Traveling Through the Suburbs That Made Michigan “Trump Country”


Drive around Macomb County, Michigan, and there are two signs that something historic has just occurred. One is the scattering of “Make America Great Again” hats you’ll see in bars and diners, the TRUMP yard signs outside middle-class ranch houses. The other is that most people don’t really want to talk to you about politics. Approach someone in a restaurant and he might politely decline; the topic might cause others at the table to get up and walk away. Ask a neighbor how she voted and you might get an exasperated laugh. Ask if anyone talks about the election with their family and they will tell you, “The less said, the better.”

If there is a single place where the Democrats’ crumbly Blue Wall most clearly cracked before its ultimate collapse, it is Macomb. A predominantly white, solidly middle-class place of roughly 860,000 souls, the county stretches from the Detroit border in the south some forty miles north. It’s bordered on the west by heavily affluent Oakland County and on the east mostly by the splendid Lake St. Clair, across which begins Canada. The county’s known around the Detroit area for its suburban population and boating culture, and in national politics as the place that gave rise to the term “Reagan Democrats,” referring to the legions of whites who switched their allegiance to the Republican.

In 2008, despite a concerted effort by John McCain to woo Macomb’s white voters, the county went for Obama by nine points. In 2012 Macomb voted Obama by four. This year, with a turnout of 67 percent, the county supported Trump by twelve.

Macomb sits next to Detroit’s Wayne County, across 8 Mile Road, the border made famous by the Eminem movie. To get there from Detroit you can go up Van Dyke, through miles of Detroit’s well-known blight. At one point, as I drove to the outskirts of the city, I came upon a railroad crossing where the gate was stuck halfway down, forcing cars to drive narrowly under. It was a physical barrier blocking the way to the suburbs and a reminder, fair or not, of the suburban stereotype of Detroit as a dangerous free-for-all where nothing works.

As you cross 8 Mile itself, the contrast isn’t as drastic as the Eminem movie might suggest. You do not suddenly see mansions across the road. But the difference is, in fact, immediately noticeable: North of 8 Mile the abandoned businesses transform into actual businesses, in structurally sound buildings, with more people around. There are bakeries and dollar stores and auto parts dealers. A few more miles north and you’re in Sterling Heights, noticeably wealthier and much more classically suburban: strip malls, car dealerships, Walmarts, Quality Inns.

Sterling Heights is the place that Trump, who ended up venturing into Macomb three separate times, visited last in his ultimately successful effort to crack Michigan and the Blue Wall. He had sensed, apparently, that here he could find exactly the sort of suburban white voter who could turn a state that had voted Democratic the past six elections.

Technically, Sterling Heights is Michigan’s fourth largest city (the third, the more industrial Warren, is also in Macomb), though whether it qualifies as a city in the ordinary, nonlegal sense is questionable. It is constituted within an almost perfect municipal planner’s 37-square-mile rectangle, with no discernible locus of concentration or importance besides several parks and golf courses, countless four- or six- or eight-lane commercial roads (in metro Detroit, it sometimes feels like the normal traffic patterns are reversed, with empty streets inside the city and huge flows of traffic in the suburbs), and an abundance of home improvement stores.

A journey through Sterling Heights is a drift through what you might call “Subtle Trump Country.” This is not rural West Virginia, with its crowds of loyalists chanting, “Lock her up.” If there are no mansions in Sterling Heights, it’s also nowhere near poor: The median family income is just north of $69,000. There are Trump signs, but they are sparse.

Vik’s Diner off 15 Mile Road (technically just outside Sterling Heights, but you certainly could have fooled me) was one of the few places in Macomb where I found anyone eager to talk politics. Fox News was playing on the TV: coverage of Obama and Trump’s first meeting at the White House. An older man, with a friendly, pinkish face and seedlings of thin white hair, was trying in vain to talk politics with an uninterested young waitress. “People want change,” I heard him say. “If it’s good change, fine.” The waitress had no answer.

Gregg Gower turned out to be 67 years old. He had worked for General Motors for the better part of three decades, until he was laid off in 2009, when his job was outsourced to China. The company had spun it not as layoffs but more like “job sharing,” he said — if China was going to buy cars, then there needed to be Chinese helping to make them. Gower understood the business strategy behind that. But he felt like a lot of people in Macomb were still reeling, which helped explain the appeal of Trump’s economic promises.

Gower clearly had reservations about Trump. He had seen on the news that Trump had misrepresented his business dealings and hurt people on the way up, and that had lowered his opinion. “He got there hook or crook or however he could,” he said. “It showed poor character.” But Gower wasn’t making much headway in persuading anyone. I left for twenty minutes to take a phone call in the parking lot and returned to find Gower still at the bar, his burger and fries long gone, bantering with a younger, dark-haired man who I gathered was a Trump fan and had grown up in Yugoslavia.

Gower was happy to see me. “If ISIS is inside a school or hospital with people inside, do you just bomb the whole school? What do you say?” he demanded.

“I say no.”

“What does Trump say?”

“I think Trump probably says yes.”

“Trump says yes!” Gower concurred. He found this disturbing. But the younger man apparently thought it was justified, or at least was arguing as much for the sport of it. This was the debate they had been having, whether or not it would be OK for the American president-elect to follow through on the war crimes he’s hinted at.

The younger man briefly referenced his experience living through the Bosnian conflict, then reiterated his support. It’s not some video game, he said. “It’s a war!”

In Warren, a little bit to the south, another kind of war was being fought. Hillary Clinton had traveled to the city during the campaign to unveil her economic plan, and the thinking about Warren is that it is the kind of place where the political agenda was certain to be trade and jobs.

Except it wasn’t. “After Obama was elected, it was like people didn’t want to joke around about anything anymore,” said Hayley, a Warren resident. “It felt like all of a sudden people were pointing at us because we’re white, privileged people, and automatically assuming that we were horrible. I’m like, ‘Wait, I’m not a racist!’ ”

Hayley is 23 years old; she was in high school when Obama was first elected. That evening I had met up with her and her boyfriend, Ryan, 29, at a Buffalo Wild Wings. (The couple wouldn’t let me use their names here, though they did agree to a photo.) Another strip mall, this time off of 12 Mile, in Warren. The Red Wings were playing the Canucks, and we tucked into a booth surrounded by about four dozen bright television monitors.

The couple thought of Hayley as the conservative one, from a religious family, Ryan the onetime liberal, a two-time voter for Barack Obama. “He had good intentions,” Ryan told me. “Absolutely.” To Ryan’s way of thinking, somehow those good intentions had been swallowed up by the culture wars. Now Ryan was an ardent Trump supporter.

We downed a few beers and kept talking, yet the more the evening wore on the more I wondered if the better question wasn’t how someone like Ryan would vote for a Republican now — even a chameleon Republican like Trump — but how he could have recently supported a Democrat. The couple owned three pistols, he said, and he didn’t follow the logic of stricter regulations. (“Last time I checked murder was illegal,” he said, “and people still do that.”) He considered himself socially conservative, and spoke of the value of traditional gender roles: It was primarily the man’s responsibility to work, and the woman’s to take care of the house, he said, and he and Hayley tried to “draw a clear line in the sand.”

It was not uncommon in Macomb to hear the election described in martial language. Trump was a “hand grenade” to the establishment. Clinton had betrayed her country. “I do not like Trump. Trump is a total doofus,” one middle-aged woman, who would identify herself only as a lifelong Macomb resident, told me approximately ninety seconds after admitting she voted for him. But Hillary was worse — “a traitor” for Benghazi.

The comparison, between the doofus and the traitor, was par for the course. In places like New York and California, voters tended to moderately like their candidate and hate the other. In Macomb they often disliked Trump and hated Clinton. Sometimes they disliked Clinton and disliked Trump. Nobody liked Clinton, not even the one woman I spoke with who admitted to voting for her. At best, her failures as a candidate were seen as a little less severe than Trump’s. More often, as the vote tally proved, it was the other way around.

On Saturday afternoon, four days after the election, I drove to St. Clair Shores, a city of 60,000 in the southeastern corner of Macomb known mostly for its marinas and local hockey tradition. I had come searching for Trump supporters, who shouldn’t have been hard to find (like the county as a whole, St. Clair Shores flipped from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016, by a significant margin).

Inside the Ram’s Horn restaurant, I spotted a Make America Great Again hat perched atop a head in the middle of the room. I approached the hat’s table and politely interrupted; even the man who was broadcasting his Trump support to dozens of fellow diners declined to talk. “I don’t have any thoughts on it. It’s over,” he said. “But thank you for being respectful.” Another man at the table reiterated his thanks for my respectfulness. Both times I found it confusing.

My next table also consisted of elderly gentlemen, a group of maybe seven or eight who had been chatting animatedly. At my request two of the men, Macomb residents, agreed to talk politics; one turned out to be a strong Gary Johnson supporter who thought the Trump voters were sticking it to a corrupt Congress. The other was a Bernie guy. Within a minute or so of the pair beginning to talk, one man at the table quietly announced he had to go work on an amplifier. Then another guy quietly left, and another. After five minutes the whole table, minus my two volunteers, had cleared entirely.

Later that evening I drove into New Baltimore, farther north in the county, a town that narrowly supported Romney but this year voted Trump by a two-to-one margin. It was cold, and I ducked into a restaurant, where I met Kevin Walters, a lifelong resident who delivered oxygen tanks. Walters had worked hard all his life, even selling night crawlers as a kid. But now things were different. Nobody worked anymore; “freeloaders” had taken over, exploiting the government. A nearby waitress agreed. Obamacare was devastating her family. Nobody knew what Trump’s presidency would actually look like, but he was making promises, and promises sure sounded good.