Disillusionment, USA: Voters say they’re just hoping for change
Parker Fox drifted out of the Donald Trump rally in a sort of euphoric daze, along with the thousands emptying into the parking lot alongside him. “After leaving a Trump rally, you’re very pro-Trump,” he recalled a few weeks later, describing a noisy communion with people who understood that politics mattered, unlike some people he could name at his high school. “It was so enthusiastic and so energetic you could feel it in your body. It gave you chills.”
He’d barely had time to calm down when he learned through Facebook that his other favorite presidential candidate would also be passing through his quiet corner of eastern Michigan—Bernie Sanders. In fact, the U.S. senator from Vermont would be at the same community college the very next day. This thrilled Fox: his first presidential election as a voter—he was 18—and the two most crowd-whipping, pundit-defying, establishment-bucking candidates in the entire race were practically paying him personal visits.
As it turned out, the residents of this part of Michigan were especially fond of the two men who had done the most to upend the 2016 presidential race. Both Sanders and Trump won the state, with Sanders’ narrow win in the Democratic contest stupefying pollsters who had predicted a comfortable lead for Hillary Clinton. Both did especially well in St. Clair County, with double-digit victories over their rivals. And, down at the precinct level, they barnstormed Algonac, a town of about 4,056 people about an hour’s drive from Detroit on a curve of the St. Clair River in the county’s southern end corner, and neighboring Clay, home to another 9,066 or so, including Fox and his family. In some Algonac and Clay precincts, Sanders and Trump won more than two thirds of the votes. Residents have a needlessly unflattering nickname for Algonac: The Swamp, derived, apparently, from the reed marshes that engulf the town’s edges and which are prettily dive-bombed by feeding birds and buzz with hidden insects.
If Sanders and Trump were the two insurgents of 2016, then the Algonac Swamp must be a sort of encampment of their guerrilla foot soldiers. What might such a place be like, down in the trenches?
An editor’s working hypothesis was that a town full of Trump and Sanders fans might turn out to be the Angriest Town in America, and so that became our shorthand before my visit in April, only to be laughed at when I finally got the chance to broach the label with residents.
Of course, no one can persist in a permanent state of anger, especially in an entire town. Contempt, on the other hand, can smolder indefinitely, and Algonac reeked of contempt: It would take longer than a week’s visit to find someone here who does not think Washington is, on the whole, a besmirched place of selfish politicians in thrall to the powerful moneyed interests who keep them in office. Clinton, fairly or otherwise, is generally seen here as the very embodiment of this; Sanders and Trump the only possible saviors, Trump because he’s never held elected office, and Sanders, despite his decades in Congress, because he is still viewed as a cranky outsider. Nonetheless, for a small minority, the idea of a President Trump sends them into a panic.
Fox is young enough to have never had his heart broken by a politician, but he’s heard his father, Jerry, go off at the dinner table enough times to pick up some of his parents’ wariness.
“He might get a lot of this because I work for the auto industry,” said Jerry, who has a job at a nearby Chrysler truck factory and is a competitive walleye fisherman on the side. Father and son were sitting on couches in the family’s comfy living room, with large windows looking out onto surrounding woods where deer and turkeys roam. Jerry had also been struggling over whether he preferred Trump or Sanders, and so had decided to let his politics-inhaling son make the call for him.
“I’ve always heard dad saying, you know, ‘There goes another plant to Mexico,’” Fox said, doing an angry-dad voice, as Jerry gave a smiling “it’s true” nod of recognition. And so Fox marveled to hear Trump lambast companies for moving production abroad, or Sanders’ refrain that 60,000 factories have closed down in America since 2001. The rallies were like a Fox family dinner blown up to stadium size.
COMPASSION VERSUS WALL-BUILDING
Should either candidate want to make a movie adaptation of their campaign speeches, they could do worse than to set it in Algonac and Clay: A few strip-mall businesses and a scattering of mostly two-story, middle-class homes, none too far from the teal waters of the St. Clair River, along which massive freighters creep carrying goods to and from Canada. To wander around Algonac, a predominantly Republican place, is to encounter familiar stump-speech lines made manifest. There’s the town’s old Chris-Craft power boat factory that made Algonac a proud little manufacturing hub until it closed in 1960, a hole that’s never quite been filled or forgotten. Algonac falls within the gravitational pull of Detroit’s Big Three automobile companies; the factories of General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler are major employers, and families’ fortunes are tied to international trade deals that both Trump and Sanders deride. Ford, in particular, has come under attack from Trump for expanding its manufacturing in Mexico. The only other language besides English on the signs at the nearest major airport, Detroit Metropolitan, is Japanese, viewed by some residents as an unnecessary concession to visiting Japanese automobile executives.
When talk turns to immigration—Sanders in terms of compassion, Trump in terms of wall-building—people here are reminded of the U.S. Border Patrol officers they see boating up and down the Canadian border, which floats somewhere halfway across the St. Clair River. Both candidates decry what they say is the undue influence of American billionaires on politics. In Algonac, they tend to picture Manuel Moroun, a Detroit businessman, in the local version of this role. He proposed building a bridge that was widely opposed here, connecting the mainland to Harsens Island, a peaceful outpost of Clay Township, home to about 1,200 people and a couple of bald eagles and currently accessible only by a small, 12-car ferry. Regulators denied the $45 million plan in June.
In some ways, voters have changed little since the 1980s, when pollster Stan Greenberg first visited neighboring Macomb County and announced that he had discovered the Reagan Democrat. The belief persists that the system is so rigged that politicians’ largesse only flows to those much richer than you, or much poorer, leaving you to struggle unaided. The difference this time—and everyone agrees it’s different this time—is that there were two viable-seeming chances to send a man to Washington who would be the very personification of your contempt. Some were voting for Trump only in his capacity as a stink bomb.
“You guys know the story, I’m sure, of Jesus Christ in the temple, when he goes into the temple and he turns everything upside down,” said Jay DeBoyer, the only person dressed in a suit on a weekday afternoon in Johnnie Lega’s, a popular riverside Algonac dive bar filled with nautical-themed clutter. He worked behind the bar years ago when he was a student before becoming a salesman for a company that made trusses and other lumber products for the home-building industry. Now DeBoyer is the county clerk, whose job includes running elections here. He has a close-shaved head and silver goatee, his suit fits well, and he speaks in neat paragraphs of political analysis. He was evoking a rare moment in the Gospels, in which the normally sanguine Christ appears to get angry at the corrupting quality of money, as he explained why the county’s primary results were more or less as he anticipated.
“Now, we can argue from a Christian perspective, was that Christ-like? We can have that debate, that discussion. But for every circumstance there’s a reaction and there’s a resolution.” In his analogy, Christ was Trump, but Sanders, too, and also, in a sense, the voters themselves, newly awakened at the possibility of disruption. “In these non-engaged individuals who are becoming engaged, they want him to go into the temple and turn the tables upside down,” DeBoyer said. “That means we need to shake it up. We need to come back to the people in control.”
In DeBoyer’s view, this may be the first election in which the so-called culture wars will not prove decisive. DeBoyer is a Republican, though he declined to say for whom he voted. He’s pro-gun and opposes abortion, but is unfazed, for example, by Trump’s difficulty in stating what his policy on abortion access would be. Most Trump voters he knows don’t care if they only agree with “two in 10 things” that Trump says, according to DeBoyer. They just want a change. He described his family’s finances to explain why.
“I don’t have a bunch of debt. I have a mortgage and a couple of car payments. I don’t have a pension; I have to save in a 401k like everyone else. It’s impossible for me to save enough money to pay for my kids to go to college.” He has a 13-year-old son and a 17-year-old daughter, who is applying to Duke. “Mathematically impossible. I live in a $125,000 house, I drive a Dodge pick-up truck and a Jeep, I don’t have any credit card debt. None of that. And it’s mathematically impossible for me to save enough for retirement and enough to send my kids to college. Household income of $100,000, with no debt. Do you understand how a person in my exact financial category gets sucked into that world, between those two? If I tend to lean to the left, I’m all in with Bernie Sanders. If I tend to lean right, I’m all in with Donald Trump. Frankly, even if he’s wrong, what he’s saying are the only options I have, the only hope I got.”
Leaving Johnnie Lega’s to head into Algonac proper, you pass by the taxidermy store of Paul Burczycki—a Trump supporter with qualms. He is angry with the government not least because his insurance payments went up with the passage of the Affordable Care Act. “Trump’s a tough guy to vote for,” he said. “He’s a loose cannon. Maybe that’s all part of his master plan.”
Further down the road, on the right, there’s Peter Beauregard’s Algonac Harbour Club on the right, a marina and restaurant on the spot of the old Chris-Craft factory.
He’s a Trump fan, too.
“I’m a lifetime Republican who has been disenchanted like, I guess, a lot of people in our town, so I’m definitely for the outsider,” Beauregard said, “and I’ve upset several of my local colleagues who are Republicans. If you’re a Republican you either love him or you hate him. There’s nobody on the fence.”
Life here revolves around the water. Almost as many driveways are graced by boats as cars. Garfield Wood, a pioneering boat builder and racer who once lived in Algonac, broke the water speed record in 1932, tearing along the St. Clair in a boat powered by airplane engines at 124.86 miles per hour. Chris-Craft made a landing craft used by the U.S. military in the D-Day invasion at Normandy, as well as mahogany-hulled powerboats that are still cherished by nostalgic collectors. The Michigan Senate is contemplating a bill that would recognize Clay Township, Algonac’s neighbor, as “the sturgeon angling capital” of the state, and some residents think it will sail through committee.
It’s beautiful in the summer, residents say, with people boating in the sunshine and the restaurants busy with seasonal visitors. Nevertheless, multiple residents liked to efface the town using the same little shorthand list, as if they’d all memorized it from the same source: Algonac? It’s three dollar stores, one grocery store, three pharmacies, and that’s about it. About 97 percent of the residents are white, according to the last census, compared to 74 percent for the United States as a whole. Both Trump and Sanders have found their most reliable support among those in this racial group.
It is only after several days in Algonac, at the annual American Indian Festival at the local high school, that I find someone willing to say she is a Clinton supporter, if in a limited sense. Ringed by chairs in the school gym, dancers moved to throbbing drums; fox furs, tribal jewelry and dreamcatchers were for sale at stalls around the gym’s edge, many run by members of tribes from Walpole Island, just across the Canadian border.
Susan Wrobel, the festival’s organizer and a lifelong Algonac resident, runs a weekly community meeting where she teaches children Anishinaabemowin, the language of her Ojibwe tribe. She said elders there have been “shaking their heads” in wonder and fear that Trump could become president. “I was very pleased whether it was Hillary or Bernie, I actually I like them both,” she said. She had just bought some new earrings, which danced as she spoke. “So I chose the Republican ticket to vote for my favorite Republican, and that was Kasich. I love Kasich. He’s the only one that talked about doing something about the national debt, and I loved that. So I thought, well, the Democratic ticket’s taken care of for me.” Michigan’s primaries are open to all voters regardless of party affiliation, and strategic voting is common. A few days after this conversation, John Kasich, the Ohio governor, would drop out of the race.
‘SAME OLD FACES’
Once again, it was time for the Algonac-Clay Historical Society’s monthly meeting. Some of the women at the society are particularly interested in the Victorian era and were making final arrangements for a forthcoming talk on Victorian hair fashions. “Hats and tea cups are encouraged,” noted the flyer. Trump struck them as unnecessarily crude.
“I don’t like the name calling,” said Marilynn Genaw, who was in charge of ordering the strawberries they’d need for the tea. “It’s good manners not to say something derogatory about an individual.” She was still deciding on how to vote.
Joan Bulley, a former Algonac bank teller and the town’s de facto historian-in-residence, could also do without Trump’s brusqueness, but wonders if it points to an underlying virtue. “One thing about Donald Trump is he tells it as it is,” she said. “I don’t care for his rudeness, his insults, but he gets things done.” Sanders, she said, is at least “a little bit more dignified” in his speeches.
She dislikes Clinton. “She doesn’t tell the truth. I don’t like that.”
Bulley’s grievance with the federal government is that she has never quite forgiven it for transforming the city’s waterfront under the “urban renewal” push of the 1960s and 1970s.
“Urban renewal demolished our town” she said. She pointed to an exhibit in the society’s museum, a little hand-drawn map of the businesses that used to line a walkable, 19th-century main street on the riverfront: Koch’s Jewelry Store, the Starlight Dance Pavilion, the Algonac Theatre. For the most part, those buildings were demolished and replaced with a pleasant, if quiet, boardwalk backed by tidy lawns, and, on the other side, the sort of boxy, parking-lot-fringed architecture that lures chain stores and franchise restaurants. She kept pointing at the exhibits. “This was Henry’s on the corner,” she said, referring to one of her favorite restaurants. “It’s now a parking lot, which is stupid. If they would have saved some of these stores we would at least have something to attract people.”
As the historical society meeting breaks up for homemade snacks and cake, I meet Bud Zeigler, 85, who spent 12 years sanding down Chris-Craft powerboats on the assembly line until the factory moved to Florida, taking some of his colleagues with it. Soon after, he ended up as a carpenter making Pontiacs at General Motors down the road, working there for 30 years until retirement. His complaint about the government is that it’s always the same old faces in charge, who never seem to get things done.
“I voted for Bernie Sanders,” he said. “I just wanted to break it up a little bit. Because everybody figures this one is favored, that one is favored, well, give the other guy a chance.” He chuckles a bit at this.
“Somewhere along the line you’ve got to get somebody in there that maybe can change things a bit with a new thought in their head, without having the same ones always running for office, families running, you know?”
Even in late April, there was little doubt that it’d be Clinton versus Trump come November. Trump thinks he can flip Michigan, a state that has reliably gone with theDemocratic presidential candidate for years, to support him. At the Schoolhouse Grille, a buzzing restaurant on Harsens Island, two women stepped outside at the end of the Saturday night dinner rush. Sheltering from the drizzle in an outdoor bar area, the two friends discussed how they would approach the polling booths in November.
Kristin Bane, who owns the restaurant and was seeking to escape the kitchen’s heat, is a Democrat who voted for Sanders. She likes Obama not least because she also spent part of her childhood in Hawaii, opposes fracking and thinks the government should spend more on education. Nancy Bryson, who came out for a smoke and whose family runs the island’s ferry service to the mainland, most admires the two presidents Bush.
“I enjoy listening to Bernie,” Bryson said. “I do. And I think that there are so many things that he’s saying that I’m, ‘You know what? I agree with you wholeheartedly. But I don’t want the government to tell me that I have to do that. I don’t want to be taxed to do that.’”
Bryson argued that Trump would help bring the country back to its founding principle. Bane was unconvinced.
“How can we vote for a man who’s proposing to build a wall that we have spent so many years breaking down in other countries?” Bane said as Bryson lit a cigarette.
“My grandfathers and my uncles have died because they were trying to break down walls in other countries so that we could live free—and we want to build one? That’s the wrong message.”
“OK, I disagree with you there but I love you,” Bryson replied. Her mother was an immigrant, she explained, arriving at Ellis Island from Copenhagen as a 12-year-old girl. The barriers to immigration are higher than they were in the Ellis Island era, but Bryson said there was still no good reason to immigrate to the United States through anything but the legal channels.
“I’ve been wanting to have this conversation for a long time,” Bane said, without backing down on her point. “It’s good that we can do this and not get angry and stomp our feet about it.”
They found common ground in their dislike for Clinton.
“And Benghazi?” Bryson said. “I mean it’s just unforgivable what happened there.”
“I think she’s a professional liar,” Bane said.“I agree.”
Still, for Bane, the idea of having to vote for someone other than Sanders in November left her anguished.
“I could say, ‘Oh, you know, change, yes change, I want change, and so Trump is the quickest way to a change in government.’ I could tell myself that hopefully it’s going to work out for the best. But I can’t get past some of these issues like the wall, and I can’t get past some of these issues like abortion. ‘A woman should go to jail.’ What the fuck?”
It became apparent that Bryson was not aware that Trump has said he now opposes abortions. This new information was absorbed quickly.
“Oh, he’s going anti?” she said. “Well you know what, here’s the bottom line, he’s just trying to buy the Christian base.”
Neither was surprised at how well Sanders and Trump had done in Michigan.“The common ground with them is change,” Bane said.
“Anti-establishment,” Bryson said.
“Here’s how I feel,” Bane said, in a sort of closing statement. ”I would hope that Bernie would get in at least to in to run against Trump. I have no time for Hillary Clinton. And when it comes down to it I more than likely will not vote for her. And if it comes down to her and Trump, even though I cringe and I think what’s going to happen, I at least will have some hope of some kind of change. Something’s going to shift if he gets in there. Something’s got to give. And at least there would be that hope still attached to him. With her, I almost fear her. I think she’s a dangerous woman. I think she’s an extremely dangerous woman.” Again, she worried about Trump’s wall and his position on abortion. “A painful change is still change.”The two women smiled at each other and hugged and then hurried through the drizzle back into the restaurant.
‘BOTH OF MY GUYS WON’
Fox and his parents were approaching November with less trepidation. After attending the Trump and Sanders rallies in quick succession, he made up his mind and informed his parents, who were similarly torn between the two, of his decision. Fox thinks women should be allowed to have abortions and that same-sex couples should be able to marry, views he attributes to his age, and here he felt he parted company with Trump.
“I couldn’t find anything with Bernie I disagree about. At all. And that’s the reason. As simple as it gets.” Also, he said, “it seemed like Trump didn’t need my help,” he said, which was part of his father’s thinking, too. They would vote for Trump in November instead.
Fox’s mother, Tracy, came in from work and sat down in an armchair opposite her sons; her husband moved to sit at the floor by her feet. The family talked politics for another hour as the room darkened, illuminated only by a muted CNN flashing on the television.
“Both of my guys won,” Fox said with satisfaction, “so that’s cool.”
This report first appeared in “The American Voter,” Reuters’ special election issue.