“We just want sh-t done.” Results are all that matter to working-class voters in famous swing county
Trump turned Reagan Democrats into Trump Republicans. Can he turn them into a lasting constituency?
WASHINGTON, Mich. — Paul Mitchell was trying to find a polite way to say it. I had just asked Mitchell, who represents Michigan’s 10th congressional district, which includes northern Macomb County, to tell me what voters in the famous swing county want from their elected leaders.After hesitating for a moment, Mitchell said, “I had someone say at an event this week, ‘We just want shit done.’”It is there, somewhere in the excrement of modern American politics, that President Trump’s chief political challenge can be found. Trump won the presidency by making specific promises to working-class people in Macomb County and other crucial swing counties. The fate of his presidency will be determined by whether he can make good on at least some of those promises.A northern suburb of Detroit, Macomb is Michigan’s third-largest county with 840,000 people. In my three weeks traveling Macomb, I found that it doesn’t have a stellar reputation among people in southern Michigan.When I told new acquaintances in neighboring and wealthier Oakland County that I was reporting on and staying in Macomb, they often responded with a derogatory comment or a word of sympathy.But Macomb County, which in parts seems like little more than a never-ending series of strip malls and fast food chains connected by crumbling roads, has its charms. Chief among them are the values of its residents.Macomb County values, I heard again and again, center on hard work and personal responsibility. Kate DiLiddo, a longtime Macomb County resident, said, “People [in Macomb] don’t want to be handing out a free lunch to people who aren’t working for it.”It is hard to overstate the political importance of Macomb County, not only in symbolic terms as the fabled birthplace of Reagan Democrats, but also in real terms: It was one of the three most crucial counties in the 2016 election (along with York County, Pa., and Waukesha County, Wis.) Had these three counties cast zero votes, Trump would have lost the election.Macomb has become as closely watched as any county in America over the last four decades. Yet few political prognosticators saw Trump’s victory here coming.But the signs were everywhere — literally. “I have never seen as many election signs in this county for a presidential candidate as I have for Donald Trump,” County Executive Mark Hackel said after the election. “And I’m sitting there going, ‘I know signs don’t vote. But that’s a statement.’”Macomb resident Darryl Howard told me he knew Trump would win when he got caught up in a traffic jam caused by a Trump rally held in Sterling Heights a couple of days before the election. The traffic, he said, “was lined up for miles. Some people just spray-painted the side of their car to say ‘Trump 2016.’ It was at that moment, I’m like ‘he’s going to get the votes.’”
Click the image above to expand.Macomb gained prominence in the 1980s as a traditionally Democratic county that voted for Republican Ronald Reagan for president. Those “Reagan Democrats,” as they came to be known, were blue collar, unionized, socially conservative white voters who grew up voting for JFK and LBJ but abandoned the Democratic Party they felt no longer represented their values. But after voting for Reagan and his heir apparent, George H.W. Bush, Macomb went back to voting mostly for Democratic presidential candidates, including twice for Barack Obama. Obama’s 4-point win in 2012 had something to do with his administration’s bailout of the auto industry, which makes up a large part of Macomb’s economy, and Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s opposition to it.Trump hammered Ford throughout the 2016 campaign for its decision to expand production in Mexico, a critique that played well with Macomb’s large population of autoworkers. And Trump endeared himself to manufacturing workers here by making the repeal or renegotiation of NAFTA, the Clinton-era deal that sent hundreds of thousands of relatively high-paying manufacturing jobs overseas, a centerpiece of his campaign. In Trump, Macomb’s working-class voters felt like they got a president who would fight for the policies he campaigned on. Steve Bieda, a Democrat who represents part of Macomb County in the Michigan state senate, said that people in Macomb “will look past all the blemishes if they think [a politician is] fighting for you.”On the one hand, Macomb’s residents have little to complain about. The county’s unemployment rate is under 4 percent and it’s the fastest growing county in the state. On the other hand, people don’t have the same security they once did. Most jobs don’t come with pensions, and health insurance and educational costs have skyrocketed. Families and small businesses alike feel overtaxed.Political leaders I spoke with here say the issues Macomb residents want addressed are healthcare, immigration reform and infrastructure spending. On the last of these, Warren Mayor James Fouts said the key to Trump’s re-election will be to “fulfill a massive work project and to fund infrastructure,” particularly updating Macomb’s old sewer pipes. The Trump hasn’t made much progress on most of these fronts. On infrastructure, the Trump administration has talked up a $1 trillion infrastructure repair bill, but little progress has been made in enacting it. Democrats on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Highways and Transit recently chided the White House for failing to provide it with a concrete proposal.On immigration, in August the administration and Republican congressional leaders introduced the RAISE Act, which seeks to cut the number of immigrants admitted to the country every year by half. But the bill doesn’t appear to have much chance of passage in the Senate.On trade, the Trump administration is in ongoing talks to renegotiate NAFTA. But those negotiations don’t seem to be going well as representatives for the three countries can’t come to an agreement on several provisions, including on rules on the trading of automobiles.
Click the image above to expand.Tax reform may be Trump’s best chance of delivering for voters in Macomb County. “First and foremost, in Macomb County, people are maxed out on taxes,” said state Senator Jack Brandenburg, a Republican who represents northern Macomb County, when I asked him which issue matters most to voters here. “They’re taxed out and they’re maxed out. They do not want any new taxes.”The tax reform plan recently unveiled by the Trump administration and Republican leaders in Congress aims to lower tax rates, including the top marginal rate, for individuals, families, and businesses In September, the administration sent Vice President Mike Pence to a manufacturing plant in Auburn Hills, just a few miles outside Macomb County, to promote the legislation. Pence argued that a lower tax burden would help families keep more of their paychecks and businesses lower costs and keep operations in the U.S It’s an open question whether Republicans can get their act together to pass a tax reform bill. But for Trump and congressional Republicans, getting “shit done” in the form of tax reform will be vital to turning these Macomb County’s Trump Republicans into a lasting constituency.
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