Betting on Trump
An unexpected conversation about the presidential election with two voters from Flint, Michigan.
Two barstools sat alongside a dusty dirt road in northern Michigan, like bait. They lasted just 10 minutes before a pickup truck pulled up and stopped. The burly driver stuck his head out the window and asked, “You giving these away?”
I said yes—on one condition.
“They’re yours if you’ll have a beer with me. My grandfather owned these stools and he’d want it that way.” The stranger shook my hand and introduced me to his friend in the passenger seat. “You got a deal,” the driver said, spitting tobacco juice out of his mustachioed mouth.
I am not disclosing the men’s names because I didn’t identify myself as a journalist. As far as they knew, I was just a cottager from Washington disposing of two creaky chairs and two cold beers. I didn’t plan on writing about them until the driver changed the subject from the weather (“damn, it’s dry”) to politics.
“I love that Trump dude,” he said.
His buddy shook his head. “I’m not so sure.”
Perched atop bar stools, five miles of unpaved roads away from the nearest bar, they told me they were both retirees from General Motors. They are in their early 60s, white, and live in Flint. The driver is a former Democrat who now votes Republican. His passenger is a former Democrat who now calls himself an independent. Political scientists would call both men Reagan Democrats, a term made popular by Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, who studied Macomb County, Michigan, in the mid-1980s.
“Why do you love Trump?” I asked.
The driver took a pull on his beer and said, “Because he’s tough, he says what he means, and he’s pissing off you guys in Washington.”
I asked, “What do you think of tax policies?
“Don’t know ‘em.”
“His gun policies?”
“Don’t know ‘em.”
“He wants to build a wall,” he replied. “Damn sure know that.”
In his next breath, as if to underscore his point, he told me a racist joke that compared blacks and Hispanics to skunks. His friend didn’t laugh. I didn’t laugh. The driver chuckled and said, “I’m worried about the values of this country. We’re going to hell.” He paused to take a gulp from his can. “That’s why I drink beer.”
Unlike his friend, the passenger closely follows the campaign. He mentioned the names of daytime anchors on MSNBC, CNN, and FOX News. He quoted columnists for the New York Times and Politico. He knew that Trump promised to rewrite trade deals, fight gun control, cut taxes for the wealthy, and ban Muslim immigrants. But he’s not sure what to make of Trump.
The passenger told me that while he blames globalization and poor management for GM’s abandonment of Flint, “NAFTA didn’t help.”
He’s a hunter and member of the National Rifle Association, but, he said, “I think we need to close them loopholes that let criminals and crazies get guns.”
He’s for tax cuts, “just as long as little guys like me get a taste.” He suspects a President Trump would raise taxes on the middle class.
He’s uncomfortable with Trump’s position on Muslims. “As a Christian, I don’t like religious tests,” he said, swatting at a horse fly. “It’s a slippery slope.”
When I asked the passenger if he’ll vote for Trump, the driver answered, “He sure as hell will!” but his friend held up hands. “The guy’s a moron,” he said.
Will he vote for Hillary Clinton?
“That’s the problem,” he replied. “I can’t vote for her—not under any circumstances.” The passenger said he voted for Bill Clinton in 1992, but for Bob Dole in 1996, because of how liberal the Clinton White House turned out to be. He was horrified by Bill Clinton’s fund-raising scandals and offended by how the president lied about his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
Now, Clinton’s wife has been caught lying about her secret email system, he said, “and I just can’t trust her. I just don’t like her.”
“So you’ll vote for Trump?” I asked.
“Maybe,” he said. “He’s a liar and a moron, but they all are. The question I keep asking myself is, ‘Would he destroy the country?’ If the answer is no, at the end of the day, I’ll vote for him because she’s proved that she’s no better. The Democrats are no better. The whole system sucks—and at least he’s a change. A big damn change.
He pointed at me with a gnarled finger. “Trump might shake things up in your city.”
I told them that I had just returned from a Detroit Chamber of Commerce event on Mackinac Island—and on one of the panels, a Republican consultant said that voting for Trump is like buying a lottery ticket. “Nobody actually thinks they will win, but –,” I said before being interrupted by the passenger.
“But you can’t win without buying a ticket,” he finished.
He tipped the last of the beer into his mouth and said he might vote for the Libertarian ticket—or not vote at all. Then again: “I might put a couple dollars on Trump—and hope America wins.”