In a state Trump carried by fewer than 11,000 votes, out of more than 4.5 million cast, even the smallest ripple could be enough to tip the boat. Mid-Michigan may lack the raw numbers of Grand Rapids and metro Detroit, but its political volatility is far more pronounced. Given how dramatically the region swung from 2008 to 2016, it offers an ideal case study for the two questions that will define the 2020 election: Can Trump sustain enthusiasm among rural and suburban whites? And can the Democratic nominee recover it among urban black voters?
With the Democratic primary only just kicking off, there will be plenty of time to speak with black voters about that second question. For now, I decided to start with the first. That’s how I wound up in Birch Run, a township in Saginaw County, for the Mid-Michigan Gun & Knife Show.
Michael Schenk leaned forward and lowered his voice. “Wait a minute,” he said, squinting as if he couldn’t see me standing two feet away. “You think there are Democrats”—he glanced from side to side—“here?”
I had assumed there would be. Growing up in Michigan, guns never struck me as partisan issue, at least not in the mold of taxes or abortion or labor laws. Lots of people owned them, Democrats and Republicans alike, and those who didn’t never seemed to have a problem with those who did. No successful politician that I could recall went around campaigning on gun control. But Schenk had a point. It didn’t take long inside the expo center, looking out over endless rows of firearms and ammunition boxes interrupted by Gadsden flags and Make America Great Again hats, to realize this wasn’t just a gun show. It was a tribal gathering, a reunion of right-wingers who wanted to talk and listen as much as buy and sell.
On its face, this wasn’t surprising. Some of the most prominent conservative-oriented groups in America have thrived in the post-9/11 era by fostering a notion of shared identity, none more effectively than the National Rifle Association. What was surprising, I thought while scoping out the venue, was the speed and extent to which Trump became central to that identity. In certain wings of the hall there was more MAGA merchandise for sale than weaponry: Trump shirts, Trump socks, Trump bumper stickers, Trump posters, Trump flags, Trump scarves. There was even Trump currency—his likeness on a $2020 bill.
And people were buying this stuff. Lots of it. Some of them didn’t need to: Scores of attendees, more than I could count at a certain point, came wearing a hat or a shirt supporting Trump. It reminded me of NFL fans wearing their team’s jersey to a game. I’ve long believed this president to be more of a cultural phenomenon than a political phenomenon. But it struck me today that perhaps he’s something even more. In an era when communities have been ravaged by economic displacement and technological advances, Trumpism offers a sense of fraternity, a sort of membership card to something edgier than the Knights of Columbus or the Lion’s Club. [Continue reading…]