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On the Ground

‘We are in serious trouble’: A close presidential race puts Michigan on edge

A Democratic campaign office in Detroit, October 1, 2020.
A Democratic campaign office in Detroit, October 1, 2020. © Yona Helaoua, FRANCE 24
Text by: Yona HELAOUA
14 min

In 2016, Donald Trump’s upset victory in Michigan was key to his winning the White House. This year, Joe Biden is counting on bringing the state back into the Democratic fold. Travelling across the Midwestern battleground, FRANCE 24 met voters on both sides who are bracing for catastrophe if their candidate loses.

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Four years ago, Hillary Clinton lost Michigan by a whisker. The Democrat was favoured to win the state, but ended up losing it by less than 11,000 votes, opening Donald Trump’s path to electoral college victory.

Joe Biden is determined to avoid the same fate. As of October 12, the Democratic candidate leads Michigan by seven points in the polls, according to Real Clear Politics. To ensure that lead holds, his campaign is attempting a balancing act, between turning out voters of colour in the state’s big cities and stemming losses in overwhelmingly white, conservative rural areas.

It’s a difficult balance to strike in a state where tensions between left and right have reached a fever pitch in recent months. FRANCE 24 spent three days criss-crossing the state in late September and early October, and met voters deeply at odds on everything from agriculture to Covid-19 to Black Lives Matter. However the election plays out, it’s not obvious how those divides could be bridged any time soon.

In Black Detroit, a ‘repeat’ of 2016?

Our first stop was Detroit. The “Motor City”, Michigan’s largest, is key to any Democrat’s chances in the state. Nearly 80 percent of its residents are Black, and represent the core of the party’s state-wide base. 

Nicole Small, 34, is a lifelong Detroiter and current vice chair of the city’s Charter Commission, which was elected in 2018 to update the city’s governing laws. A longtime organiser for social, racial and economic justice, she voted for democratic socialist Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries. Now she’s backing Biden, as well as seeking to mobilise her fellow Black Detroiters around local issues. She’s worried that the Democrats are running a “ghost campaign” in her city. 

“What we see now is a repeat,” she told FRANCE 24. “It’s almost like circa 2016.”

Nicole Small, a social justice organiser and vice chair of Detroit’s Charter Commission, is worried Biden is running a “ghost campaign”.
Nicole Small, a social justice organiser and vice chair of Detroit’s Charter Commission, is worried Biden is running a “ghost campaign”. © Colin Kinniburgh

Small lives on the northwest side of Detroit, near the Biden campaign office, which she says was paid for by Michael Bloomberg’s short-lived Democratic campaign. 

“It's an old Bloomberg (office) and it’s been paid for since March. We didn’t even see any type of action or movement until Kamala Harris came here” on September 22, she said. “That alone speaks volumes.”

Just a few blocks away, the Trump campaign has opened an office of its own, dubbed the Black Voices Community Center. That office, she said, is “being managed and staffed by a lot of Black Detroiters”, while the campaign also reaches voters through local radio stations.

A Donald Trump campaign office on the northwest side of Detroit.
A Donald Trump campaign office on the northwest side of Detroit. © Yona Helaoua, France 24

Meanwhile Democrats, Small said, have mostly focused on reaching people through mass text messages, a similar strategy to the one they pursued in 2016. Small says it’s too late to change Biden as a candidate, but it’s not too late to make a more concerted effort “to reach the people in the neighbourhoods”.

“They really need to pivot this entire campaign, and identify those voters who are either voting for the Green Party, who are voting for Trump, who stand to lose a lot, or that other base of voters... who just don’t see the difference” between the candidates, she said.

Could the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement help shift the landscape?

“Collectively… I don’t know,” she said. Some of the organisers are adamant about defeating Trump, she said. But across the movement, “there’s a lot of dissension” over whether to support Biden. And time before November 3 is running out.

‘Cancel out a racist’s vote’: Posters in downtown Detroit.
‘Cancel out a racist’s vote’: Posters in downtown Detroit. © Colin Kinniburgh, France 24

Charles H. Ellis, III, bishop at the Greater Grace Temple, a megachurch on Detroit’s northwest side, is far more optimistic that the city’s Black residents will show up to the polls, with or without encouragement from Black Lives Matter activists. 

“I think Trump is providing all the enthusiasm that we need,” he said. “You hear statements in our community – ‘If Roger Rabbit were running for president, he's got my vote.’”

Charles H. Ellis, III, bishop at the Greater Grace Temple, says, “Trump is providing all the enthusiasm that we need”.
Charles H. Ellis, III, bishop at the Greater Grace Temple, says, “Trump is providing all the enthusiasm that we need”. © Yona Helaoua, France 24

In Wayne County, where Detroit is located, Hillary Clinton received some 90,000 fewer votes than Barack Obama four years earlier. That drop-off alone was enough to cost her the state, and arguably the White House.

After four years of Trump, the 62-year-old bishop is confident the same won’t happen to Biden.

“I think he absolutely will” do better than Clinton, Ellis said. “I don’t think that that’s a question.” He added that the former vice president’s economic record, supporting bailouts of the auto industry in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, could also help give him a boost in the Motor City: “He has the benefit to be able to say to Michigan, ‘Who is the guy that was there, when the whole auto industry was jeopardised?’ When you thought General Motors, Chrysler were going under?”

For Ellis, this means Biden has credibility in the state that others don’t have, “because he can talk not about what he’s going to do, but what he’s done”.

Student towns and soybeans

The city of Detroit declared bankruptcy in 2013. For years, its downtown was all but deserted, while homes across the city were foreclosed on and abandoned, some burned to the ground, especially after the 2008 crash. The city has lost nearly a third of its residents since 2000. Among those who stayed, tens of thousands have seen their water shut off when they couldn’t pay the bills.

Now, under the patronage of billionaire Dan Gilbert, Detroit’s downtown is seeing new investment and gentrification, while the rest of the city continues to crumble. Within just a few blocks’ walk, the contrasts are stark.

Abandoned buildings and construction cranes sit side by side on the edge of Detroit’s downtown.
Abandoned buildings and construction cranes sit side by side on the edge of Detroit’s downtown. © Colin Kinniburgh, France 24

Those contrasts only grow when one drives out of Detroit, past its tonier suburbs and west along highway I-94. An hour away is the student town of Ann Arbor, home to the renowned University of Michigan. About 70 percent of Ann Arbor’s residents are white. The houses are quaint, and Biden-Harris signs dot the lawns. It’s no surprise, given that young and college-educated Americans tend to vote Democratic. 

>> From the streets to the ballot box, America’s youngest voters are ready to be heard

Heading on west, the landscape quickly changes again. Exiting I-94, the rush of the freeway gives way to country roads, grain silos and a burst of fall colours. There are more Trump-Pence signs, but above all there are signs marking out the crops along the side of the road – corn and soybeans especially. 

Tim Boring doesn’t quite live in “Trump country”. His 500-acre farm is in the southeast corner of Ingham County, which is also home to the state capitol of Lansing and is one of just eight counties in the state to have gone to Clinton in 2016. The farm, in the town of Stockbridge, has been passed down from generation to generation since the 1830s, but only came into Boring’s hands in 2012, after he finished a Ph.D. in agribusiness from Michigan State University.

Boring calls himself “fairly liberal and progressive on a lot of social values” and is appalled by the “blatant racism, the misogyny, the sexism” he sees coming out of the Trump administration. He also calls himself a “fiscal conservative”, and it’s partly on those grounds that he organises the group Rural America 2020, which is calling on the administration to end its trade war with China.

Tim Boring, a grain farmer in the town of Stockbridge, Michigan, is organising against Trump’s tariff war with the group Rural America 2020.
Tim Boring, a grain farmer in the town of Stockbridge, Michigan, is organising against Trump’s tariff war with the group Rural America 2020. © Yona Helaoua, France 24

Boring calls Trump’s tariff-driven approach “a vast over-simplification” of long-running trade issues.

“The fact that Donald Trump is going to come in and issue statements like, ‘Trade wars are easy to win’, that he’s going to get this knocked right out… I think the results we’ve seen should have been entirely predictable,” he said. “We still don't have this thing resolved! And in so many ways I think it’s a parallel to coronavirus. We’ve just gotten sick of fighting the fight and we’re just going to give up and walk away from it.”

Trump hasn’t entirely walked away from his rural base, though. Since US farmers started taking a hit from the trade wars in 2018, his administration has bailed them out to the tune of tens of billions of dollars, with that amount set to hit a record this year after Congress agreed to additional payments in a stopgap government funding bill last month.  

Boring accepts some of that money himself.

“The projections on this latest round of money is going to be like $40 per acre,” he said, calling the payments “a nice boost to the bottom line… but not particularly necessary for us”. With corn and soy prices climbing again, he’d rather see the government saving the money, and calls it “hypocritical” that so many welfare-averse Republican farmers are “wholeheartedly cashing” the federal checks. 

Meanwhile Boring has sought to make his own bottom line less dependent on international markets. He points to a field of black beans.

“We’re trying to move more towards food crops instead of just, you know, soybeans for export to China and corn to ethanol,” he said. “We still grow those things, but we’re trying to diversify the rotations quite a bit.”

On the edge of Boring’s black bean field is a sign for Elissa Slotkin, a former CIA analyst and centrist Democrat who was elected to Congress in 2018, representing Michigan’s 8th district. She is up for reelection this year.
On the edge of Boring’s black bean field is a sign for Elissa Slotkin, a former CIA analyst and centrist Democrat who was elected to Congress in 2018, representing Michigan’s 8th district. She is up for reelection this year. © Colin Kinniburgh, France 24

He says these methods, including use of cover crops, have allowed him to reduce pesticide use. They’re also a step towards making his crops more resilient to climate change, whose effects he’s already felt, from a wetter planting season to flash droughts during the summer.

“I think there really does need to be a broader approach to how we address these climate issues, and there’s absolutely a role for agriculture to play in this,” he said.

Boring is fully aware that he’s among the “minority” in his area. Most Michigan farmers still stand firmly behind Trump. But Boring says that’s less because of the president’s policies on agriculture and trade than on social issues.

“Farmers time and again will demonstrate a willingness to vote against their own economic self-interest and for the advancement of the social issues that they hold dear,” he said.

‘We’re at a real crossroads’

Monte Bordner doesn’t see things that way. The 67-year-old cattle breeder lives about two hours’ drive from Boring in the town of Sturgis, just across the border from Indiana. His family, too, has been in the area for generations, and raising Angus beef since the 1960s, when his father bought him his first heifer. According to his card, his exact business is “Value Added Carcass Genetics” – that is, breeding high-value cattle, destined for upscale restaurants or for export.

A flag waving just outside his house proclaims Bordner as a proud Trump supporter, like many of his neighbours. Trump won the county, St. Joseph, with 62 percent of votes in 2016, against 31 percent for Clinton. Bordner thinks he’ll do even better this year.

“The support I’m seeing – it’s unbelievable,” he said. In 2016, he recalled, Trump yard signs were hard to come by. Now, they’re everywhere. And, he said, that’s without counting those who quietly support Trump but “won’t say a word… because they have friends and neighbours and relatives that will just beat them up”.

Bordner especially appreciates that Trump is a “businessman” and a tough negotiator.

“The bottom line is, I didn’t hire the guy to be my spiritual guidance,” he said. “I kind of hired him to come in and, you know, kick butt and take names.”

The farmer hasn’t felt much of an impact from the trade war with China, since the country buys only a tiny share of US beef. He says he has felt the effects of Trump’s renegotiation of NAFTA, though.

“People just hate the word ‘tariff’, but somewhere along the way… you have to have some leverage to say, ‘This is how we’re going to do business. If you want to do business with us, we’re going to change these rules.’ And Trump understands that.”

Bordner said previous administrations “would get an ‘F’ from me” when it comes to enforcing trade deals. He’s particularly angry at the European Union for its ban on hormone-implanted beef, which has been the subject of a more than 30-year trade dispute with the US and which he said “cost our industry billions and billions”. He said the ban is based on “fables”, pointing out that a single birth control pill contains thousands of times more estrogen than a hormone-implanted steak.

“You mean I can’t take a birth control pill? Nobody ever told women that,” he said.

Bordner also gets frustrated when he hears terms like “factory farms”.

“We’re at a real crossroads,” says cattle breeder Monte Bordner, pictured here at his farm in Sturgis, Michigan, October 2, 2020. Bordner is an avid supporter of Donald Trump.
“We’re at a real crossroads,” says cattle breeder Monte Bordner, pictured here at his farm in Sturgis, Michigan, October 2, 2020. Bordner is an avid supporter of Donald Trump. © Yona Helaoua, France 24

“They are big producers, but 99 percent of them are families,” he said. And he pushes back against the idea that farmers like him don’t care about the environment.

“We’ve been in this township since the 1850s. We’re not going to ruin our soil,” he said. “I mean, I plant trees every year… Yes, big ag comes rolling in here with big equipment and puts the seed corn in, but we plant cover crops.” Bordner says he seeks to “minimise the impacts” of his farm, while still being able to operate “in a progressive, profitable manner, or at least have the potential for it”.

Still, he supports Trump’s rollback of Obama-era environmental regulations, like a 2015 clean water rule that he says “didn’t make any sense”. As for climate change, he says it’s “been going on since cavemen were scratching on the wall”, and suggests that Democrats want to “do away with beef cattle because of the methane produced”.

A "Trump 2020" flag on Monte Bordner’s farm.
A "Trump 2020" flag on Monte Bordner’s farm. © Yona Helaoua, France 24

When it comes to politics beyond the farm, too, Bordner aligns closely with Trump. “Looting and burning” during the Black Lives Matter protests particularly raises his ire.

“The Portland and the Seattle and the Minneapolis… my God, we would not tolerate that,” he said. He has a hard time understanding what drives the protests, but said he has “some ideas”.

“They just hate Trump so bad that they’re going to do anything to get him out,” he said.

“We’re at a real crossroads,” he added.  “If Trump doesn't get re-elected, we are, in my mind, in serious, serious trouble in this country.”

This article was adapted from the original in French by Colin Kinniburgh.

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