On Sunday morning in northwest Detroit, a four-block-long convoy of vehicles wound its way from Liberty Temple Baptist Church to an early voting station in a nearby community centre. At this “Souls to the Polls” event, in a majority-Black area with one of the country’s highest rates of COVID-19 infection and death, many of the congregants knew people who had lost their lives. And they laid the blame squarely at the feet of U.S. President Donald Trump.
“He has caused people to die because of his attitude,” said Monique Baker McCormick, 50, who lost two cousins to the virus, one of whom spent four months on a ventilator. “He thinks it’s a joke, and he doesn’t care. He’s not concerned about the lives of others.”
At the airport in Lansing, Mich., 130 kilometres and a world away, thousands of Mr. Trump’s mostly white supporters lined up for more than two hours in drizzling Tuesday rain to see the President.
Despite a surge in COVID-19 cases in the state in recent days, most did not wear masks or keep two metres of distance. Many said they did not believe the pandemic was that bad.
Robert Cowper, a 53-year-old mail carrier from Port Huron, contended that hospitals and doctors were lying about the number of deaths. “They want to make it seem worse than it is,” he said, giving voice to an online conspiracy theory. “They’re all against Donald Trump.”
Mere days before Americans go to the polls in one of the most consequential and volatile elections in U.S. history, the opposing forces rending the country are colliding in this key swing state.
In 2016, Mr. Trump carried Michigan by one-fifth of a percentage point, the narrowest margin in the country. He did it by winning over white working-class voters, and because Black turnout fell by more than 10 percentage points from 2012.
The pandemic’s politics have been particularly caustic here.
Gun-toting protesters stormed the state legislature last spring to denounce Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order. The Republican-controlled state Supreme Court ruled Ms. Whitmer’s pandemic containment measures unconstitutional, leaving Michigan the only place in the country with no statewide physical-distancing rules. Earlier this month, police accused 14 militia members of plotting to kidnap Ms. Whitmer and overthrow the government.
With the possibility that the Nov. 3 presidential vote may not produce a clear outcome, as legislative and legal wrangling over mail-in ballots
to determines the winner, both sides of the political divide worry the state and country will violently erupt.
Democratic hopes for retaking Michigan hinge on boosting voter turnout in Detroit, the country’s largest majority-Black city. It was an early epicentre for COVID-19, which disproportionately hit African-Americans harder.
As the faithful of Liberty Temple filed out of the polling station, vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris rolled up to deliver a stump speech. Pacing with a hand-held microphone in the community centre’s parking lot, she invoked the image of civil-rights protesters in Selma, Ala., in 1965.
“We know the ancestors are relying on us to not let them down when there is so much at stake,” she said as the small crowd, masked and physically distanced in front of her, shouted its approval.
It is an open question, however, whether the Democrats will be able to get voters out to the polls without their traditional ground game. The party has mostly suspended door-to-door canvassing during the pandemic, while the Republicans have continued it. Instead, the Democrats are relying on phone calls and apps to reach voters.
Carl Baxter of the Michigan People’s Campaign, a community social-justice group, insisted that such digital outreach would work just as well as having in-person conversations with voters. It’s helped that volunteers in less competitive states can focus their attention on Michigan without leaving home. “We’ve been able to have people all over the country joining in,” said Mr. Baxter, 59, who is Black.
Rev. Dr. Steve Bland Jr., the pastor at Liberty Temple, argued that a biracial candidate such as Ms. Harris, who is Black and Indian-American, should help drive turnout back to the level it reached in 2008 and 2012 when Barack Obama was on the ballot. “When people see themselves represented, it gives them hope. To go from picking cotton to picking presidents is something to celebrate,” he said.
Mr. Trump is also campaigning on race. He derides the protests against police brutality, which have swept the U.S. since George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police this spring, as the work of a “mob.” The President has also accused Black politicians such as Ms. Harris of wanting to “abolish” the suburbs by building social-housing projects there.
The message has certainly landed with Mr. Trump’s base.
“George Floyd was a criminal. He resisted arrest. If he hadn’t been a criminal, he wouldn’t have been put in that position,” said Steve Skuras, 61, a machinery salesman in suburban Macomb County. Mr. Floyd, who was Black, died during an arrest for allegedly spending counterfeit money. A white police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes while he was handcuffed on the ground.
The President’s re-election relies on holding blue-collar voters who rallied behind his promises to tear up the North American free-trade agreement and stop manufacturing jobs from going to China. Mr. Trump hasn’t exactly succeeded – the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement that replaced NAFTA is very similar to the previous deal, and China has so far failed to buy as many American exports as it promised in an accord with the President earlier this year.
But Bob Bothwell, a 69-year-old retired employee of the Ford Motor Co., gave Mr. Trump high marks for trying. “He’s been in a battle against the media, the Democrats, and he’s still having to deal with all the foreign leaders,” he said.
Mr. Bothwell, who started at Ford in 1971 and retired earlier this year, was transferred between nine different factories as the company repeatedly restructured and moved jobs to other countries. On one occasion, he remembers 7,000 people getting laid off at the plant making seats for cars, their machines boxed up and moved to Mexico. “We build a component, send it to Mexico, then it’s sent to Oakville, Ontario, for final assembly. That didn’t make a whole lot of sense to us,” he said at a community-organized rally for Mr. Trump outside of Chardam Gear Company, an aerospace-parts factory north of Detroit. “Do people want to buy cheap or do they want to have a job?”
Mike Brzoska, Chardam’s owner, said the economic shutdown caused by the pandemic cost him 55 per cent of his business. He had to cut employees' hours by nearly a third to get by. He has decided not to make it mandatory for his 150 staff to wear masks. Only three have contracted the virus so far, he said, which convinces him that his approach is working.
“We should open up – everybody be responsible for yourself,” he said. “Americans are a bunch of free-thinkers and free doers. In China and North Korea, you tell everybody what to do and if not, you lock them in their house.”
On a suburban street corner, the tensions of the pandemic and the election came to a head around dusk one evening this week. While roughly 100 Trump supporters, including a woman dressed as the Statue of Liberty, waved flags at traffic on a stretch of fast-food restaurants and strip malls, a group of young people pulled up down the block to hold up signs in support of Mr. Biden.
During a faceoff between members of the two groups, Jamal Johnson, a 30-year-old construction worker, challenged one Trump supporter to name anything significant the President had done. The man touted Mr. Trump’s support for mixed martial arts fighting.
“Did MMA get this virus under control? What does that help?” Mr. Johnson said. “I have lost so many people due to this virus.”
The Trump supporter fired back that Mr. Johnson’s point was irrelevant.
“Trump has broken so many barriers in office and nothing has been done,” Mr. Johnson responded. “That’s white privilege.”
The moment was a milder version of confrontations at polling stations that have erupted across the country. The Republicans are recruiting 50,000 poll watchers to monitor voting in heavily Democratic areas to dissuade voter fraud. The Democrats, however, contend the practice is meant only to discourage people from voting, and are deploying their own people to confront the watchers. In Michigan, Republicans are suing for the right to have poll watchers stand within two metres of voters and not wear masks.
Rev. Bland said someone put a large, white cardboard box directly next to a ballot drop box outside the church last week. The package, which was disposed of by the police bomb squad, turned out to be harmless, but he said he believed it was intended to give the impression of being an explosive. “There are people who are trying to deter people wanting to vote by doing intimidation,” he said.
A survey earlier this month, using data from YouGov and the Voter Study Group, found that roughly a third of supporters of both political parties believe it is justified for their party to use violence to advance its goals.
At his Lansing rally, Mr. Trump made light of the kidnap plot against Ms. Whitmer. “We’ll have to see if it’s a problem, right? People are entitled to say ‘Maybe it was a problem, maybe it wasn’t,’” he said.
Outside the event, where the queue snaked around a parking lot and down a suburban street, Mr. Trump’s supporters signed petitions to recall Ms. Whitmer. Some had signs calling her a “moron.” The local chapter of the Proud Boys, a far-right group that has fought with anti-racism protesters on the streets of Portland, Ore., stood with a banner advertising their website.
Mr. Cowper, the mail carrier, planned to volunteer as a poll watcher on election day. He said he would challenge people who tried to vote without identification. “The only way the Democrats are going to win is by cheating,” he said. “I was in the army, and I took an oath to defend my country against all threats foreign and domestic.”
Roland Hensley, 60, predicted that “there will be rioting” from the left if Mr. Trump wins another term.
“If he wins, he’ll take care of the riots,” said Linda Topping, a 64-year-old clerk at a hospital, who returned to work two weeks ago after a seven-month furlough induced by the pandemic. “The National Guard will be deployed.”
Back in northwest Detroit, Mr. Baxter, the community organizer running voter turnout drives, expressed a mix of weariness and fear. The plot to kidnap Ms. Whitmer, in particular, had left him unsettled.
“People are tired of the divisiveness that’s been cultivated the last four years. I’ve experienced racism in my life, but never to this extent,” he said. “The open and outward racism being displayed is not the U.S. I learned about in school. People are afraid to leave their homes.”
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