‘Donald is one of us, not like Hillary’: Why Rust Belt voters abandoned Clinton for Trump

, Michigan — There’s a full-faced grin busting out between his Make America Great Again cap and his I’m a Hillary Deplorable T-shirt as Edward Leonard finishes off a celebratory lunch after Donald Trump’s surprise win.

Diners cheer the 67-year-old on as he walks through the popular Wildfire Cafe in Township, one of a constellation of cities, townships and villages that makes up Michigan’s Macomb County.

Leonard is mighty pleased.

“I’m not a Republican. I voted for a Democrat before and I voted for a Republican before — and they both lied to me. All a bunch of liars,” Leonard said. “This is the first time I really feel a candidate is telling me the truth. Trump always seemed to tell the truth, to tell it like it is. He’s not a politician.

Adrian Humphreys/National Post
Adrian /National PostEdward Leonard: “This is the first time I really feel a candidate is telling me the truth.”

“America has declined. We have declined in the way the world treats us. In trade agreements we’re treated unfairly. With him in there negotiating for us, America will be great again.”

Whether Leonard knows it or not, his grin and impassioned support for a man whose victory sparked protest and international ridicule makes him the face of the new American powerbroker: A working-class swing voter, feeling wronged and distrustful, deeply patriotic and worried that others are hurting his and his country’s circumstances.

Macomb County is one of those curious places where its voting patterns have been poked and prodded far out of proportion to its numerical weight.

In election terms, it’s a barometer; a battleground; a bellwether; the natural home of the Reagan Democrat, who are people like Leonard: blue-collar, white, working-class citizens not beholden to a party, when they hear a message that speaks to them.

Macomb County embraced Democrat John F. Kennedy in 1960 with 63% of its vote, making it the most Democratic suburban county in the country. Then in 1980 it handed Republican Ronald Reagan 66% of its vote, spawning the Reagan Democrat nickname.

Prominent Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg made a career out of studying Macomb County, first in 1985 when he looked into why it “helped crash the national Democratic Party” of the 1960s. He identified middle-class anger and racial frustrations.

Greenberg’s work got him hired by Bill Clinton as his presidential campaign pollster and Bill teased Macomb back to the Democrats in 1996.

Macomb voters kept throwing curve balls. Despite polls showing their unease with a black , they voted for Barack Obama, twice. It was a result that befuddled Greenberg, who declared in an editorial he was “finished with the Reagan Democrats of Macomb County” as his barometer.

Adrian Humphreys/National Post
Adrian Humphreys/National PostMacomb County is home to blue-collar, white, working-class citizens not beholden to a party, who sharply turn when they hear a message that speaks to them.

Macomb County, however, wasn’t finished.

Just as leaders as diverse as Kennedy, Reagan and Obama spoke Macomb’s language, so did Trump.

Hugging Lake St. Clair just north of Detroit, Macomb’s population of 865,000 is spread through 27 cities, townships and villages across nearly 1,500 square kilometres. It is white, more than 85% at last census, and rooted, with almost 80% born and raised in Michigan.

It has more high school graduates than the national average but fewer university graduates. The county supplies much of the land and workers that made Detroit the Motor City.

The cars and trucks that are assembled here have wide roads, enormous parking lots and neat driveways separating detached houses built in discreet residential communities. It’s an epic suburbanland dotted with historical downtowns now dwarfed by box stores.

Trump knew fertile ground when he saw it.

Trump held two large rallies in Macomb County, including a visit just three days before Election Day featuring right-wing rocker Ted Nugent.

On Tuesday, Macomb County returned the affection, making the difference in handing the state of Michigan to Trump: 53.6% voted for Trump — 224,589 votes compared with 176,241 for .

Trump took the state by just 13,000 votes.

The trend was not confined to the industrial Rust Belt. Elliott County, Kentucky, for instance, made its own remarkable swing from the Democrats — where it landed each time since 1869 — to Trump. And exit polling suggests Trump’s support was drawn at least as much from those in higher income brackets as from the working class. The dynamics of this election will be studied for years. But it was Trump’s rallies in places like Macomb that grabbed much of the attention this campaign. Filled with theatrics and fiery speeches, we learned Tuesday the crowds weren’t just curiosity seekers, they were believers.

It’s a belief they are proud of. For the residents of several Macomb communities, their trust in Trump did not seem an open embrace of racism or sexism, as Trump’s core is sometimes portrayed, although illegal immigration was a concern. Instead, they talk of fairness, a feeling they’re always getting the short end of every stick they reach for. They deride the polished political class; they fear economic erosion; and they really dislike and distrust Clinton.

Almost all of the Trump supporters interviewed praised Trump him for telling the truth — not that his words are factually correct — but rather he says what’s really on his mind. Truth as a statement of belief not accuracy. Trump says what he wants to say, voters explained, not what pollsters and bagmen tell him to say, like Clinton.

“I voted for Trump. Kind of reluctantly, I guess. I picked the lesser of two evils,” said Michael Currie, 29, a tow truck operator in Clinton Township, sitting in his flatbed outside a pizza joint on a lunch break.

“I voted for Obama before. It’s not a race thing for me. I wouldn’t mind a female president — just not a one, just not Hillary. I just liked him more than I liked her. I think they’re all a little . I think you got to be to get that far.”

Currie’s suspicions of powerbrokers makes him wary even after Trump’s win.

“There is so much we don’t know. Are we falling into what they want us to think?” he asked.

Trump as an outsider resonates.

Adrian Humphreys/National Post
Adrian Humphreys/National PostMichael Currie: “I wouldn’t mind a female president — just not a crooked one, just not Hillary.”

“The UAW (United Automobile Workers union) told us who to vote for — it’s always a Democrat — but we went totally against the union,” said retired autoworker Jan O’Connor, 75, of Clinton Township, out with her husband, Pat, who retired from a management position in the auto industry. Both .

“I voted for Trump, my whole family voted for Trump, and I’ve got a large family. I don’t know anyone who voted for Hillary,” said Jan. “Donald is one of us, not like Hillary. Yes, he has a lot of money, but he can be down to earth.”

One man shopping in Sterling Heights, who declined to give his name, laughed out loud when asked if Clinton’s celebrity endorsements influenced him.

“What do they know about me? About what I want?” he asked of the Hollywood stars and musicians backing Clinton. “They’re more out of line than the politicians. More out of touch. At least politicians pretend they want to shake my hand every four years.”

Bryant Henderson, a 36-year-old cook, said he was too busy working to vote, but would have supported Trump if he had. He said that as a black man, he knew Clinton wouldn’t win: “Going from the first black man in history to be president, and then to the first woman to be president, I think that’d be possible.”

In Mt. Clemens, a city of 17,000 that is Macomb’s county seat, the light posts in its pretty downtown are already decked out in Christmas lights and tinsel, but the lights at the Macomb County Democratic Committee office are off and the door is locked. A cluster of election signs, apparently returned by supporters, pile up by the door, as if people wanted them off their lawns.

An older woman pulls into the parking lot and asks if anyone is inside. She dropped off food for volunteers on election night and she’s come to collect the trays.

Asked about Trump’s victory she said she doesn’t think she should comment but can’t help express bewilderment with Trump’s plans: “There’s nothing there for women, nothing there for kids, nothing for education. It’s so upsetting.” Clinton supporters do exist in Macomb County.

At the Red Ox Tavern in Utica, a quiz contest was underway Wednesday night after the election, fighting for attention with basketball on a wall of flickering big screens. One of the trivia teams was called The Three Non-Trumps.

Adrian Humphreys/National Post
Adrian Humphreys/National PostBryant Henderson, 36, a cook in Macomb County, says American couldn't follow the first black president with the first woman president.

The young men who chose to fly that banner were as unapologetic with their anti-Trump display as Leonard was with his derision of Clinton.

“This is the third presidential election I’ve been old enough to vote in, and I’ve voted for both parties” said Dan Fenner, 27, a sports writer. His choice this time was not about policies or politics.

“It was on a moral and ethical level,” he said.

“I honestly didn’t think I was in the minority until election night. I knew there was a strong element of support for Trump, but I thought I had the conventional vote.”

His quiz teammate, Andrew LaTorre, 31, a teacher, said he doesn’t see a single explanation to Macomb’s choice. “You can talk to 10 different people and you might get 10 different reasons why they voted the way they did. I think maybe they felt marginalized in the current administration, on the outside looking in.

“Trump tapped into something, whether that’s his skill as a person that can talk to the people or a person who knows how to stir the pot the right way we may never know.”

LaTorre said the voters of Macomb County are quickly moving past the election. There aren’t anti-Trump protests or pro-Trump triumphalism like in some areas.

“Because, at the end of the day, they’re working-class people and they’re having a drink after work, doing their thing and it’s Wednesday now and it’s all over.”

As if to prove him wrong, a man passing the Three Non-Trumps on his way out of the bar pauses to grumble at their team name, telling them they need to get themselves better educated. They laugh.

Their candidate didn’t win the election, but they won the quiz contest.

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