How Trump took the Midwest: Conversations with a worker from Michigan (Part 1)

During the first few months of 2017, I 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, released in four parts.

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.

“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.

Next: Part 2, Neoliberalism and the crash of 2008.

(photo by David Koch)