During the first few months of 2017, Sebastian Cooke conducted a series of interviews about the US election with David Koch, a labour activist and retired worker from central Michigan. David was involved in the election from start to finish and his experience provides a fascinating insight into the vote and its aftermath. This is a write up of those interviews, originally released in four parts but shown here in full.
Part 1: The election in Michigan.
David Koch grew up in Hillsdale County, Southern Michigan. ‘Rural farm country’, as he puts it. From the age of 10, in 1962, David spent much of his time working on farms before leaving the state to travel America. He returned when he was 18, took a job as a construction worker and went to study at Central Michigan University. He has lived in the area ever since.
From the time of young adulthood, he has always been in a union and for the last 16 years of his working life, when he was a probation officer, David was the president of his bargaining unit, the United Steelworkers amalgamated 12075(01).
Now, he heads up the Central Michigan Labour Council AFL-CIO, a body representing roughly 8,000 workers from across the private and public sector.
In the US election, David campaigned heavily for Bernie Sanders and then, when the Senator lost the Democratic nomination and with Trump in the wings, he tried to get the vote out for Hillary Clinton. During the course of the election, he spoke to workers, students, disenfranchised voters, people on social security and many others.
In general, Michigan stands out when you look at the US election. Against the odds and by narrow margins, it voted to endorse Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Primary yet backed Donald Trump in the final vote.
In the primary, Sanders beat Clinton by a margin of just 1.5%, or 17,000 votes. State-wide the result was close but in certain areas, Bernie won big.
On February 15th in the city of Dearborn, Wayne County, home of Ford Motors and a proud working class history, Bernie Sanders took to the stump. Speaking in a 9,500 capacity basketball arena, which was so full a local Fire marshal had to stop people coming in, he took on the water crisis in Flint and laid down his plans that included paid maternity leave, a $15 minimum wage and free public college tuition. “I’ll tell you how we’re going to pay for it”, he told the crowd “we’re going to impose a tax on Wall Street speculation!”
For her part, Clinton wasn’t going for any big promises. In a rally in Detroit days before the vote, the most radical she could get was a promise to ‘keep a spotlight on Flint’ and aim to reduce student debt.
In the end Sanders won Dearborn with a hefty 19% margin of victory over Clinton, providing him with a huge boost to clinch the primary. In the Presidential election, however, Clinton’s vote in Wayne County where Dearborn sits dropped by a whopping 78,000 from Obama’s 2012 figure. The bulk of that loss – 46,000 – came from neighbouring Detroit.
This dynamic, of excitement for Sanders turning to the opposite for Clinton, is one that David Koch understands well. “When Clinton won the nomination” he tells me, “it was like they let the air out of the balloon.”
“People saw Sanders differently. They were more than enthusiastic.” He says. “There was a real euphoria about him”. But when David spoke to the same people about voting for Clinton, much of the enthusiasm had gone:
“It came out that the Democratic National Committee tweaked the nomination for Clinton. They had hacked computers in a couple of states and there was a feeling that they had pulled the rug from under Sanders” This naturally had an effect, David tells me. “People took the attitude that no way they would vote for Clinton because she was who she was.” He says. “Some came round and bit the bullet, some stayed at home.”
The people that David speaks of jump out from the pages of election data which detail the breakdown of the vote across the US Midwest.
In the area of central Michigan where David has spent most of his life, this phenomenon is particularly striking. He lives in Greendale Township, Midland County, about two miles east of the Isabella county line and roughly 10 miles from the small city of Mount Pleasant. Both city and county have some of the highest poverty rates in Michigan.
In the primaries, Bernie Sanders won in every Precinct of Mount Pleasant convincingly, averaging a winning margin of more than 37%. In the city centre, where the income poverty rate stands between a staggering 61 – 70% of residents, Sanders won by a 53 point margin.
When it came to the national election however, it was a different story. Where there was enthusiasm for Sanders, there was little appetite for Clinton. Isabella County went from a place won by Obama in 2012 to one lost by Clinton in 2016. In the poorest area of Mount Pleasant, where Sanders had done very well, Clinton’s overall vote in the Presidential election was less than the total number of people who had participated in the Democratic Primary. In other words, she couldn’t even mobilise what she saw as her core voting block. The numbers here are not huge, in their hundreds rather than their tens of thousands, but that shouldn’t detract from what happened in this particular part of Michigan.
“Lots of the base was disenfranchised, they turned towards Sanders.” David explains. “He appealed to workers and students, they found him real.” This, he says, expressed itself in a huge amount of activity with people travelling up and down the state to hear him speak: “He was like a rock star wherever he went.”
Like most people, David was optimistic about the possibilities of Bernie’s candidacy:
“Well I was a big Sanders fan and I was caught up with everyone else thinking we are going to have a populist candidate and he is very electable because he’s very consistent in his message. We’re going to be able to reverse some of the setbacks that we’ve experienced over the last 20, 30 years, I guess starting with Reagan who really started the economy on a downward spiral. I think along with other people I thought: ‘we’re gonna make some progress here and it’s going to be great thing.’”
It wasn’t long, however, before Bernie’s candidacy was over. But even then, David took optimism in the fact that he thought Trump could be beaten. “When he [Trump] got the nomination I thought, ‘we’re going to kick his ass!’ So I felt sort of good at that point, although I was scratching my head and saying what is going on here.”
Back then, like most of us, David couldn’t have known what was about to happen but during the election, he began to see the political dynamics shift.
“Trump was highly effective in highlighting Clinton’s weaknesses.” he tells me. At the time, in his role with the AFL-CIO, David was trying to turn people away from Trump. “The people I came across who voted for Trump were generally very hesitant’, he says. ‘It was just a case that they would rather have had Trump than Clinton. Particularly working people the message of jobs and tariffs appealed.”
The weaknesses that Trump was highlighting were evident to many of the people David came across. “[They] were suspicious of Hillary Clinton in that one point she supported the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) then she reversed herself, but also her connection to big business; getting $200,000 for speaking to Wall St for an hour. That made labour suspicious of her.”
As David points out, Trump is probably “the biggest anti-labour president I think we’ve ever had in history”. However, he says, “Trump appealed to the crowds. He successfully appealed to the rust belt working class. He spoke to them whereas Hillary didn’t pay a lot of attention to the working class in the Midwest. I think that was her biggest mistake and Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan were very close but she was unable to inspire confidence among the working class.”
Trump ‘appealing’ to workers does not mean they necessarily went and voted for him. As David went on to explain, this did happen but in many conversations he recalls it was more that Trump successfully appealed to them not to back Clinton, a case that had largely been made for him already.
I ask if Bernie Sanders would have fared differently, not just in Michigan but on a national scale. ‘Oh yes, I believe so”, David says, adding that people “trusted him. [Bernie] always told the truth.” I throw out the regular riposte that Sanders’ socialism would have been a barrier. “The issue of socialism would have been a bigger issue in the national election than in the primaries but Bernie would still have won”, David answers. “People had so many reservations about Trump; they didn’t like him at all. Bernie was clean as a whistle!”
It is this last testament to Sanders’ political character that comes through time and again in our conversations. Bernie was clean. You could trust him. People believed him.
“Well he offered hope to people, a way out for people”, David says when I ask him to expand on his comment that working people and the poor voted for Sanders. “People understood and have understood for a long time that Bernie Sanders is not in politics for the money. He’s one of very few politicians who does not take money from lobbyists. He takes his salary and that’s the sum total of his income.”
During the interviews with David, it became clear why the characteristics of trust and honesty played a crucial role in the election and how political that was.
When describing a whole family of Sanders voters who couldn’t bring themselves to support Clinton, David explained their reasoning:
“I think they liked what message he [Sanders] was giving and they didn’t strongly believe in Clinton. They thought Clinton was contaminated by her husband having been president and so she was part of the Washington insider club.”
As became clear, this ‘Washington insider club’ wasn’t distrusted without good reason. To help understand why the issue of political credibility really mattered though, and how it applied itself during the election, you have to go back a long way. Not just through the histories of the two candidates, but also the people and the places they were trying to win over.
Part 2: Breaking from the past: Neoliberalism and the financial crash of 2008
The general decline suffered by workers in the era of Capitalism post 1970s is undeniable. This is often referred to in the mainstream as a feeling of being ‘left behind’ by the system, a frustration which has apparently created an appetite for that other catch all phrase: populism.
This isn’t totally false of course; it’s just that any truth contained within it often gets lost in its general, one-size-fits-all application.
In the US election, it is sometimes used to show an apparent groundswell of angry enthusiasm for Trump in places such as Michigan. The picture is, however, much more complicated.
The effects of Neoliberalism and its acceleration since 2008 did play a huge role but in some ways, this was more of a factor for Sanders and Clinton than it was for Trump.
David’s own working life highlights this.
When he was 18, in 1970, he got a job as a construction worker. Shortly after, he began studying at Central Michigan University and would go back to the his job in the summer breaks.
“Back in the 1970’s, when I was a labourer” David recalls, “a union labourer could make enough money in a summer to pay for a year’s college tuition and room and board. That’s completely impossible these days.” He admits. “Today, room and board at a state university typically would be at least $10,000 and tuition would be $10,000 to $12,000, so someone would have to make between $22,000 and $25,000 in a summer and that’s just not possible anymore.”
In fact for the kind of minimum wage work which tends to be done by young people, David concedes that someone would need two or three full time jobs all year round just to get through college. Instead, young people end up saddled with debt.
“In the 60s”, he says, “the economy was booming and wages actually did account for a living wage, but as corporate executive salaries have gone through the roof, salaries of employees have been almost level. There’s been an ever widening disparity.”
When he worked as a probation officer in his early thirties, David took on this wealth disparity and pushed for union recognition. His workplace became the first amalgamated unit of the United Steelworkers 12075.
This had a dramatic effect on pay. “I can tell you that I kept track, and my wages, after becoming unionised, doubled in sixteen years.”
In 2008 however, things took a dramatic turn for the worse and by the time of his retirement in 2012, the cutbacks were in full swing:
“We went in the two years before I retired from 8 probation officers to 3 and I was one of the remaining 3. And the workload was excessive and at the same time they said probation officers will no longer be able to be paid overtime. The job was somewhat manageable with overtime but when they cut out overtime it became impossible. I refused to work without being paid so that’s when, given my age and other health reasons, I saw the writing on the wall and said this is time to retire because I couldn’t physically survive any longer.”
After 28 years as a public service worker David was essentially forced out. I ask if this was something that he was aware of happening elsewhere.
“Across the board in the state and public service sector, yes, that was the trend.” He answers. “To cut positions and give the workload to fewer people and increase the workload on those that remain… People are just struggling, they’re like hamsters on a wheel just running in circles trying to keep up but falling forever behind.”
This drive toward austerity has had devastating consequences:
“An example would be child protective services, funded at what they call ’60% of need’. They would do research and say, ‘here’s how many child protective services workers are needed in the state, we’re only going to fund 60% of them.’ So you had people really not being able to effectively complete all the work they were supposed to be doing. So you had children not being protected as they should have been.”
The pain wasn’t just confined to the public sector, either:
“As far as the private sector goes that definitely was going on as well as you saw administrator and executive salaries going up. Just enormous salaries, executives retiring from major corporations and they would get a golden parachute of $200million to $400million, just outrageous amounts of money. At the same time there were cutbacks for private sector employees and their workload was increasing and there was downward pressure on wages that went on”.
The consequences of these cutbacks are visible in the very fabric of the state, David says. “You can see it in the infrastructure. The roads don’t get repaired. They don’t get maintained. Bridges are crumbling.” As a state, he goes on to say, Michigan “has some of the worst roads in the country.”
Then there are other areas of infrastructure where maintenance can be a life or death matter, yet work still doesn’t get done. “Only if a bridge is in danger of falling down do they take a look at repairing it.” He tells me. “They’ve built those bridges with a life span of 20 years and some of them are 30 or 40 years old and it’s very worrisome.”
Hearing this, I’m reminded of a spat between Trump and Clinton during the campaign trail in Michigan. Speaking in Detroit, Trump described the city as a “living, breathing example of my opponent’s failed economic agenda.” and added “We’re becoming a third world country”. A week later, speaking from the same city during a rare appearance in the state, Clinton derided her opponent’s comments and retorted that he was “missing so much about what makes Michigan great.”
But listening to David speak, it’s hard to see how people would have agreed with Clinton’s assessment. It didn’t matter that so many of the issues David describes are a result of decisions made by Republican lawmakers, Trump did everything he could to make it look like he was standing outside of this swamp. Clinton couldn’t do that. After all, she had been in government for years. And it wasn’t good enough to say that she hadn’t been primarily responsible. That wasn’t the point. Rather, it was that she seemed a willing accomplice when for many, rightly or wrongly; the Democrats were supposed to offer a certain degree of protection.
This was brought home when we were discussing education.
David tells me that things started going downhill with education under the governorship of Republican John Engler, whose tenure of Michigan spanned from 1991 to 2002. “He began attacking education and cutting education” David says. “Then [Jennifer] Granholme followed him. She was Democrat and she didn’t restore a lot the cuts but education was more stable under her governorship”. Despite this however, David says that both Republican and Democrat dramatically attacked teacher retirement funds:
“Engler and Granholm pulled hundreds of millions of dollars out of the teacher retirement system that was never replaced, and they did that to balance the state budgets. That was money that was contributed by the employees and by the employers … but they pulled this money out of the retirement programme that was for teachers. Now teachers are getting older and retiring and the state is saying, ‘well, we just can’t afford to pay retirement costs for teachers so we’ve got to cut back on retirement programmes, current and future’, whereas if they had left the money alone that workers had contributed to the programmes then the programmes would be solvent!”
This whole situation seems so crazy because it is. There is no decent logic that can explain how a pension raid of this nature can bring anything other than misery and chaos for the majority of people. Yet it was undertaken not just by the right, but also by those who were supposed to be on the opposite side.
Since 2011, education has deteriorated further with the arrival of Rick Snyder, the Republican who is still governor today. “They’re spending less on education than they were 8 years ago so that has had a dramatic effect” David tells me. “It has hit education across the board and at the same time they require more of a teacher when there are fewer teachers to carry the load. And they do more testing to prove their doing good teaching”. He says that out of a total of 186 school days, Michigan students spend around 21 of those just doing tests, an unprecedented figure.
Given this situation, it should be of no surprise that one of the groups most enthusiastic about Sanders, David tells me, was teachers, the very people whose pensions had been raided by successive state administrations. And they weren’t the only ones who were drawn to a message that broke from this failed model. “[Bernie] was a grassroots favourite of working people, of the rainbow coalition, certainly young people, college students, maybe first time voters but certainly working people.” David recalls.
He says that of these Sanders voters, however, “many did not vote after he lost the nomination and many more voted a third party. That helped Trump get elected because they were disillusioned that the popular candidate didn’t get the nomination.”
Part of that disillusionment may have come not just from Clinton herself, but also the fact that she drew in support from other parts of a failed political establishment. One of her biggest supporters from the outset was ex-Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm who, as noted, took money from the teacher retirement fund. Granholm was touted to get a good job if Clinton got elected and was even referred to as her surrogate.
But when Sanders won the primary in Michigan, Granholm compared him to the republican Ted Cruz on account of him being overly dogmatic in his principles. “They are the problem”, she declared. Clinton, however, was apparently less partisan and therefore able to get deals done. But the problem wasn’t that people didn’t think she could do deal; it was the deal itself.
This approach seems to sum up some of the thinking in camp Clinton. Where they might have calculated that a figure like Granholm would have the rust belt vote tied up on account of her having previously held office in Michigan, it turned out not to be the case. And far from Bernie Sanders’ strong principles being seen as a ‘problem’, as Granholm made out, they were actually one of the things that attracted people most about him.
“Sanders was a clear popular representative of working people [and the] lower economic class”, David says. “He has stood by workers consistently. He is an authentic person who believes we need to raise wages. He was in favour of enormous infrastructure building and was prepared to go into a great amount of debt to do that.”
Getting into debt via public spending has long been seen as a political no-go for politicians associated with the left. Indeed, it quickly led to a situation where many of them simply fell in line with the idea that spending on services must be reduced. But for a lot of people, they could see the writing on the wall and Sanders’ position made sense.
This is because to most workers it was “quite clear”, according to David, that austerity wouldn’t work even on its own terms. And in truth the real cost of cuts was there for all to see, even in the most basic of provisions: roads, bridges, education, child protection and so on.
David attributes so much of this situation to the dominance that the right have over politics. It is a dominance which has often been reinforced by the absence of strong opposition, but it doesn’t come from nowhere. The assault on working people which David describes is coupled with deep levels of political corruption.
One aspect of this can be witnessed in something that’s been happening for years: Republican Gerrymandering of the state. “If you look at the state house districts and the congressional districts around Michigan, it looks like a winding river.” He says. “It goes round certain areas and takes an S curve and goes out and picks up candidates and isolates them in Republican strongholds across the states. Gerrymandering is a big problem”.
On top of this, there has been a “huge influx of dark money and corporate money,” David tells me. “[This] has influenced elections and you have a corporate autocracy taking over instead of having government of the people by the people. It’s government of and by corporations.”
An understandable sense of demoralisation creeps into his voice when talking about the stranglehold the right have over politics. Despite the obvious and widely felt failures of the system to deliver, things don’t seem to change. When a credible alternative is put forward, though, attitudes do begin to shift.
“Politicians are bought and paid for by lobbyists”, David explains, “and when you get a rare one like Bernie Sanders people gravitate towards that because they know he can’t be bought because he does not accept money from lobbyists or big corporations or anything like that. He puts it right out there who gives him his money and there’s no dark money.”
This was a huge part of the reason why Sanders was able to convince people that he meant it when he took on Wall St or the water crisis in nearby Flint. He clearly wasn’t a fake. Where others had fallen in behind the free market doctrine, his opposition was consistent. The fact that he also stood outside the swamp of political corruption simply reinforced this. And yes, of course it was about him as a person but that ‘rockstar’ status was deeply political.
It was this that helped create a movement which was serious and hopeful about creating political change. As David went on to explain, people began to feel powerful enough to overcome what seemed like immovable domination by the right. But when Sanders lost the nomination, that movement was set back and the political fallout had devastating consequences.
Part 3: Hearts and Minds: Bernie Vs Clinton and Trump.
When I ask David whether or not he believes there is a correlation between the long assault on workers, which has greatly accelerated since 2008, and what happened in the US election, his answer is clear:
“Oh, I have no doubt that the two are related”, he says, explaining that people were attracted to Bernie’s radicalism precisely because it promised genuine change. “There are a group of people who believe in the message Sanders is bringing and they voted heavily for him.”
On the flip side, Trump pounded away at Hillary’s record which was laced with policies that had done real damage to ordinary people.
From the start, Sanders’ primary run signalled a major change in US politics and according to David, this propelled the disenfranchised and the young to mobilise. “When people took a look at Bernie Sanders they said this guy is so authentic and thought they wanted to be represented by him.” He says.
This managed to break through the political alienation experienced by many:
“They certainly were excited and people who had never been involved in politics before went to rallies, particularly young people, college students and others who were not college students. He got them politically energised.”
But this enthusiasm for Bernie wasn’t just something which played out amongst the young and disenfranchised.
“He brought together widely divergent groups”, David says. “[They] said ‘here’s somebody who actually wants to and does represent us’, and he has that history in the United States senate for a long time of actually being a people’s candidate.”
Political integrity of this kind was also a big factor in getting support from workers, according to David:
“For years [Bernie] has been an honest, forthright and consistent advocate for the issues of working people. His record is very transparent. He’s one of two senators who did not accept lobbying funds. Compare him to someone like Mitch McConnell who in a few short years made $24million from contributions from lobbyists. Bernie Sanders took not one single dollar from lobbyists so he was honest to begin with and he had a history of speaking directly to issues involving wages, working conditions, healthcare, everything labour stands for.”
Unfortunately, it didn’t last. On June 7th, after an incredible run that had drawn in huge support through its radical, anti-capitalist challenge to US society, Sanders’ candidacy came to an end. Following big wins in the California, New Mexico and New Jersey primaries Clinton declared victory. As the New York Times reported, she quickly addressed Bernie’s base, and urged it to unite with her against Trump. What Clinton didn’t seem to understand, however, was the level of bitterness felt by those who she was now demanding support from.
“When all of that crashed and burned”, David tells me, “many [Sanders supporters] threw up their hands and said ‘well it’s just not worth it’, and they stayed home or they voted for third party candidates.”
“I can think of union members”, he says, “who worked in industry and the chemical industry, had years of experience. Really there was strong support [for Sanders]. A majority I would say of working union members initially supported Sanders, but then when Sanders lost the nomination they walked around saying they weren’t going to vote.”
Why did they not want to vote, I ask?
“Well they felt that both Trump and Clinton were tied in with the corporations and Wall St and a quagmire of government”, he responds. “They said if neither party can put forward a decent candidate it’s hopeless to vote. That was sort of a protest. ‘I won’t vote at all because no one is appealing to the workers’.” “Thinking of someone in particular”, he recalls “a union leader, wasn’t gonna vote and after a few months came around and certainly realised that not voting was not productive but he was just disillusioned.”
David had many discussions like this. Another was with a worker who, like many others, didn’t trust Clinton’s connection to damaging free trade deals:
“I can think of a 65 year old union worker in the chemical industry who was a strong Sanders supporter and was from the get go. And that one person, when Sanders lost the nomination, they swore he wasn’t going to vote for Clinton but ended up changing his mind and voting.”
I ask David: What put this particular person off Clinton?
“Well he did not like Clinton for several reasons” he says, “specifically including her stance on the TPP and NAFTA. Bill Clinton was responsible for instituting NAFTA and that stuck to Hillary. That turned a lot of working people off, that Bill Clinton / NAFTA association. NAFTA was estimated to have lost upwards of 5 million jobs in the United States that went to Mexico and some of them to Canada. So that association with NAFTA was a problem for this person and for Hillary’s campaign.”
“And the Trump organisation”, David says “kept pounding away on that: ‘Bill Clinton signed NAFTA! Bill Clinton’s responsible for the loss of millions of jobs! Hillary was responsible for initially supporting the TTP and then doing an about face!’”
This tactic of the Trump campaign, to hammer Clinton on an issue that was already of genuine concern to workers, coupled with his promise on jobs, did apparently have the effect of not only convincing some of them to stay at home but also to vote for him.
“I can think of union members who were strongly supportive of Sanders and when he didn’t get the nomination, they voted for Trump!” David says, raising his voice in exasperation. “Trump successfully portrayed Hillary as lying Hillary and that sort of thing and tied it to Wall St and getting $200,000 a shot to speak to Wall St Officials. So they did a complete reversal. They went from Sanders to Trump. And working people, union members!”
To highlight how far this sometimes went, David recounts a story of a union leader of a large workplace who enthusiastically backed Trump to the extent that he had a big ‘Vote Trump’ sign on his front lawn. I don’t think this particular person hadn’t been a Sanders voter, but I ask how many workers who had been excited by Sanders ended up voting Republican. “There was quite a number of them.” He tells me. “I don’t have a handle on how many because I don’t know how everyone voted but certainly a third or more of good working union members voted for Trump and some were Sanders supporters.”
The ‘widely divergent’ groups that had been brought together under Sanders got broken up and scattered across the political landscape.
I try to do some digging on these disillusioned voters in general, and ask what role racism played in whether or not they voted for Trump:
“There were some who didn’t vote for him because of his racism and others who were attracted to him because of that. He exposed this nasty underbelly of racism in America and brought it to the forefront and some people came out and voted who hadn’t voted for a long time. They came out and voted for him because they liked the message they were hearing. This white supremacist underbelly I would have to call it.”
There were also those, he says, who told him they didn’t like Trump because of his racism and misogyny but still voted for him over Clinton.
We moved onto the subject of immigration and specifically what prominence it had in the election and general level of political discourse. “People do talk about immigration as an issue” David says, adding that these people tend to be the loudest voices. “If I just had to say off the top of my head I would say maybe 51% are against immigration and the rest are somewhat quieter in support immigration, but it is such a hot button issue they’re less outspoken.”
Whether or not immigration really is opposed by this percentage of people is not something that can be easily verified, but the fact that David guesses it‘s this high indicates that like elsewhere, it has become an overbearing feature of the political environment.
David says that within this group of people who are vocally opposed to immigration there were some strong Bernie Sanders supporters. At this point, I recall to him a powerful video Sanders’ team produced that championed the cause of migrant workers in Florida, so I ask: How could these people square opposition to immigration with support for a candidate like Sanders who was a strong advocate for migrant workers?
“Bernie Sanders was able to champion the cause for immigration and part of it I think may have been that he was for organising immigrants” David says, and compares his approach to that of Caesar Chavez, the legendary labour activist who organised mainly migrant agricultural workers across the US. Interestingly, it’s Sanders’ approach to improving migrant worker rights and organising that apparently encourages some immigration sceptics to support him:
“Bernie Sanders was all about improving working conditions for immigrants and for everyone so I think it was palatable to people that if Bernie is saying this then it’s something we should take a look at… He was for people, for all working people whether they were immigrants or whether they were citizens and I think that gave him a lot of credit. People said if Bernie’s talking about it then it’s something I need to take a look at and think about because he was able to pull people along with his credibility.”
What’s interesting about this is how it seems to relate back to issue of political trust. It’s not that people were so enamoured with Bernie that they just went along with everything he said. It’s not really about him personally, important though that is. What’s striking is that when a viable position is put forward, one which focuses around the common elements of working class struggle (e.g. the need for better pay), it resonates and cuts through the idea that immigration is a problem. It is firmly rooted in the notion of solidarity and focuses on winning people round with a united, class based argument. Because of this, David says, people saw no contradiction in Sanders’ desire to raise migrant worker wages with his commitment to non-migrant workers. Instead, it was only via a dedication to all workers that he was able to ‘pull people along’ and win the argument.
At the time, this message was coming from Bernie Sanders who was leading a fierce, growing movement that looked credible. However, it didn’t have to come from Bernie. It could have come from a leader of a union, a different political movement or even a new political party. The point is that it started from a position of solidarity and it was viable.
With this in mind, it should be of little surprise that when Sanders lost the nomination, these achievements started to come undone. Where that movement had won people over, Clinton’s campaign, and the way she won the nomination, made them turn away.
“I would say without question there was anger towards the Democratic establishment.” David says. This was made worse, he tells me, when it emerged that the Democratic National Committee was working in favour of Clinton. “That was a key moment, a breaking point. People said ‘look, we’ve got a Democratic National Committee that is supposed to be unbiased. They’re supposed to accept the will of the people!’ And when it showed there was behind the scenes [action] trying to stack the deck for Clinton, that infuriated people!”
Several times during our conversations, David raises the fact that Trump really went to town on Clinton’s weaknesses. In highlighting these, in areas where Sanders had been very strong, such as jobs, Trump was more able to try and fill that space. One of these areas was free trade, particularly TPP and NAFTA which had been signed by Bill Clinton:
“I think they [workers] expected that [Clinton] was not a supporter of labour where they thought Trump was going to be a big supporter of labour. In fact the opposite is true.”
David’s account of this creating a limited amount of support for Trump among people who weren’t traditional Republicans is hard to pick up in the voting data of Central Michigan. It can, however, be seen in some national exit polling which shows a slight reconstitution of the Republican base. But the biggest factor in the election, as David points out, was probably those people “who just stayed home and didn’t vote.”
In the end, Trump narrowly won Michigan by just 10,704 votes, a painfully narrow margin. It is so tantalisingly small that it’s tempting to think that even a minor shift could have changed the final result: a fifth of Jill Stein voter switching to Clinton perhaps or, more convincingly, less voter ineligibility in Detroit. There are other ‘if only’ scenarios, many of them entirely valid. But no reason for Trump’s ultimate victory in Michigan is as glaring as the vote received by his rival.
Hillary Clinton haemorrhaged almost 300,000 votes from Obama’s score in 2012 whereas Trump gained just over half that number, 164,287, from Mitt Romney. In other words, Clinton lost more than Trump won.
Part 4: The aftermath and the resistance
On the night of the election, David was with friends, fellow labour activists and others in his local union hall. They had all gathered together to watch Trump get beat. But as the results came in, and events dramatically began to turn in Trump’s favour, he remembers how a sense of ‘anxiety, desperation and disbelief’ took over the room.
“We had said that we would keep things open and up and running until midnight.” He recalls. “And we still had people there at 1.00am just staring in disbelief at the TV screen and they didn’t want to go. I think they would have stayed until the next day. Just absolute despair. It was a horrible thing to watch happening and then to see the effect on the people. The depression was quite incredible, the disbelief.”
David himself experienced a “wave of dread and depression” following the shock of Trump’s victory. “It is never ending. It is day in, day out.” He tells me. We were speaking shortly after Trump’s inauguration, the week where the executive orders were coming in thick and fast. “There’s something new that happens every day to just confirm our feeling of doom and devastation of everything that we’ve worked for all of our lives.” He says.
“Right now, my wife and I are living on social security, pensions and Medicare healthcare. If they take away all those things, we could end up having nothing. Literally nothing”
This feeling of dread spread itself across the entire world as the reality of Trump’s presidency suddenly became real. In Central Michigan, where like David many people were under direct threat from Trump, the shock was particularly acute.
Infact it was so widespread that even a subset of his own voters were worried. “I can tell you that there are people who voted for him” David explains, “who are already seeing that he doesn’t stand for what he spoke for.”
I ask David how he knows that some Trump voters are feeling this way. “Personal contacts, quiet conversations, observations, a comment here or there.” Is his response. “They don’t come out and say ‘oh I really screwed up’, but it’s easy to pick up subtleties.”
“I think they thought a big part of it was a promise to create jobs and to end the TPP.” He explains “They heard jobs, jobs, jobs and now they’re seeing everything else that’s going on like the cuts to healthcare and benefits and all of that and they feel like they’ve been sucker punched.”
At the time of this specific conversation, rueful Trump voters were of little comfort to David who was in a state of self-confessed despair. He was also keen to point out that this phenomenon was on the fringes, most people did not regret their decision to support Trump.
One thing that did break the feeling of doom, however, was the women’s marches that took place immediately after Trump’s inauguration. David informs me that demonstrations went on all over Michigan and even in some of the smaller cities. This provided some much needed optimism but it was also the internationalism of the day that grabbed people’s attention. “The fact that they happened all over the world, I thought that unity lifted people’s spirits and gave them hope.” He says, speaking shortly after the event. “That euphoria is still quite evident on social media and people are proud of the turnout and that kind of thing and now they are working to organise that into a living, breathing model of social change.”
He explains how the more vocal Trump supporters reacted: “The other side is laughing and joking and calling them pansies and that kind of thing, criticising them, so there’s that also. But a lot of people have felt empowered.”
When we talk around a month later, the situation has changed. There is still a level of demoralisation that David talks about, but opposition to Trump on the ground has increased.
I ask if there has been much resistance since the inauguration. “Oh yes there’s been a lot of activity.” He replies. “There have been thousands of people in this area trying to see their congressional representative, [Republican] John Moolenaar.”
“Hundreds of people are turning up for town hall meetings and he doesn’t attend. He sends a surrogate who just simply listens to questions and reports back.”
We were talking as Trump was gearing up to repeal the Affordable Care Act and people were angry. “All over the United States, there are republican congressional representatives who are not showing up to town hall meetings. They are afraid to go.” David says. In Central Michigan, I’m informed that this kind of activity hasn’t only taken place in the cities of Mount Pleasant and Midland, but even in villages such as Shepherd (population 1500).
“I recall the first meeting I went to.” David tells me. “The room was packed. Normally it would hold 50 people and there were 100 or so in there.” The main issues, he says “were healthcare and women’s healthcare, that certainly was a huge issue, a lot of questions about that.”
Trump’s cabinet appointees were causing anger, too.
“There are issues around spending for public education.” David says. “The naming of Betsy Devos as national Education Secretary, that was an atrocity and people are still up in arms over that.”
The response of local Republican representatives to this anger has mainly been to go into hiding. But that seems to have only encouraged people to keep protesting.
“[People] want a voice and they are writing to their congressman, they’re emailing them; they’re calling like never before.” David tells me. “That is just something I have never seen at this level, just continuously pounding away and letting them know that they are not happy with Trump’s policies and they are not happy with Republican proposals. I think that is the most positive thing I have seen since the election is the involvement at a grassroots level in political activism.”
There is also something that seems to have happened to Trump’s supporters. Whereas before David said they were mocking the opposition as ‘pansies’, they now appear less confident.
“They are very few”, David says, talking about Trump voters who attend the town hall meetings, “but definitely a minority and a quiet minority because the meetings are so vocal they are vastly outnumbered. Although there are some, probably most, of the people who voted Trump still supporting him, they are not willing to do it loudly and publicly because there is such a hue and cry by the public against what’s going on.”
This hue and cry, as David puts it, was heard all the way to Washington DC. On March 24th, Trump was forced to abandon his plans to repeal Obama’s health legislation. The Washington Post described is as “a dramatic defeat for President Trump and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan that leaves a major campaign promise unfulfilled and casts doubt on the Republican Party’s ability to govern.”
I spoke to David in the week after this happened, and he was very clear about what was behind Trump’s decision to pull back. “They realised that it would be disastrous,” he says, “that it wouldn’t pass and they would have egg on their face because there was just too much pressure in the home districts of these [Republican] representatives” This time the mood where David is has changed again, from despair to cautious optimism. The optimism comes from people feeling they have scored a major victory and are sensing their own power. The caution comes from the fact that they know there are major battles ahead, not least with healthcare itself.
“What they’re doing now”, David says, “is trying to repeal [Medicaid] piece by piece.” This refers to the fact that following the defeat of the healthcare bill, the US Senate decided to allow individual states to defund clinics that perform abortions. In other words, the Republicans were forced to attack healthcare in much more piecemeal way than before. The threat is very serious though, and David outlines what it would mean if states were to defund these clinics:
“It effectively denies care to a lot of women, particularly poor women in rural areas where the only healthcare they ever received was at one of these clinics. And the Republicans like to call them abortion clinics but abortions typically are about 1% of the healthcare they provide for these women. They do examinations, they do cancer screenings, they do counselling, they do all sorts of things. Poor women can go these clinics and get the healthcare that otherwise is not accessible to them or they can’t afford but it’s the only thing they were getting and now individual states can take that away so it’s gonna be a battle state by state.”
For the reasons David highlights, these clinics won’t be easy to take away and state administrations face fierce resistance if they try to do so. The same goes for Medicaid expansion, which is also under threat. “One problem that republicans are gonna run in to”, David tells me, “is that I believe there are about 37 states now that have Medicaid expansion and many of them, infact the majority of them, that added Medicaid expansion were Republican led states.”
“Michigan is a good example.” He explains. “Michigan expanded Medicaid under affordable care and there are about 640,000 people who are newly insured because of Medicaid expansion. These are all adults who didn’t have access to health insurance. They’re low income adults and they weren’t provided healthcare through their workplace but they were able to sign on in their low income status and get healthcare for the first time in their lives.”
It was Michigan’s Republican governor, David says, who twisted the arm of the state legislature into going with Medicaid expansion in the first place.
You’d assume that this would make it almost impossible for the state to repeal it, but that hasn’t stopped people rising up against the threat of it happening. “[People are] getting wise to the fact that they actually have a piece of affordable healthcare and they don’t want to lose it.” He tells me. “In just the few months since the election, a lot of education has been going on even by Republicans, from the Governor’s office down, who are saying: ‘we don’t want to lose this.’”
Even in one county in the less populated area of Central Michigan, the effects of this would be widely felt:
“I think in Isabella County there are about 6,500 newly insured people under Medicaid expansion. These are adults who previously did not have healthcare so that’s a pretty good size voting bock in individual counties and in individual states of people who would be furious if they suddenly lost their healthcare, so republicans are going to have to deal with that if indeed they do all this cutting. They’re facing midterm elections in 2018 and I think they are reluctant and certainly their local leadership is reluctant to have to explain this to people.”
Infact, local Republican representatives are in no mood to explain anything. Some have virtually gone into hiding and people aren’t waiting until midterm elections to protest at what is happening.
“Town hall meetings are ongoing.” David tells me. “There is grassroots participation in political activity like there has never been before and that’s everywhere around this state and I think around the country.”
In Central Michigan alone, there has been a surge in political activism since the election:
“We have town hall meetings in Isabella County, in Midland County, Clare County. They used to be attended by one or two people who might show and have a few questions, and now they’re attended by one or two hundred at a time and the representatives don’t quite know what to do with all this but they are very much on the alert and paying attention to it.”
And these town hall meetings are not just an opportunity to protest, they are also being used to organise. Numbers are exchanged, contacts swapped and opposition groups built in what was once Republican territory. Women, who are being viciously attacked by Trump, are very much at the forefront of this movement.
“People are realising they have some political clout.” David says. “There’s a group called W.O.M.A.N [Women of Michigan Action Network] that’s started up here in central Michigan. And that’s growing very rapidly, they probably have 1500 members already and they just started up a few weeks ago! But they are politically active and there are several groups like them in Michigan. [In central Michigan] it was pretty much politically silent, now there are tens of thousands of people who attend these meeting regularly and many of them are involved in several groups.”
David explains that even though W.O.M.A.N is led by women, it is also open for men to join on the basis that the issues affecting women, such as the removal of healthcare “also can be men’s issues as well.” Their Facebook page confirms this, saying that the group was “formed in response to the election of Donald Trump to resist the misogynistic, xenophobic, and racist rhetoric and policy direction.” And it is “open to anyone, male or female, who is an ally and who wants to work to affirm and promote the dignity and respect of all people, along with equal economic opportunity for all people.”
This growing coalition, which also includes, in David’s words, “pastors of churches, local democratic activists, teachers… retirees”, have a sense of their own power following Trump’s decision to pull the healthcare bill.
“They feel that showed that the grassroots efforts are important,” he tells me, “but they do that with the caution that we’re not out of the woods yet.” Far from tiring however, people are gearing up for the next battle. “I don’t see people letting down.” He says “I see the momentum building for opposition to the Trump policies and the Republican policies.”
David says that Bernie Sanders still plays a very important role in the movement. But when I ask him if there is a leader to the anti-Trump activity, he opts instead to talk about his union, the AFL-CIO, saying that they are helping to co-ordinate activity nationwide. While this is crucial in itself, it seems that there is not really a clear leadership like there was when Sanders was running in the Primaries. Instead people are taking things into their own hands and organising themselves. “[You see] people standing outside the offices of their legislators, congressmen, picketing, going to their offices, calling, making ten thousand phone calls until the voicemails are overloaded.” He explains. “That is just ongoing across the country.”
An effect of this has been to almost neutralise Trump supporters, to the extent that even though they sometimes show up to a town hall meeting, they “tend to be very quiet because they’re outnumbered about 50 to 1.”
A similar thing has happened to the local Republican House Representative, John Moolenaar, who has disappeared. “He has not personally shown up for a town hall meeting since the election.” David tells me.
“There are representatives and senators around the country that have done that.”
“Certainly no one has been injured or anything, sometimes people shout and they’re angry and they have a lot of emotion but it’s not a dangerous situation. John Moolenaar has been perceived as a coward for not showing up and listening to people. He has said that he would meet with one or two people individually and talk but that’s about all he wants to handle at this point. But I can tell you, he gets thousands of letters, and emails and phone calls.”
The political lifespan of this particular Republican doesn’t seem like it’ll run much longer. “He’ll be up [for re-election] in 2018. We’re already working to get people to run against him and he’s aware of that.”
Being a Democrat, David is fighting for candidate selections that are on the left and who stand up for women’s rights, healthcare and labour issues. When I put to him the prospect of Clinton running again, he informs me that he’s already talked to local party officials to say how bad an idea that would be.
In the political fervent atmosphere he describes in this area of Michigan, it’s not hard to see why. Any party wanting to do well against Trump needs to relate to what is happening on the ground, and that goes way beyond anything Clinton has to offer. But it goes beyond elections; people are not sitting around waiting to vote. They are getting active in huge numbers and creating a level of politically activity not witnessed here in decades or more.
Where this goes is impossible to say, but right now it is clearly a force to be reckoned with and one that has started to understand what it can achieve. And for the time being, it is a huge and welcome relief following Trump’s victory.
The last question I ask David, who spoke of absolute despair following the election, is a fairly crude one: since the election, has politics in Michigan moved more to the left or to the right?
“Well I think the debate has shifted more to the left.” He responds. “Certainly those on the right have become very quiet.” This is a far cry from the noisy, bigoted campaign ran by Donald Trump in the state. It has not come about through coincidence however, but by people responding to this enormous threat by putting themselves at the forefront of the political landscape and fighting as if they could win.
Each time David expresses confidence about the current balance of forces, he is quick to temper it with the caveat that there is a very long way to go. The biggest battles are still ahead. But far from the right just running riot, they are being met at every turn by a large level of resistance. This means that the future is very much up for grabs, and will be determined by the actions of ordinary people in Central Michigan and beyond.
As David says: “They are not letting go. They are not giving up.”