YPSILANTI, Mich.—At the intersection of Rawsonville and Textile Roads, on a slender stretch of turf that runs the length of a half-deserted strip mall, Kathryn Prater and Kelra Rise are dancing.
The longtime friends, white women in their early 40s, haven’t had much to celebrate recently. Rise lost her job as a shipping clerk two months ago and is now uninsured and struggling to get by; Prater, a school bus driver, will receive her final paycheck in two weeks with no obvious prospect of income thereafter. Their pain is representative of Michigan on the whole, a state battered by Covid-19 to the tune of 5,000 deaths; a state crushed under the weight of a 22 percent unemployment rate; and now, a state reeling from a 500-year flood in mid-Michigan that has displaced tens of thousands of people. If America has a headache, Michigan has a migraine.
But in this moment, none of it matters. For the masses gathered on the side of the road, the sight of a presidential motorcade—and the knowledge that Donald Trump himself has come to their backyard, to visit the local Ford plant and pay homage to the old “Arsenal of Democracy”—is sufficient to distract from the suffering of the day. Country music blares from the back of a parked pickup truck. Giddy customers fork over $5 bills and pull MAGA shirts over their outfits. One man hoists a Betsy Ross-era flag from his fishing pole, with a naked brunette doll—“Governor Half-Whit!” he cries, echoing a presidential putdown—dangling from a noose.
Prater and Rise—both of whom voted for Gretchen Whitmer in 2018, and both of whom are siding now with Trump in his beef with Michigan’s governor—toast their spiked Slurpee cups from the nearby 7-Eleven. With no sports to watch, politics are the only game in town—and this is Trump’s tailgate, an experience as unique as the times, the closest thing to one of the president’s signature rallies at a moment when large gatherings have been banned.
“You know, I actually did this once before, when George W. Bush came to Michigan in the early 2000s. It was just a fun thing to do—go see the president’s motorcade,” Rise says. She chuckles. “Trust me, it was nothing like this.”
That’s easy to believe. For one thing, the previous Republican president never had a base quite like this. As Rise speaks, she nods across the street; a black woman, wearing sandals and a white MAGA T-shirt, is pacing the street’s shoulder, chanting, “Blacks for Trump; Trump is not a racist! Blacks for Trump; Trump is not a racist!” A moment later, a shouting match—one of several I saw—erupts between pro-Trump demonstrators on the embankment and anti-Trump protesters throwing up middle fingers from their car windows while stopped at the red light, leading one red-cap clad man to shout, “Go back to Ann Arbor, pussies!”
Of course, there are other differences. The 43rd president, he of the compassionate conservative worldview and the noble lineage, would never have thought, particularly during times of national crisis, to turn a head-of-state visit into a campaigner-in-chief event. He would not, as Trump did Thursday, mock the people who don’t support him; he would not, as Trump did Thursday, belittle his opponent in personal ways. (“I don’t know how the hell these unions aren’t endorsing Trump instead of the standard Democrat,” the president told Ford employees, after touring the facility. “A Democrat that doesn’t even know where he is!”)
In fairness, Trump was comparatively tame during the swing through southeast Michigan. His continued refusal to wear a mask in public and bizarre reference to Henry Ford’s bloodline notwithstanding, the president was on his best behavior. He mentioned his nemesis, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, without attaching ad hominem insults. He dutifully delivered prepared remarks aimed at appealing to Michigan’s civic pride. He rightly showered the Rawsonville plant laborers with praise, highlighting their mettle and their selflessness and their skill in churning out world-class ventilators from a factory that two months ago was making batteries and fuel pumps.
This is the Donald Trump we witness in fleeting glimpses, the Donald Trump so many Republican leaders are desperate to see, the Donald Trump who uses the awesome stagecraft of his presidency to unite instead of divide, to drive a message of optimism and inclusiveness, to reassure Americans of his ability to rebuild a nation rather than tear half of it down.
But there is no consistency to these efforts. Indeed, even as Trump stuck predominantly to the script on Thursday, portraying himself as the fireman who had ventured into a state smoldering with rage and anxiety, the scent of kerosene followed close behind. Just 24 hours before he arrived in Michigan, the president launched a dangerous disinformation campaign, accusing the secretary of state of going “rogue” by illegally sending absentee ballots to every Michigan voter. He threatened to block funding to Michigan—a state beleaguered by multiple converging disasters, including one that was unfolding just as the tweet was sent—“if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!”
To be clear, none of this is accurate. Voters were sent applications to vote absentee, a practice consistent with a newly adopted Michigan law (a law that exists in other states, red and blue alike). The Michigan GOP has itself sent out applications. There is nothing sordid or illegitimate going on; both parties here understand the rules of the game and are attempting to master them before November.
But Trump is playing his own game. Ever in need of a foil—be it Barack Obama’s birth certificate, John McCain, Megyn Kelly, Low Energy Jeb, Lyin’ Ted, Little Marco, Crooked Hillary, the Deep State, Never Trumpers, Sleepy Joe, Obamagate, or combinations thereof—the president has set his sights on the institution of the ballot box. The benefit is twofold: Trump can simultaneously incite the distress of his base to juice enthusiasm come November while establishing a built-in justification should he lose.
The effects are already manifest. In conversation after conversation with voters here Thursday, Trump supporters repeatedly—and completely unsolicited—say Democrats are attempting to steal the election from the president.
“I lived in Chicago for six years. We know how Mayor Daley stuffed the ballot box for JFK against Nixon.” says Keith Brudder, a 72-year-old landscape contractor from the nearby town of Willis. “That’s what the Democrats in charge here want to do, with this mail-in voting. There’s just no way to have accountability for those ballots like you do when people come to the voting booth.”
“In Wayne County alone, more than a million people who weren’t registered to vote in 2018 got to vote anyway, and that’s how Whitmer and these Democrats got elected,” says Matthew Shepard, a retired career military man who drove his hulking, orange paramilitary-style truck 90 minutes south from Shiawassee County to cheer on the president. (He offered no documentation for those statistics.) “That’s the only way Trump loses this election—this mail voting scam.”
Deborah Fuqua-Frey, who sits on the board of the Washtenaw County GOP and helped organize the pro-Trump rally here, says the United Auto Workers union “controls the outcome of the 2020 election.” And that terrifies her. “Because nobody knows how to stuff the ballot box like the UAW,” she says. “Trust me, I was a third-generation UAW member, and I know they’re always looking for new ways to cheat. That’s what they’re going to do with the mail system.”
According to Fuqua-Frey, this would represent a sinister final attempt to remove Trump from office, after the failure of the Mueller Report, the Ukraine-inspired impeachment process, and, most recently, the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Isn’t it kind of convenient that as soon as impeachment failed, we’ve suddenly got this virus?” she asks, alternating between puffs on a Winston and her inhaler. “This was domestic political terrorism from the Democratic Party. They’ve got all these numbers inflated, especially the deaths. Nobody can explain why nobody’s dying from other causes anymore. Most of these people who are ‘dying from coronavirus’ aren’t actually dying from coronavirus. It’s domestic political terrorism. But Trump will be fine. His voters know better. We aren’t falling for it.”
And so it went Thursday in Ypsilanti. With the president paying special attention to Michigan at a time of unprecedented turmoil in the state, touring a region rich in symbolic value for his reelection campaign, nearly every conversation with his die-hard supporters detoured into the dark and conspiratorial. Sure, there was talk outside the Ford plant of jobs created and regulations slashed and veterans taken care of. But much of that talk was perfunctory, a sort of rhetorical appetizer before digging into the red-blood entrees the president has chosen to serve up for his base.
Having obsessively covered the Republican Party from the ground-up over the past decade, from the twilight of George W. Bush through the first term of Donald Trump, I thought I’d seen it all, heard it all. But this was new. The warp speed at which alarms about voter fraud—and specifically, voting by mail—were synchronized from the president’s Twitter feed to the lips of his voters guarantees a volatile five months ahead, and a potentially volcanic period thereafter.
“This was the most exciting day of my life. Okay, the second-most exciting day, after the birth of my grandkids,” says Paula Stone, an Ypsilanti resident, after the president’s motorcade passes. Tonight, Stone says, like every other night, she’ll watch Fox News and click around the internet and social media for information about the president. But she’s not particularly interested in the highlights of his speech inside the Ford plant.
“I want to know more about this vote-by-mail fraud,” she says. “I’ve heard some shady shit is going down.”