,700 or something. So Macomb basically gave him the state."

What had my people done? At least on the surface, it would seem as if the Obama administration's auto-industry bailout would have merited nothing but gratitude from Michigan voters. In downtown Detroit, vacancy rates have plummeted in the once-haunted skyscrapers, and street life is vibrant again: A new streetcar line will open this year, the city's first major public transportation investment since the mid-1980s, and the Detroit Pistons will return to Detroit from the suburbs beginning next season.

And yet the working class has continued to struggle in both the city and places like Macomb County. As I watched the bailout take shape – while living in Detroit and reporting a book about the city – it was clear to me that the salvation of the Big Three carmakers had been structured in a manner dismayingly similar to the Wall Street bailouts, in that massive corporations received the overwhelming share of the government largesse while workers (those who'd managed to hang on to their jobs) had to accept cuts in benefits and pay. Steven Rattner, the former hedge-fund manager who headed Obama's auto-bailout team, just published an op-ed in The New York Times in which he acknowledged the grim reality that still exists for many workers: Manufacturing jobs "recovered weakly after the recession," he wrote, and fell by 60,000 in 2016; in Michigan, the number of factory jobs has dropped from 900,000 to 600,000 since 2000, a stunning figure, while real wages for those workers have gone from $28 an hour in 2003 to $20 today.

In Clinton's manufacturing speech at Futuramic, her remark about the automakers' "best year ever" referred, of course, to sales – a sign of corporate health that does not necessarily translate to higher employment levels or rising wages. Donald Trump, by contrast, would return again and again to themes of economic betrayal during the seven trips he made to Michigan after securing the GOP nomination. Two days before the election, Trump made his third visit to Macomb County, staging a massive rally at a park in Sterling Heights called Freedom Hill. The first thing he said upon taking the stage was, "We will stop the jobs from leaving your state!"

Now, in the wake of Trump's surprise victory, the white working-class voters of Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan – all states Trump unexpectedly swept – have suddenly assumed a position of primacy. Left-leaning Beltway pundits have been debating whether such Trump voters should most properly be pitied (as victims of a rigged economy) or deplored (for casting a vote for a man who had run on an explicitly white-nationalist platform). On a tactical level, might a finely tooled message of economic populism, as delivered by, say, a Bernie Sanders (who defeated Clinton in the Michigan primary) or an Elizabeth Warren, resonate with such a demographic? Is any cooperation with a figure as dangerous and unprecedented as our new president tantamount to collaboration? For progressives seeking a way out of the wilderness, the answers to these questions – and to an understanding of places like Macomb County – will be key to countering Trumpism.

The Detroit metropolitan area, depending on where you draw the lines, is home to well over 5 million people. Macomb County itself sprawls more than 480 square miles. Its older neighborhoods have a housing stock similar to much of Detroit's – modest bungalows and brick ranches – while the farther north you get, newer cookie-cutter subdivisions begin to pop up. There are ugly industrial boulevards with anonymous warehouses, and waterfront mansions overlooking Lake St. Clair.

Macomb remains heavily white, working-class, Catholic – the first thing Bonior asked me was what parish my family had belonged to – but the county has grown far more diverse since I was a kid, as African-American families have moved north from Detroit and a large Chaldean population (Christian Iraqis) has migrated to cities like Sterling Heights. You still see Catholic churches everywhere, and lots of mom-and-pop stores (Italian bakeries, Lebanese delicatessens, Greek-run "Coney Island" diners). The gun shop where my dad used to buy his hunting rifles is still there, and it's still called Michi-Gun. More often, though, I notice burly middle-aged men who look like every factory worker I've ever known, only now they're pecking at cash registers or tending bar. A sticker I've seen on truck windows encapsulates a certain local mind-set: It's the Detroit Tigers logo, altered so the iconic Old English "D" looks like a grenade.

Starting in the early 1900s, immigrants from all over the world – Italy, Poland, the Middle East – poured into Detroit to work in the booming auto industry, alongside a steady stream of black and white workers from the American South. Detroit became so crowded that Macomb County suburbs like Warren developed out of necessity. Factories followed: In 1938, Chrysler's Warren assembly plant, eventually known as Dodge City, began making trucks, and the massive General Motors Technical Center, covering 700 acres, opened in Warren in 1956, with President Eisenhower attending the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Discriminatory housing practices kept most black Detroiters out of the suburbs for decades. By 1970, Warren was the third-largest city in the state, and one of the fastest-growing cities in the country – and also 99.5 percent white. Statewide, the United Auto Workers held sway over the Democratic Party, which became "one of the most liberal Democratic parties in the country," according to historian Kevin Boyle, author of The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, 1945-1968. But the same racial resentment that helped elect Richard Nixon began to fracture the coalition between labor's white rank and file and the Democrats. In 1972, the segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace scored an upset victory over George McGovern in Michigan's Democratic primary, despite the UAW's endorsement of McGovern.

"The racial issue, in Macomb County especially, was huge," says Boyle. "It's not only really white, but they're literally people who fled when blacks moved into their neighborhoods in Detroit. And once the UAW gets trapped in a cycle of cutbacks and givebacks on contracts, an awful lot of people don't feel a strong identification with the labor movement anymore."

In 1985, Stan Greenberg, a Yale academic who'd conducted a series of in-depth interviews with white trade unionists in places like South Africa and Israel, was hired by the UAW and the state Democratic Party to figure out what was going wrong. He traveled to Macomb County and recorded a series of focus groups, mostly held in bars and restaurants, with the white working-class voters he would come to term "Reagan Democrats." Greenberg found the voters didn't hold "such a deep affection for Reagan at the time – there was even some uncertainty about what he'd do. He was just the vehicle. What stood out for me was how much they viewed blacks as the source of the problems they faced." Greenberg recalls introducing a Bobby Kennedy quote about civil rights and one participant calling out, "No wonder they shot him!"

Still, Greenberg remained convinced many of these voters could be won back. "My underlying message was, you can't deal with these folks as simply racists," he says. "They also have reasons why they feel abandoned by the Democratic Party."

Greenberg eventually worked for the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and for one of the group's rising stars, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, who proved masterful at communicating with a variety of constituencies. But the neoliberal economic policies of Clinton and the DLC – an evangelical embrace of globalization that included the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement – is what came back to haunt Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign. Bonior, who led the liberal opposition to NAFTA as the Democratic majority whip, lists racism, sexism, xenophobia and a desire "to flip Washington the bird" as factors in Trump's win in Macomb County. That said, he continues, "Trade was the issue that buried the Clintons. Voters in Michigan have a long memory, and Bill Clinton sowed the seeds for Hillary's defeat with his acceptance of NAFTA."

Harvard economist Dani Rodrik, a longtime critic of globalization, told me, "Let me be clear: The major force that affected the decline of manufacturing employment is technology" – by which he means advances in robotics that reduce the number of human employees on any given assembly line. "That's the long-term trend in the United States," Rodrik says. "But that doesn't mean trade was unimportant. It severely aggravated certain geographical and regional impacts" in places like Michigan. In contrast to Europe, Rodrik continues, "just as the United States was opening up to trade for reasons largely of a market-fundamentalist ideology, there was no parallel expansion of the safety net – whether universalizing health insurance or creating better labor markets. All we got was paltry trade-adjustment assistance" – essentially, job-retraining programs – "which didn't help anyone."

Meanwhile, politicians from both parties shrugged their shoulders at the effects of globalization on the industrial Midwest. "Those jobs aren't coming back" became a mantra, a hard truth to be delivered, something as unchangeable as death and the weather. Except the trade deals weren't acts of nature; they'd been written by global elites and they privileged certain classes of people over others. As Rodrik notes dryly, "We weren't negotiating trade agreements to import physicians or accountants or university professors from abroad."

For Bonior, who supported Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign – donating money and personally going door-to-door in Michigan – the unwillingness to fight harder to save U.S. manufacturing jobs "was a political, thought-out decision by neoliberals, of which Bill Clinton was one. And we saw the results in November. And it was heartbreaking, absolutely heartbreaking."

Enter Donald Trump, who either cunningly intuited or bumblingly stumbled onto the realization that the Democratic Party's quandary over how to reach disgruntled white working-class voters – addressing their economic concerns while rejecting their racist fears – didn't have to be a quandary at all, assuming you had no moral center. Why not just stoke both sets of grievances and see what stuck?

Trump had actually first come to Michigan in a semipolitical capacity all the way back in 1997 – to hawk a casino he was hoping to build in downtown Detroit. He joined forces with Mel Farr, a former Detroit Lions running back who'd gone on to open a successful chain of auto dealerships; in a series of ubiquitous local ads, Farr pitched himself as "Mel Farr, Superstar" and wore a red superhero cape, which would be donned by Trump at one of their appearances together. (Trump was never granted a casino license, in part because he was the only bidder who refused to share his tax returns.)

When he returned as a presidential candidate, Trump applied a similar showmanship to his manufacturing policy. He promised to renegotiate trade deals, without specifying what they'd be replaced with, and threatened a trade war with China. At his final rally in Macomb, Trump trotted out a favorite new zinger. "It used to be cars were made in Flint and you couldn't drink the water in Mexico," he thundered. "Now the cars are made in Mexico and you can't drink the water in Flint!"

As president-elect, he selectively called out a handful of corporations for outsourcing jobs, and had some success. In Vice President Mike Pence's home state of Indiana, for example, a Carrier plant that manufactured furnaces agreed to retain about 750 jobs previously slated for Mexico (in exchange for $7 million worth of state tax breaks over 10 years). "That deal was great for those workers and their families," acknowledges Warren Gunnels, a senior policy adviser to Bernie Sanders. "But what did Trump say during the campaign? He said he was going to impose a 'damn tax' on Carrier. Instead, Indiana gave Carrier a damn tax cut. That sets a very dangerous precedent all across America."

Even companies like Ford, which voluntarily scrapped outsourcing plans in response to being called out by Trump, are likely expecting the GOP Congress to come through with big corporate tax cuts – not to mention other goodies like the easing of environmental regulations. Working-class Trump supporters, meanwhile, might find themselves surprised by a GOP agenda that's ultimately more hostile to their interests, with a short list including, but not limited to, pushing tax cuts for the wealthy, undermining labor unions, privatizing Social Security and Medicare, and repealing Obamacare. Trump's pick for secretary of labor, Hardee's and Carl's Jr. CEO Andrew Puzder, told Business Insider last March that the push for raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour had led him to consider full automation at his restaurants "where you order on a kiosk ...  and you never see a person."

The other picks for Trump's economic team have been a mixed bag from a labor perspective. Robert Lighthizer, his choice for chief trade negotiator, is an attorney and free-trade critic who has represented the U.S. steel industry in trade disputes with China; University of California-Irvine professor Peter Navarro, director of a documentary called Death by China (its trailer features animation of a "Made in China" dagger bloodily stabbing a map of the United States), will lead the new National Trade Council. On the flip side, Goldman Sachs alums will be running the National Economic Council and the Treasury Department, and fanatical supply-sider Lawrence Kudlow, a right-wing pundit who is not a trained economist, will head the Council of Economic Advisers.

Still, on the first day of the new session of Congress, 10 House Democrats held a press conference with AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka in which they pledged to work with Trump on rewriting trade deals like NAFTA. "While many of the president-elect's nominations signal an alarming anti-worker agenda," Trumka said, "trade is an area where gains seem possible."

One night, just before Christmas, I went to Gilbert's Lodge, a neighborhood sports bar and restaurant not far from where I grew up, to meet with a local Trump voter named Chris Vitale. Gilbert's is decorated like a hunting lodge (mounted antlers, a fireplace); before he was Eminem, Marshall Mathers worked here as a short-order cook. It's just after five, and the place is packed for happy hour, when every second beer is 50 cents.

Vitale is a stocky 44-year-old with huge arms, close-cropped hair and a wry smile that shows up in his eyes. He started working for Chrysler in 1994, following in the footsteps of both of his grandfathers and his father. As with many Macomb County natives, Detroit's storied history is intertwined with his own family's. One of the tales Vitale loved growing up was about how his grandfather, once he got situated at Chrysler, sent for his brother in Sicily – who just showed up at the plant and started punching a timecard. "Paperwork wasn't what it is now," Vitale says, chuckling. One day, a supervisor finally approached his uncle and said, " 'You know what? We like you. We want you to work here. But we need to know your real name!' And that was after he'd been there for a long time."

When Vitale started out at the Warren Stamping Plant, throwing sheet metal to make the sides of minivans, it reminded him of the famous Diego Rivera mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts depicting a teeming Ford factory. "There's this portrayal that 'Oh, this is just entry-level robot work and these jobs aren't very good, blah blah blah,' " Vitale says. "But you know what? If you are halfway regular and have a work ethic and show up on time and do a good job, you're not going to do that job very long."

In Vitale's case, he was promoted after about four months. Now, he works on advanced new engine technologies that improve fuel economy. "There's probably no better industry in terms of being able to come in with entry-level skills and advance, which is exactly what I've done," Vitale says.

It's true, he acknowledges: Automation has cut into manufacturing. "Warren Stamping doesn't look like that Rivera painting anymore," Vitale says. "There are robots everywhere. But the jobs are a lot smarter than they used to be. So you may not have 10 people working on a press line, but you're going to have two operators who know how to run those robots. And they're going to have to be well-compensated. And I don't see why we would want to throw any of that out the window."

In 2008, after seeing Obama on television talking about the auto industry, Vitale thought, "God help us if he becomes president! He has no understanding of this industry at all." But he'd been equally disgusted with an establishment Republican Party "that just essentially says, 'We don't give a damn. If you go out of business, you go out of business. Who cares?' I mean, McCain drove a Lexus! He didn't give a shit."

Given his options, Vitale voted for Obama, a candidate he assumed didn't like the industry that much – cars burn fossil fuels, after all – but if workers did back Obama, he would owe the union a favor. The terms of the auto bailout dashed Vitale's hopes, however: He thinks the Chrysler-Fiat merger that came out of the deal has been a disaster and that Obama never fixed the systemic problems related to trade.

When Trump came on the scene, Vitale didn't take him very seriously. He'd watched one episode of The Apprentice (didn't like it, thought it was corny) and heard him on The Howard Stern Show. He thought, "Oh, great, another clown distraction in what should be a serious race." He'd been inclined to back Rick Santorum, who supported the steel industry in Pennsylvania and voted against NAFTA.

But once he started listening to Trump, he was quickly impressed. "The thing that was amazing to me about Trump was this guy doesn't have any connection to manufacturing," Vitale says, "but yet he seems to recognize how we get screwed in these trade deals. And the union comes and says, 'Well, he makes his ties in China!' Well, you know, it's probably because he couldn't even find a tie factory here, and by the way, that may have given him the knowledge about these trade deals. Probably asked for a tie factory here and they said, 'Are you kidding? Those are gone. You wanna know why they're gone?' Maybe he listened."

In the debates, Vitale watched other Republicans perk up when Trump talked about tariffs. "Marco Rubio's up there and he's like, 'Oh, well, a dress shirt will cost more!'" Vitale recalls. "I love that he picked the most out-of-touch example that he could! These Republicans all day long will sell you on these social issues: 'Oh, we've got to protect the rights of the unborn' and everything like that. 'But in the meantime, we don't give a shit if you live in a cardboard box and the best job you ever get is at Family Video.'"

Of course, the white working-class male does not represent the working class as a whole, and plenty of voters who live or work in states like Michigan couldn't stomach Trump. When Adolphus Cast started working in Warren in the late 1960s, as the first black employee at the local Michigan Bell office and later at the GM Tech Center, he was regularly pulled over and asked where he was going. "It was unusual to see a black person in Warren after certain hours," recalls Cast. "If you weren't Caucasian, you couldn't drive through there unless you were going to the Tech Center or to Chrysler."

At GM, Cast had a very different experience than Vitale's immigrant relatives. "We weren't well-represented by the UAW," Cast says. "I came in as a janitor, even though I had an electrical-technology degree." Cast was eventually promoted to an apprenticeship in body design, training under a white man who refused to speak to him for two weeks. "After that, we became friends, and he taught me the trade very well," Cast says. "I was able to survive because I loved everybody, and if you had a problem with me, it didn't affect me." After retiring in 1999, he turned the Bible-study group he'd been leading in a break room into a full-fledged ministry, at first renting space at a nearby hotel before purchasing an old Catholic church in Warren.

Cast voted for Clinton, but he says he understood the appeal of Trump's economic message. "It appealed to me," Cast says, noting that the automakers "took advantage of the general economic problems" plaguing the industry to scale back benefits. Even as a retiree, Cast has found his health- and life-insurance plans chipped away.

"I just couldn't divorce who was delivering the message from the message in general," Cast continues, speaking of Trump. "People are so desperate for positive change, they will give you a shot. They felt like things had not changed after they gave Obama two terms, so now we'll go with Trump, because he's talking about issues that resonate."

Another underplayed aspect of Trump's Michigan win is the way in which he localized his Islamophobic rhetoric. Michigan has accepted the second-highest number of Syrian refugees in the United States, after California, and the third-highest number of refugees overall. At his final Macomb County rally, Trump told the crowd, "Here in Michigan, you've seen firsthand the problems caused with the refugee program: large numbers of poorly vetted refugees coming into your state without your knowledge, support or approval."

And yet, over the past decade, most of the communities in Michigan have lost population, notes Jim Jacobs, the president of Macomb Community College. "Only a few counties have gained," he says. "One is Macomb. And there are two main sources: the significant number of young African-Americans moving out of Detroit into Macomb and immigrants coming from other countries. So the county is becoming more diverse right in front of the eyes of many people who've lived here for a long time, and their reaction to that is part of what's going on. The irony is the 'Make America Great' theme carried this community, yet in order for Macomb County to be successful, it's going to be more diverse."

Jacobs moved to Michigan from Brooklyn in 1967 as a young radical, having come out of Students for a Democratic Society and hoping "to organize white people – a working-class community." When it comes to retraining factory workers, Macomb Community College has long occupied a central position in the area. Jacobs says younger people have more success at mastering new technologies and finding work, though "often in smaller, non-union shops with less benefits." Older workers with kids, Jacobs says, can be "reluctant to go to school, and certainly don't want to do that over a long period of time." After 2008, laid-off autoworkers came to MCC in hopes of becoming home-health-care workers – one of the few growing fields in Michigan paying comparably to their old jobs – but often balked upon hearing that the degree required two years of biology and chemistry. "They're looking for another pathway," Jacobs says. "And to a certain extent, that's what Donald Trump has promised them."

The housing-market collapse and subsequent recession hit Michigan early and hard. By late 2009, a Detroit Free Press analysis noted higher foreclosure rates in suburban Hazel Park and Eastpointe than in Detroit; only last year did metro Detroit home prices finally return to 2007 levels – a "Lost Decade" that hit working-class communities, in which home ownership has traditionally been a primary investment and steppingstone into the middle class, especially hard.

Greenberg says Obama's triumphalist rhetoric about the economic recovery may have ultimately hurt Clinton more than helped her. "Understandably for Obama, saving global capitalism was a searing experience of his administration," Greenberg says. "But the fact that many of these working people didn't get anywhere close to where they'd been before the crisis meant they believed Democrats in general were not speaking to them." Greenberg's wife, Rosa DeLauro, is a U.S. representative from Connecticut, and over the years, he's watched Obama come to the working-class city of Bridgeport to wind up his base. "I remember him telling the crowd one year, 'We got the economy out of the ditch,' " Greenberg says. "And I could see people looking around at each other saying, 'Is he kidding? We're still in the ditch!' "

But there's still a strong case to be made to many of these voters from the populist left. Gunnels, Sanders' adviser, offers a wonky, detailed list of policy prescriptions: Rewrite NAFTA; repeal and replace permanent trade relations with China; impose an "outsourcing tax" on corporations; make it easier to join unions; enact a $1 trillion infrastructure-spending bill; and encourage worker-owned cooperatives. (Here, he might have something in common with Vitale, who admiringly mentioned the employee-ownership model enacted by Harley-Davidson.)

Rodrik, too, argues in favor of a "class-based" pitch to voters, rooted in "traditional Democratic Party policy concerns": progressive taxation, full employment, wage-support policies. "And none of that has to feel like you're leaving out minorities or women or transgender people," he says. "I don't think there's a deep culture of racist attitudes that makes it easier for right-wing populists to capitalize, especially when, deep down, the grievances are economic."

Perhaps. One would certainly have a shot with Trump voters like Vitale, who also professes deep admiration for progressive Democrats like former Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown. Vitale says Rick Snyder, Michigan's current Republican governor, has been "a disaster for the state," and when I bring up Trump's Carrier coup, he says, "You know what else I love about it? I love that the Republicans hate it."

Back when Reagan Democrats were casting their lot with the Gipper, they continued to re-elect Bonior, one of the most progressive members of the House. "How would you explain that?" Bonior asked me. "I can explain it. You have to give your constituents hope and back it up with what you're doing and make sure they know they matter." When Bonior was elected to Congress in 1976, he noted, Michigan was in the top 10 of all states in terms of income. "Right after the recession in 2009, we were 37th," he says. "Those things have consequences. People's lives have changed dramatically. Macomb County is an interesting place, in that its patterns aren't predictable. I think what is predictable is, if you ignore it and ignore the main concerns people have there, they'll let you know."

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