MACOMB COUNTY, Mich. – Two years ago, Jeff Daudert was fed up with politics. He wanted to shake up the status quo. He didn’t mind sending a message to the establishment – and, frankly, he liked the idea of a disruptive president.
But the 49-year-old retired Navy reservist has had some second thoughts.
“What the (expletive) were we thinking?” he asked the other night inside a Walmart here, in an area of blue-collar suburban Detroit that helped deliver Trump the presidency.
While Trump’s relationship with much of his base remains strong, two years after his inauguration his ties are fraying with voters like Daudert, the kind who voted in droves for Trump in 2016 in key pockets throughout the industrial Midwest and flipped previously Democratic states to him. The shutdown fight, as it has played out over the past month, is further eroding his support among voters who like the idea of beefing up border security, but not enough to close the government.
Many here, even those who still support Trump, say they hold him most responsible. They recite his comment from the Oval Office that he would be “proud to shut down the government.” When he said it, they listened.
“It’s silly. It’s destructive,” Daudert said, adding that all he knows about 2020 is that he won’t be supporting Trump. “I was certainly for the anti-status quo. … I’ll be more status quo next time.”
Here, far from the nation’s capital and in an area not dominated by federal workers, the government shutdown is resonating in an unusual way. A trampoline park is giving government employees and their families an hour of free jumping. A local credit union is offering low-interest loans for furloughed employees who need to replace a lost salary.
Some local governments in the area are beginning to allow federal workers to defer property taxes, utility bills and parking tickets. Food drives are being discussed to help TSA workers at Detroit’s airport, and a local yoga studio is offering free classes for federal employees.
“As a community it affects us because other people are being affected,” said Jasmin Cromwell, who runs Bodhi Seed Yoga & Wellness Studio, “whether we know them or not. Maybe I’m getting too yoga-like but we are all connected. It affects everyone. It affects us as a nation.”
Recent polling indicates that the government shutdown has caused skittishness among parts of Trump’s base, which has been one of the most enduring strengths of his presidency. A new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, conducted Jan. 10 to Jan. 13, found his net approval rating had dropped 7 points since December.
One of the biggest drops came from suburban men, whose approval rating of Trump fell a net change of 18 percentage points, while evangelicals and Republicans also dipped by smaller margins. Among men without a college degree, the downward change was 7 points.
As Jeremiah Wilburn, a 45-year-old operating engineer, browsed the aisles at Walmart for a new pair of coveralls, he reflected on some of those shifts. Like many voters here, after siding twice in the elections with former President Barack Obama, he decided to gamble with Trump in 2016. And for most of the past two years, he was pleased. The economy was humming, jobs were flowing and wages seemed stable.
“I was doing fine with him up until this government shutdown,” he said. “It’s ridiculous. You’re not getting the wall built for $5 billion. And Mexico is not paying for it, we all know that, too. Meanwhile, it’s starting to turn people like me away.”
He worries about the impact the shutdown will have on the economy. He’s concerned about the impact on his brother, who works for the TSA in Florida.
To him, the shutdown standoff has also poked holes in Trump’s ability to say that he cares for the working class, given that 800,000 federal employees and additional contractors going without a paycheck.
“You can’t expect people to come to work without getting paid,” Wilburn said. “If I were them, I certainly wouldn’t come to work.”
Macomb County, in the suburbs north of Detroit, has been a perennial political battleground, and a place where the broad sweeps of American politics can be seen. It was the most Democratic suburb in the country when John Kennedy was elected president in 1960, and then it helped usher in the phrase “Reagan Democrats” when Ronald Reagan won the White House two decades later.
Obama won the county twice, and then Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by 12 points. The county is filled with the white working-class voters whose flip to Trump has been the most heralded part of his coalition. Trump came here during his campaign, and again in the final days before the 2016 election. He returned last year for a rally meant to pointedly spurn the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner that same night. It’s an area he has continued to nurture.
But in the midterm elections, some of those voters started to peel away. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., carried the county by 2 points, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, won by 4 points. Whitmer ran a campaign that barely mentioned Trump, and instead promoted basic bipartisan governance, with the slogan: “Fix the Damn Roads.”
The 2020 Democratic presidential primary is expected to include a heavy dose of debate over how to balance attempts at winning back white working-class voters – those who live here as well as in states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, which Trump won – with the energy around ascendant women and minorities.
That attempt at balance will also draw into question whether Democrats can find a way to articulate an immigration plan in areas like this where the issue resonates. Trump’s insistence on building a border wall has hardened Democrats, whose most prominent policy now is to stop Trump’s wall. They rarely tout their own views on border security, but that remains an issue important to many voters in the industrial states.
In focus groups following Clinton’s loss, Democrats discovered that immigration played a bigger role here than they thought it would.
“People do want immigration managed,” said Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster who has been studying Macomb County voters since the 1980s. “Trump makes it hard because he’s so outrageous. You don’t want to give him an inch. But immigration is still an important issue, and Democrats will have to speak to it.”
Trump faces a countering demand of his own, placating former supporters who saw the border wall as a stand-in for more security, and those who want his promise delivered.
Ken Janicki, a 66-year-old retired technology worker who voted for Trump, sipped on his coffee the other day and put it in blunt terms.
“I am all for border security, a full wall around this country,” he said. “You come in legally, I’ll welcome you to be my neighbor. But you come in illegally and I’ll introduce you to my friend Smith and my other friend Wesson.”
Even with the shutdown, most in this land of strip malls and six-lane boulevards, automotive plants and single-family homes, seem to feel better about the economy.
“We’re booming right now. How can I not like a guy that gives me more money and lowers my taxes?” said Jeff Cordel, a 57-year-old construction worker. “I haven’t heard the word layoff since he’s been in, and that’s saying something around here.”
But there is also a nagging concern that a downturn could be coming, in part because of forces that Trump has unleashed. Some overtime shifts have gone away. Several large buildings that once housed a Kmart or a bowling alley or restaurant are now empty.
“Times have been good. But things are slowing down a bit,” said Matt DeVuyst, a 62-year-old electrician who had just polished off a large breakfast at Coney Island, a staple of the Michigan diner scene. “If they don’t find common ground with China, who knows? We’re stable but nervous. It’s the fear of the unknown.”
Mike Keys, who in 2016 won a seat as a Democrat on the board of trustees in Macomb’s Clinton Township, said the anxiety in the area can make Trump’s economic optimism seem slightly off-key.
“Yeah, the economy is getting better, there’s more jobs. But pay raises? We’re not seeing that,” he said. “If you haven’t gotten a substantial raise in the last five or 10 years, you see (Trump) talking about the greatest economy – there’s a disconnect.”
At a Kroger in St. Clair Shores, across a lake from Canada, residents were deeply divided.
In the cereal aisle, Henry Black, a 69-year-old who spent his career at General Motors, voted for Trump, likes what the president has done and had a dire warning for him if he shifts course on the border wall.
“Trump needs to stand firm on this,” he said. “If he gives in to the Democrats on this, he’s finished.”
Near the pharmacy, Erica McQueen, a 38-year-old from St. Claire Shores, voted for Trump and also has liked a lot of what he’s done.
“But it gets overshadowed by the stunts he pulls,” she said. The shutdown, she said, was one of them.
“The wall is getting out of hand,” she said. “It’s too much. It’s ridiculous. I’m sick of seeing it, I’m sick of hearing about it.”
Like other onetime Trump supporters, she’s now openly wondering if she can back him again.
“Something miraculous has to happen,” she said, “for me to vote for him again.”