Detroit — In 1980 Ronald Reagan carried Michigan — and ultimately the presidency — on a wave of crossover Democratic voters in working-class, Detroit suburbs like Macomb County. Alienated by Democrats’ left-wing economic, affirmative-action and pro-abortion policies, these blue-collar voters found hope in Reagan’s message even as they disagreed with his core free-trade and pro-immigration conservatism.
Three decades later, Macomb County Democrats have once again helped carry a Republican to the White House. Dubbed “Trump Republicans,” they helped the nominee win the mitten state for the first time since the Reagan era ended in 1988.
Yet this time, Democratic crossovers didn’t have far to stretch. Trump’s views dovetail with Macomb County Democrats — evidence that this year’s presidential race was not so much a contest between left and right ideologies, but a referendum on the growing split in the Democratic Party between elite, coastal Democrats and working-class, Rust Belt voters.
Conservative Republicans didn’t have a horse in the 2016 presidential race. This was a war between Democratic elites (represented by Hillary Clinton) and party populists (Donald Trump). And the populist won. How Mr. Trump balances his conservative-union constituencies will be an early test of his presidency.
Where Reagan embraced free-trade policies, Mr. Trump built support here in Macomb County on building a wall against foreign goods — a traditional Democratic plank dating back to Rep. David Bonior, who represented Macomb from 1977 to 2003.
As House Minority Whip in 1993, Mr. Bonior was the face of opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) — leading the House Democratic charge against President Bill Clinton and House Republicans.
Donald Trump (and Bernard Sanders) have filled Mr. Bonior’s shoes.
“In Macomb County and rural Michigan, Trump effectively argued that angry, Democratic Sanders voters needed to join his movement to ‘Make America Great Again,’” says Steve Mitchell, CEO of Mitchell Research and Communications and a veteran Michigan pollster. “Trump’s message that he would create more jobs by ending bad trade agreements resonated and turned old Reagan Democrats into new Trump Republicans.”
In 1992 Bill Clinton returned Macomb Democrats (and Michigan) to the Democratic fold “by appealing to the middle,” says Quinnipiac University Poll Assistant Director Peter Brown, whose 1990 book, “Minority Party,” gave a Democratic blueprint for winning back working class voters.
But in the Obama years, Democrats have abandoned Michigan’s working class while courting the wallets of rich, coastal greens and their anti-industrial politics.
Despite his 2009 Detroit auto bailout, President Obama’s policies have punished Middle America with high regulatory costs that have forced auto factories south of the Mexican border and bankrupted coal companies across West Virginia and Ohio. Gone are Democratic Party leaders like Michigan’s John Dingell and Missouri’s Dick Gephardt — replaced by the likes of California’s Nancy Pelosi. Green collars trump blue. Even Michigan politicians like Sen. Gary Peters now bow to green California billionaire Tom Steyer — forsaking the carbon-based jobs that are the backbone of Michigan manufacturing.
Mr. Trump — until recently a Democrat — took up the mantle of forgotten, working-class Democrats to draw huge crowds in West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania — and Macomb County.
Mainstream media outlets — themselves disciples of the elite’s green faith — missed this shift. I drove through the working-class counties of Michigan’s 10th Congressional District (including Macomb) this summer with other journalists, who were stunned at the blizzard of Trump-Pence lawn signs.
“So this is where all the Trump supporters are,” said once colleague.
Like Mr. Bonior before him, Mr. Trump used free trade as a scapegoat. This despite the fact that NAFTA has been a boon to Michigan.
“Mexicans purchase more Michigan-made products than the citizens of every other country save Canada, and the demand continues to increase,” writes James Hohman, assistant director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center, a Michigan free-market think tank. “Michigan exports to Mexico increased roughly five fold since 1999 (the earliest in the data source), growing from $2.4 billion to $11.1 billion in 2015. The country now accounts for 20 percent of all Michigan exports.”
“Perception becomes reality,” says pollster Mr. Mitchell. “If you’re a factory worker and you’re unemployed, Trump’s appeal to bring manufacturing back is a powerful draw.”
Mr. Trump’s protectionist, anti-immigrant Democratic playbook (and boorish behavior) alienated conservatives. Prominent Republican Michigan pols from Rep. Fred Upton to Rep. Justin Amash to Gov. Rick Snyder withheld their support. Michigan’s leading conservative voice, The Detroit News, endorsed Libertarian Gary Johnson — the first non-Republican candidate to get the nod in 143 years.
A wildly unpredictable presidential year has produced an unpredictable president: A Republican who won the Midwest on a populist, Democratic agenda. How Mr. Trump juggles the priorities of the conservative Republicans and blue-collar Democrats who elected him will be a fascinating narrative in the first 100 days of his administration.
• Henry Payne is auto columnist and editorial cartoonist for The Detroit News.