PORT HURON, Mich. — As President Donald Trump presses his attacks against four women of color in Congress, suggesting they are unpatriotic and should leave the country, many voters in this city on Lake Huron are embracing his “America — Love It or Leave It” message, saying they do not see it as racist.
And although they dismiss Trump’s Twitter broadsides as excessive or juvenile, they voiced strong support for his reelection and expressed their own misgivings about the four women.
“They happen to be black or colored,” Dennis Kovach, 82, said of the women, as he watered the lawn of his home near the lake last weekend. “But I don’t think that viewpoint is a racist viewpoint. I think it’s — quit the bitching, if you don’t like it, do something different about it.”
Tim Marzolf, 57, sitting on a nearby porch on one of the hottest days of July, had a similar view, saying he had been turned off since day one by Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the Palestinian American lawmaker from Detroit who is one of the women the president has attacked.
“Something struck me wrong,” said Marzolf, a factory worker, referring to Tlaib’s call for Trump’s impeachment. “She got elected and came out with the F-word on Trump.”
As Trump signaled his intent last week to rely on nationalism and identity politics to propel his reelection campaign — portraying Democrats as out of sync with American values — his message did not appear to be backfiring with the conservative voters he hopes to bring out in force in 2020. In this overwhelmingly white district an hour north of Detroit, where his popularity remains high, his comments left people in the familiar position of having to choose a side in the aftermath of another Trump-instigated outrage. And they chose his.
Trump carried St. Clair County, an auto parts manufacturing center on the Canadian border, with 63% of the vote in 2016, cementing a narrow statewide victory and Michigan’s crucial 16 electoral votes. The margin of victory — less than 11,000 votes — was his slimmest in any state.
Michigan is an important piece of Trump’s path to reelection and is already the focus of some of the Republican Party’s most extensive get-out-the-vote efforts. On Friday, the state party and the Trump campaign kicked off what one party official described in an email to supporters as “the largest and most robust ground game Michigan has ever seen.”
In truth, Michigan could be one of the purest laboratories to test a central paradox of the president’s reelection strategy: To win while he remains widely unpopular — his approval rating is consistently less than 50% in national opinion polls — voters do not need to like him as much as they need to dislike the Democratic nominee.
And as his actions over the past week have shown, he is trying to ensure that happens by inflicting as much damage as he can to the Democrats’ brand.
In Port Huron, many residents said they were willing to ignore Trump’s outbursts, pointing to strong hiring in local factories as evidence he was doing a good job. Some raised fears about a move toward socialism within the Democratic Party and suggested that Trump’s remarks might even gain him support by showcasing just how far left the Democratic Party has shifted.
The racial divisiveness of his attacks seemed to be pushed to the side.
Fred Miller, the Democratic clerk of nearby Macomb County, a national bellwether that voted twice for Barack Obama but then flipped to Trump, attributes the lack of outrage to a cultural disconnect over the way many people define racism.
“When some people rightfully call out Trump for these offensive, disgusting comments, I think a lot of other people see themselves in Trump,” he said. “They may not have a college degree, they might not speak about race in PC terms, but they don’t think they’re racists.”
So when the president “turns around and says, ‘I’m not racist,’” Miller added, “I think there are a lot of people who think they don’t have a racist bone in their body either. And Trump gets that.”
Democrats are seeing clear signs in their own research that the president is not as weak politically as he might appear. Last week, lawmakers were presented with the findings of a new poll that looked at sentiment in the so-called pivot counties like Macomb. The poll, commissioned by the progressive campaign finance reform organization End Citizens United, found that a generic Democratic presidential candidate beats Trump by only 2 points in these counties, 48% to 46%.
Even so, Rep. Paul Mitchell, the conservative Republican who represents the Port Huron area, struck a note of caution.
“I do believe this strategy will be damaging to this election,” Mitchell said. He has asked for a meeting with the president, hoping to add his voice to other Republicans who have urged Trump to restrain himself.
All of the women whom Trump told to “go back’’ to their countries — Tlaib and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Aryanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts — are U.S. citizens, and only one, Omar, was born outside the country, in Somalia.
“I was appalled by the chanting ‘send her back,’” Mitchell said of the crowd at Trump’s rally Wednesday in North Carolina, where the chant was directed at Omar. For Mitchell, the message struck close to home. “My youngest son was born in Russia,” he said. “We adopted him. He’s an American.”
Trump’s attacks on the congresswomen — he renewed them Sunday with a Twitter post saying they were not capable of loving America — could also hurt him by motivating black voters and increasing their turnout.
At Port Huron’s St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Rev. Sandra J. Woodard was preparing for the church’s 100th anniversary.
“What I can say is that the comments are certainly not something that a person who has feelings for others would make, particularly a president who is supposed to be representing all people,” Woodard said.
Trump’s strength in 2016 was — and remains — largely dependent on how he fared against a widely mistrusted opponent. Roughly 75,000 voters in Michigan did not vote for president at all but did vote in races further down ballot, suggesting that there were enough Michiganders who found both candidates so unappealing that their absence helped put Trump over the edge.
There are some cautionary signs for his 2020 campaign, a prognosis reflected anecdotally and in Republicans’ private polling in Michigan. When the president is matched against a Democratic opponent like former Vice President Joe Biden or Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., he loses. Crucially, he has not reached 50% in any polls taken in Michigan, a perilous position for any incumbent.
But the version of the Democratic Party that voters here are seeing is also unpopular, as the two dozen presidential candidates debate issues that seem antithetical to their concerns — like decriminalizing illegal border crossings and offering Medicaid to immigrants in the country illegally.
“I hear it all the time from other people who say: ‘I’m a Republican. I didn’t vote for him, but I don’t see how I can’t this time,’” said Greg McNeilly, a Republican strategist from Western Michigan, a party stronghold. “People have become desensitized to his conduct. And now, given where Democrats are landing on policy, I think that is really frightening people.”
The state has some sentimental value for the president as one he was not expected to win, and Republicans on the ground are taking nothing for granted.
“Our team is out in the field as we speak conducting trainings, activating volunteers, registering voters and communicating directly with the people of our state,” said a memo circulated to party insiders Friday, which called the 2020 race “one of the most critical elections of our lifetime”
Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., whose district is a potpourri of partisanship, stretching from the liberal redoubt of Ann Arbor to the industrial communities south of Detroit, said in an interview that her party cannot afford to be lulled into complacency by the president’s low approval ratings.
“People are engaged earlier than I’ve ever seen,’’ said Dingell, one of the few Democrats who warned the Clinton campaign in 2016 that Trump was stronger than he appeared in the state. “And if I had to guess, I’d say most people have made up their minds”
Now, she added, “I wouldn’t make a prediction about how the election is going to go.”
Saul Anuzis, a former state Republican Party chairman, said that while the president was mostly energizing his base by attacking the four women, the Democrats’ shift to the left could also work to Trump’s advantage among swing voters in 2020.
The congresswomen “very much represent the loony left, from my perspective,” he said, “and I think mainstream Democrats don’t necessarily agree with these folks.”
On Saturday, Port Huron staged its biggest party weekend of the year, with a street festival and an annual boat race to Mackinac Island. Several downtown workers, partygoers and sunbathers said they feared what might happen if Trump lost.
“People get upset about what he says, but he’s still doing his job,” said Catherine Plichta, 63, an Air Force veteran, as she ate lunch on Main Street. “I voted for him and I’m going to vote for him again. He supports veterans.”
Eric Hayden, a retired food service director, had plastered his Facebook page with criticism of the four freshmen congresswomen.
“Those women are a little extreme,” Hayden, 54, said as he was leaving his home for a cocktail party at the yacht club. “They’re actually doing Trump a favor every time they open their mouth. Anti-Israel, for starters. That’s not a good thing. The other is, you know, just their programs. I paid back my student debt.”
Sitting outside their lake cottage as a giant tanker navigated the harbor nearby, Les and Michelle Smith also said they had supported Trump and would do so again, despite reservations.
Michelle Smith, 54, a certified medical assistant, said she was worried about what would happen with immigration if the Democrats take over.
“We’re letting too many people in,” she said.
For his part, Kovach, watering his lawn by the lake, said he did not see a viable presidential option in 2016 so he did not vote for either candidate. Since then, he has come around to Trump.
“I think the economy has done very well since he’s been in office,” Kovach said.
Asked about the Democrats, he said he once worked in a factory in Romania where he had observed the Communist system.
“No thanks,” he said.