EASTERN MICHIGAN — The weather is changing in Michigan as Election Day draws near. Leaves are turning, the air is getting colder, and Michiganders are anxious to get back to work after a brutal seven months of pandemic lockdowns.
Last week the state’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, who made a name for herself with some of the harshest lockdown restrictions in the country, was rebuked by the state supreme court. Her rolling and often arbitrary executive orders, which closed businesses across the state and left thousands jobless, violated the Michigan Constitution, the court ruled.
The ruling was mostly a symbolic victory for critics of the governor, whose health and human services director circumvented the court by issuing his own emergency order Monday, relying on a different state statue. While many spoke of the feeling of relief the lockdown was nearing an end, others were less sure it would be the end of their troubles. If a winter spike in coronavirus cases triggers another indoor dining ban and forces patrons outside to sunny-but-chilly patios, bar owner Joe Mayernik wonders, “What kind of heat lamps would I use? When it’s 15 degrees?”
Joe’s Shamrock Irish Pub is in downtown Utica, a working-class suburb just north of Detroit. The pub sits on a street capped on one end by the UAW Local 2280 and on the other by USA Tire, a 45-year-old tire shop stuffed full of vintage gas pumps and highway Americana evoking the once unlimited freedom and prosperity of middle America.
Joe owns the building, and when COVID first hit he decided to use the closure to get to work on renovations he’d been planning. As with any restaurant construction project, timelines are worth the paper they’re written on, wrapping up late summer to reopen just a week ago Monday.
Social distancing was in effect but the pub was buzzing with regulars happy to be back. John Pate, a 62-year-old retired automotive engineer in a Lacoste pullover, had made his second drive into town this week for the lunch special: a delicious prize-winning burger, half-basket of fries, and mug of LaBatt Blue or Killian’s. Pate is a Republican and planning to vote for Trump, but that doesn’t mean he’s thrilled: “Trump’s an asshole,” he tells us.
“Reagan was the last president I was excited about,” he says, which you’d expect here in Macomb County. After all, it’s the county where the term “Reagan Democrat” was coined 40 years ago when blue-collar Democrats tossed aside their party loyalty and voted for the Gipper. Macomb went for Obama in 2008 and 2012, but four years ago November swung back to the GOP—one of a dozen counties Trump flipped, carrying the state by fewer than 11,000 votes.
Today, there’s not many signs of a strong Democratic ground game in Macomb County. One longtime local business owner who asked not to be named told us the Democratic office is three miles away but cautioned, “They’re usually not there.”
In 2012, he volunteered for Obama’s re-election and even met Vice President Joe Biden at a nearby rally. He plans to vote for the Democratic vice president this round, too, but isn’t confident his neighbors share his politics. “I’m scared,” he tells us. “I’m worried he will [win again]. Every house has a Trump sign,” and among those not voting for the president, “There’s more Trump dislike than Biden support.”
While we’re all talking, two young men, one in a red MAGA hat and both dirty from a day’s work, walk in. “You’ll need masks,” the owner lets them know. A minute later they’re back from their car, masked up and ready for the lunch special.
North of Utica in Ray Township we stop at a roadside Trump shop run by Jo-Jo (with help from his ex-wife). Jo-Jo, a 68-year-old retiree, doesn’t want to share his last name, but he does like talking to reporters: Once he gets going, he doesn’t want to stop. He gets 10-30 honks of support from passing motorists for every driver who shouts some obscenity, he says, and over a 45-minute period we count eight happy honks to one indiscernible obscenity.
Business seems to be pretty good. A half-dozen customers stop by in the time we’re there, including an elderly woman who tells Jo-Jo, “I don’t want to be a communist, my dad fought in WWII to keep me free!” Another old woman played hardball, haggling him down $10 for a pair of Trump masks.
The stand sells all the usual Trump stuff—MAGA hats, “No More Bullshit” signs, flags featuring Trump’s head photoshopped onto Rambo’s body, Trump 2020 tambourines, even Trump switchblades. But Jo-Jo and his ex also carry pandemic-era Trump merch, like yard signs that say “My Governor Is An Idiot” with a picture of Whitmer in a dunce cap, and of course Trump 2020 facemasks. Jo-Jo hates masks. He calls them “communist face-diapers,” and wears his Trump 2020 masks to stores that require face coverings just to raise hackles.
An hour to the northwest in Saginaw—one of the dozen counties Trump flipped four years ago after Obama won it by a dozen points in 2012—we see more of the same. Businesses are beginning to open, though business is slower than ever, and plenty of people go without facemasks.
Trump signs abound until we get downtown, where the Saginaw County Democrats have a field office chock full of Biden-Harris signs. Paul Purcell, a 71-year-old attorney and former county chairman of the Democratic Party, says requests for yard signs have been steady in recent weeks, which is good because local Democratic activists haven’t been doing any traditional campaigning or canvassing on account of the pandemic. “We’re pretty low-key this year,” he says.
Asked about those critical swing voters in Saginaw County—which Trump only won by a single point—Purcell says he hopes “they’ve come to their senses,” and dismisses fears of another Trump win in Michigan. He notes two factors that augur well for his party: Democrats dominated statewide races in the 2018 midterms, and this election cycle the local Republican Party didn’t even field a candidate for a number of county-wide races.
Steve Gerhardt, chairman of the Saginaw County Republican Party, tells a different story. He says enthusiasm for Trump here is more intense than it was in 2016. “People have come in here and they’re telling us that everybody that voted for the president in 2016 is voting for him again—and then some,” says Gerhardt, 59, surrounded by all manner of Trump signs in the county GOP office, many of them designed by his wife, a graphic designer.
Union workers especially, Gerhardt adds, are supporting Trump. “We can’t tell you to how many UAW members and others, you know, IBEW, we’ve had come in here and say, ‘The union tells us vote Democrat, vote Biden, but we’re voting Republican, we’re for Trump and everybody in my union feels the same way.’”
It’s not hard to understand why. This area, like Macomb County and other parts of Michigan, has been hit hard by globalization and free trade, two of Trump’s favorite punching bags. Plenty of people here have personal experience with industrial decline in the region. Tom Roy, 57, vice chairman of the Saginaw County Republican Party, says both of his parents worked for General Motors, both were union people, and he remembers what happened here after President Clinton signed NAFTA.
“You go down to Detroit, Pontiac, Flint, Saginaw, you see the devastation,” he says. “And that was one of the reasons I liked Trump from the very beginning, when he mentioned that we needed to get rid of NAFTA. Because I remember all the days my parents were worried about getting laid off and not having a job and what was going to happen to our economy and what was going to happen to our house. It affects you.”