Here’s what life is like in a newly purple state
On Tuesday morning, I got up early and scoured the morning news coverage, including listening to several Republican analysts who talked about the spanking Trump was about to get, given his terribly managed campaign. A few pundits even suggested that by the end of the day, we’d find out that Trump had single-handedly killed the GOP, and with a recent influx of diverse voters, they may never get it back. Feeling confident, my husband and I cast our ballots for Hillary Clinton by 8 a.m. Voting in the presidential election is always a big deal for us, and we always go together.
Our polling place in Lansing, just a five-minute walk from the state Capitol building, is a stone’s throw away from the spot that used to be known as Fisher Body, one of the largest General Motors plants—now a leveled, fenced-up field. But that isn’t the whole story about Michigan. Go five minutes in another direction and you’ll find a different General Motors plant that spits out new cars every day. Twenty more minutes, and you’ll end up on the Michigan State University campus.
[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]Democrats have not lost a presidential election in Michigan since 1988.[/quote]
The atmosphere had shifted in that repurposed community center/gym since we'd voted there four years ago, and even more since 2008, when it took us two hours to get through the line to vote for our first black president. Back then, it seemed everyone who’d turned out to vote wanted to talk to each other—I suppose we knew we were making history. On Tuesday, my husband and I were in and out in less than 30 minutes. We spotted a few women wearing pantsuits, presumably in support of our Democratic nominee, and though I thought I sensed a tinge of hope, the vibe was mostly tense.
I think the long, hard campaign had taken its toll on all of us. By the time I got home, I was overwhelmed and spent the rest of the day in bed—no television, no social media. I couldn’t take the talking heads and speculation anymore, so I decided to bypass the intense ups and downs of the night entirely. When I woke up Wednesday morning, Hillary Clinton had already conceded the election to Donald Trump in a phone call. I didn’t see that coming. The votes in Michigan were still being counted, though eventually my state went for Trump. I didn’t see that coming either.
I’m not alone, of course. What happened in Michigan was arguably the biggest upset of the 2016 election. Democrats have not lost a presidential election in the state since 1988. Not even Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who was born here and whose father George served as Michigan’s Governor from 1963-1969, could win the Great Lakes state in 2012. Two weeks ago, Clinton had a double-digit lead among all Michigan voters. By Tuesday, that lead had been obliterated. About 48 percent of Michigan voters went with Trump; Clinton pulled in only 47 percent of the popular vote. Our whole pot of 16 electoral votes will go to Trump.
It’s tempting to try to pinpoint how this happened. To try to quantify something as ineffable as a moment in a voting booth, where—as my fellow Michigander Michael Moore put it in July—“there are no security cameras, no listening devices, no spouses, no kids, no boss, no cops, there’s not even a friggin’ time limit… You can push the button and vote a straight party line, or you can write in Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. There are no rules.” The Michigan unions endorsed Clinton—typically a major coup for any candidate in a state so long defined by its manufacturing jobs. But she barely won them over; contrast that with 2012, when union voters went for Obama by a sizable 18 percent. And nobody predicted so many white women would vote for Trump, in Michigan or elsewhere. Maybe pollsters weren’t talking to the right people, or they weren’t asking the right questions. Clearly, everyone missed something that had been hiding in plain sight.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]Macomb county Trump supporters told me they’d been forgotten by the rest of the country—including me, a black woman.[/quote]
Including me. All of my friends were for Clinton, at least as far as I knew. In my neighborhood, I haven’t seen a single Trump sign throughout the election. But take a short drive into Northern Michigan, and you’d see the signs everywhere. It was wrong of me—and the rest of us—to discount the power of the voters in the Upper Peninsula, which is very rural and has been deeply Republican for as long as I can remember. Yet even the Detroit metro area was no longer a Democratic firewall. Sure, in Wayne county, you’ll find a lot of black voters and progressive whites; Oakland county tends to be a mixed bag of white collar, well-educated voters. Then there’s Macomb county.
I’ve been there many times, and I can tell you it’s a hot spot for angry, blue collar white people who say they have been “displaced” since Obama has been in office; they feel “unheard.” Many have lost their jobs and say they’re still experiencing the full heat of the housing crisis, years after it supposedly bounced back. Many of the county’s white men are addicted to heroin or other opioids. Before the election, I literally broke my molars grinding my teeth while talking to a few of these Macomb Trump supporters for a larger series of interviews I’d taken on. They told me they were attracted to Trump’s promises to kill free trade agreements, and that they’d been forgotten by the rest of the country—including people like me, a black woman.
At the time, I convinced myself these outspoken people were outliers. But they weren’t—or if they were, no one had anticipated their enthusiasm. The number of Macomb county voters jumped by more than 14,000 over 2012. I didn’t listen to them, or to the many entrepreneurs in my social circle who’d started their own businesses after being laid off in the wake of the 2009 recession. Overwhelmingly, these small business owners get their insurance through the Affordable Care Act (which Trump has promised he'll repeal in his first 100 days). Premiums have been skyrocketing in recent months, and many people I know have admitted that this would be reason enough to vote for Trump. So over the past couple of days, I’ve been reaching out to as many friends and distant acquaintances* as possible, trying to suss out how we ended up so surprised on Wednesday morning. Have I been living in Trumpland this whole time, and I just didn’t notice it?
I talked to a friend of mine, an Oakland-based 40-year old web designer and registered Democrat who comes from a family of Republicans. Last week, she’d complained about the ACA after she received a notification that her premiums had doubled. But she said she hadn’t voted for Trump, and told me that “even though [the costs are] really high, I won’t have anything if it goes away.” A 38-year-old black single father of four in Detroit who doesn’t have employer-sponsored healthcare fretted to me about his kids. He asked me, “Do you think that they can just wipe out all of our care?” As of last February, over 341,000 Michigan citizens either enrolled or re-enrolled in the Marketplace for health insurance coverage. Nearly 120,000 of them are under age 35.
For months, I’ve been looking forward to a same-sex wedding taking place this winter, where I would be working as the couple’s photographer. Now that Trump is our President-Elect, they’ve moved up their wedding date in case they won’t be able to get married once he takes office. Another young woman who recently came to her family asked me, “Will it even be safe to be openly gay here anymore?” Another woman in her 30s that I know was emboldened to come out to her family yesterday. “It was hard, but important to be heard and seen.” She said that as scared she is, she feels that this is a way for her to be brave and take action after the election.
Michigan’s population of Arab-American immigrants is second only to California. My immigrant friends are worried about what the election means for them and their families. I checked in with a federally qualified health center in my region of Michigan that provides services to a large community of Latino and Arab immigrants; one of the counselors there told me that since Tuesday, they’ve had to double up on staffers to take calls because they’ve been bombarded with questions about what might happen if they end up being deported. “I don’t have answers for them,” she said.
On Monday, Michigan wasn’t Trumpland; it wasn’t on Tuesday, and it isn’t today, either. But it’s clear that the Great Lakes State is deeply purple, and neither the blue half nor the red half are making efforts to reach out to the other side. We should have paid more attention to the fact that Senator Bernie Sanders beat Clinton here in the primaries. She just didn’t inspire enough people to vote for her. I wish I could turn this into a mathematical equation: Solve for X and understand exactly what she wasn’t delivering.
This morning, I haven’t been able to shake the words of a middle school teacher who told me that she is “really worried for everyone if [Trump] does all the hateful things he says.” For Lansing residents devastated by Tuesday’s results, at least we’ll have a place to gather and remind ourselves that Clinton supporters aren’t exactly a tiny minority of the electorate: Michigan State University, which is holding a series of events to address concerns about an increasingly dangerous climate on campus and across the state.