AUTHOR’S NOTE: Late last year, I moved home to Michigan. I did so primarily for family reasons, but also because I wanted to get back in touch with parts of the country where D.C. journalists often visit but rarely stay for long.

Reporting on national politics is an insider’s game, where scoops are often measured in micrograms. This work can be important, and valuable—I’ve certainly done plenty of it—but the rise of Donald Trump exposed its inherent limitations. For a time, following his shocking victory in November 2016, there was sincere introspection within elite media circles over how to do better the next time. Sadly, news organizations have largely defaulted to covering this campaign the same way they covered the last one, and the one before that. Parachute into the provinces. Report around a frame of campaign gossip and consultant-speak. Check the box with a few man-on-the-street interviews. Stuff a Joe Six-Pack quote into the sunset paragraphs of a story, feigning an intimacy with the perspectives of the people. Rinse and repeat.

There exists in today’s media, as one colleague recently grumbled to me, “an institutional bias against hearing what voters have to say.” We at POLITICO are sometimes guilty of it. So are our rivals at legacy outlets and new media startups alike. It’s not glamorous to elevate the voice of the Everyman, to give a platform to someone Americans have never heard of, someone with no money or influence or connections. But to do this job—to inform citizens of what is happening, and to explain *why* it is happening—it has become essential.

This election cycle, while still covering the campaigns and the candidates from the inside, I also want to offer something from the outside: a letter to Washington from the rest of America.

My aim with this series is to explore this country, and its electorate, in all its messy and self-contradicting glory. That requires avoiding the easy clichés: Not every disaffected voter eats in a diner off the interstate, and not every campaign-trail encounter represents some broader truth about a crazy-quilt country of 330 million people. It requires talking to everyone—left and right, rich and poor, gay and straight, urban and rural, engaged and disengaged, black and white and brown. It requires careful, earnest, respectful listening. Above all, it requires leaving the Beltway behind, searching for the people and the places that will shape this nation’s future in November and beyond.

For my first dispatch, I wanted to write from a world as far removed from the nation’s capital as possible. After a bit of wandering, I found just the spot.

January 18, 2020 | Birch Run, Michigan

Dear Washington, The snow was coming down sideways as I encountered a growling pride of pickup trucks jockeying for position in what was once a parking lot, searching for a place to stop searching. Some drivers had given up on circling and sat idling in anticipation of a coming vacancy. Others got creative, dropping into low gear to mount glacial embankments where yellow lines were once visible. The one thing nobody did was speed off entirely. They had come too far, defying the elements, and now the destination was in sight: the Mid-Michigan Gun & Knife Show.

I came here for two reasons.

First, nowhere is the disconnect between you and the rest of America more apparent than when it comes to guns. People in D.C. go to baseball games. They walk dogs. They golf. Many of them even go to church. But they don’t arm themselves. It’s a strange reality of your culture: Even the conservative Republicans I knew, people who reflexively defended the Second Amendment, were not gun enthusiasts. After living there for more than a decade, I couldn’t name more than two professional acquaintances who owned a firearm, much less knew how to operate one. (Occasionally, a colleague would share a social media posting of an exotic visit to a firing range, showcasing their brush with a .22 as if they had just tamed a Bengal tiger.)

Second, despite Michigan being one of the premier battlegrounds of the 2020 election, its political fault lines are a bit fuzzy. For our purposes, think of the state as four distinct regions: Southeast Michigan is anchored by predominantly black Detroit and Wayne County, and sprawls into the mixed-class, densely populated suburbs of Oakland, Macomb, Washtenaw and Livingston counties; West Michigan is home to Grand Rapids, which is politically and economically diverse, and to a surrounding ecosystem that is overwhelmingly rural, religious and conservative; mid-Michigan is the unevenly populated land mass wedged between those two population centers; and Northern Michigan is the vast expanse of earth that occupies everything from the “thumb” of the mitten upward, including the Upper Peninsula.

We know what to expect in three of the regions: Trump will once again dominate the scattered votes of Northern Michigan by a 2-to-1 ratio. He will juice turnout in West Michigan. And he’ll try to run up the score with blue-collar voters in Southeast Michigan while praying to avoid both elevated turnout in Detroit and an exodus of moderate white suburbanites.

The wild card is mid-Michigan. The story here is two majority-minority cities, Flint and Saginaw, surrounded by small suburbs and rural towns that are mostly white. But it’s not a simple story. In 2008, Barack Obama carried Genesee County (home to Flint) by 32 points; eight years later, Trump closed that gap to single digits. Meanwhile, Trump won Saginaw County in 2016 after Obama carried it by 17 points and 12 points in his two statewide victories.

These results speak to interconnected trends. It wasn’t long ago that your average working-class white voter in mid-Michigan, be they involved in agriculture or manufacturing, was a quintessential swing voter—if not a loyal Democrat. But the party’s decadelong leftward drift on cultural issues, paired with Trump’s not-unrelated ascent, pushed huge numbers of them into the GOP column in 2016. This alone would not have delivered Michigan to Trump had black voter turnout been anywhere close to Obama-era levels. But the falloff was so dramatic with Hillary Clinton atop the ticket—20 percent in parts of Flint and Saginaw, not to mention Detroit and Lansing—that the door was cracked open just wide enough.

In a state Trump carried by fewer than 11,000 votes, out of more than 4.5 million cast, even the smallest ripple could be enough to tip the boat. Mid-Michigan may lack the raw numbers of Grand Rapids and metro Detroit, but its political volatility is far more pronounced. Given how dramatically the region swung from 2008 to 2016, it offers an ideal case study for the two questions that will define the 2020 election: Can Trump sustain enthusiasm among rural and suburban whites? And can the Democratic nominee recover it among urban black voters?

With the Democratic primary only just kicking off, there will be plenty of time to speak with black voters about that second question. For now, I decided to start with the first. That’s how I wound up in Birch Run, a township in Saginaw County, for the Mid-Michigan Gun & Knife Show.


MICHAEL SCHENK leaned forward and lowered his voice. “Wait a minute,” he said, squinting as if he couldn’t see me standing two feet away. “You think there are Democrats”—he glanced from side to side—“here?”

I had assumed there would be. Growing up in Michigan, guns never struck me as partisan issue, at least not in the mold of taxes or abortion or labor laws. Lots of people owned them, Democrats and Republicans alike, and those who didn’t never seemed to have a problem with those who did. No successful politician that I could recall went around campaigning on gun control. But Schenk had a point. It didn’t take long inside the expo center, looking out over endless rows of firearms and ammunition boxes interrupted by Gadsden flags and Make America Great Again hats, to realize this wasn’t just a gun show. It was a tribal gathering, a reunion of right-wingers who wanted to talk and listen as much as buy and sell.

On its face, this wasn’t surprising. Some of the most prominent conservative-oriented groups in America have thrived in the post-9/11 era by fostering a notion of shared identity, none more effectively than the National Rifle Association. What was surprising, I thought while scoping out the venue, was the speed and extent to which Trump became central to that identity. In certain wings of the hall there was more MAGA merchandise for sale than weaponry: Trump shirts, Trump socks, Trump bumper stickers, Trump posters, Trump flags, Trump scarves. There was even Trump currency—his likeness on a $2020 bill.

And people were buying this stuff. Lots of it. Some of them didn’t need to: Scores of attendees, more than I could count at a certain point, came wearing a hat or a shirt supporting Trump. It reminded me of NFL fans wearing their team’s jersey to a game. I’ve long believed this president to be more of a cultural phenomenon than a political phenomenon. But it struck me today that perhaps he’s something even more. In an era when communities have been ravaged by economic displacement and technological advances, Trumpism offers a sense of fraternity, a sort of membership card to something edgier than the Knights of Columbus or the Lion’s Club.

Schenk, a 56-year-old mountain of humanity from the nearby town of Vassar, was dressed for the occasion. A bright orange hunting cap matched a frayed shirt that was buttoned halfway down to display his ample chest hair and was cut off at the shoulders to bare his tattoos. Camouflage overalls and brown work boots completed the ensemble. A final accessory was the most vital: Wrapped around his midsection was a large, tan-colored back brace, which he wears around the clock. This, along with “living off Vicodin,” helps manage the permanent pain of injuries he suffered over years of work as a lineman and tree trimmer. Schenk hadn’t come to purchase any artillery; rather, he wanted to peruse the collection of pro-Trump baseball caps and possibly find a sturdier back brace designed for outdoorsman activities. (He bought two.)

The question Schenk asked me was rooted in genuine curiosity. “When I was a kid, we were all poor, and it seemed like everyone was a Democrat,” he said. “These days, I don’t know any.”

Many of his friends and neighbors voted GOP for the first time in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan atop the ticket, Schenk said, but it wasn’t a lasting switch. Most of the people he knew remained independent, moving back and forth between parties, over the ensuing decades. Personally, he sat out a number of elections since the 1992 defeat of Ross Perot, “the last person I really trusted in politics,” Schenk said, “until Trump came along.”

Schenk can’t see himself ever voting for a Democrat again. The party, he said, “looks down on people like me.” But this doesn’t mean he’s a loyal Republican. Schenk is best understood as a Trump fanatic, someone who can’t muster a single criticism of the president. “He’s building the wall, he’s keeping his word, and if you haven’t noticed, since he took over, ISIS ain’t done nothing to nobody,” he said. “All while these Democrats are a thorn in his ass every day.”

Schenk looked around and sighed. “It didn’t used to be like this,” he said, nodding toward a towering vendor’s stand draped in Trump apparel and anti-Democratic Party paraphernalia. “I never remember these things being so political. But, you know, that’s what happens when one party stops respecting America.”

He turned back to me. “I dunno,” Schenk said. “You think you’ll find one Democrat here?”


Schenk’s observation threw into sharp relief just how polarized an event like this really was. Having already spent five hours at the gun show, and interviewed a dozen people, I looked back through my notes. Sure enough, in responding to my very first question, not one person had so far identified as a Democrat.

But there were plenty of interesting characters. Some of them shattered stereotypes; some of them were straight from a leftist’s fever dream. Some of them said things you couldn’t imagine hearing in polite company; some of them were so polite we made plans to reconnect down the line. Some of them were hypnotized from binge-watching Fox News; some of them held identical viewpoints but had clearly done their own research and thinking. They had one thing in common: All of them spoke in a frequency that you haven’t been trained to hear—and they know it, even if you sometimes don’t.

NATE WHITE, a 58-year-old retired military man from Auburn, Michigan, said he never votes a straight-party ticket and supports both Democrats and Republicans at the local level. “I’ll probably have to vote for Trump again,” he scoffed, “because there’s not a Democrat worth a shit.”

White then corrected himself: “Except Tulsi Gabbard. But they won’t let her on stage.”

What about any of the others? Bernie Sanders? Elizabeth Warren? Joe Biden?

“Biden?” White howled. “He’s a bigger crook than Trump!”

After staying home in 2012, White turned out for Trump in 2016 because he saw the GOP nominee as a change agent. “Also, mind you, Hillary was a criminal, so people looked at Trump and decided to give him a chance.” White said. “We’ve been voting for the lesser of two evils since 1988, and in this case, Trump was the lesser of two evils. I don’t regret it. I hate his Twitter account and his general way of speaking, but he’s getting shit done. He’s bringing business back.”

White came to the show with his friend TOM EAGLE, a 48-year-old truck driver from Auburn who hauls plastics used to make “water bottles and car parts and everything in between.” White was less conflicted about his allegiances. “I would vote for Trump tomorrow if I could,” he said. “And the day after that, and every other day until Election Day.”

The reason for Eagle’s devotion: his pocketbook. “The economy is really good right now. I like the way the country is running like a business,” he said. “I don’t think Obama was anti-business; he just didn’t know what he was doing. We needed a businessman to get the economy going.”

Eagle admitted that he, too, is uncomfortable with some of Trump’s behavior. But, he argued, it’s easy to stomach given the alternative. “This new breed of Democrat, they don’t have my best interests in mind—more taxes, more regulations, more socialism, more jobs going to Mexico,” he said.

Heading toward retirement, and still reeling from the Great Recession, Eagle said he’s fearful of what will happen if Trump loses and a Democratic president reverses the gains of the past three years. “I still feel a lot of insecurity about the economy. We want to buy a house, but my wife—she drives a truck, too—she and I decided we’re not going to. We’re going to stay in a trailer for the next couple years to see how things shake out.”

He shrugged. “It’s like my dad always said: ‘A dog that shits fast doesn’t shit long.’”

MELISSA GILLET, a 53-year-old social worker who lives in Birch Run, described herself as politically independent. She rarely voted prior to 2016. The reason she came out for Trump was because he spoke to her concerns—specifically the threats facing her kids, 18 and 20, in terms of “the crime, the drugs, the jobs leaving, everything.”

Like many of the people I spoke with, she disapproved of the president’s antics. “Should he be more professional, more president-like?” she asked. “Yes.”

And unlike many of the people I spoke with, she said Trump’s presidency hasn’t helped her bottom line. “Things aren’t any better for me,” she said, “but then again, they’re not getting any worse, either. So I guess I’ll take that.”

Still, despite finding Trump personally offensive, and seeing no personal economic benefit from his presidency, she’s “all in” on four more years. Why?

“I just can’t trust any of these Democrats anymore. They’ve wasted all this time and money trying to bring down the person we voted for,” she said. “Trump is for the people. He wants to give the American people a voice. And these Democrats don’t want us to have a voice.”

Standing nearby, MIKE AND SUE KRUPNEK agreed.

A married couple in their 50s, Mike and Sue have spent their entire lives in Saginaw. Although they identify with the political right—Mike as a Republican, Sue as a Libertarian—both said their affiliations owe more to disgust with the Democrats than with loyalty to the GOP.

“Both of our families grew up voting Democrat, because they were the party of working people. But it’s like everything has flipped now. At least the Republicans don’t look down on us,” Sue said. “Even the crazy Republicans seem reasonable compared to these Democrats who have gone off the deep end.”

To be clear: Sue counts the president among the crazy Republicans. “Trump is not someone I like personally. I think he’s an arrogant ass,” she said. “But maybe that’s what we needed, someone who wasn’t going to let us get pushed around anymore.”

Her husband does not share those concerns. The way Mike sees it, people like him—white conservatives who hold a certain set of traditional beliefs—have been marginalized by a society that portrays them as bigoted and backward. He said Trump’s greatest triumph, even more important than his court appointments or his economic record, is emboldening people to speak freely in defiance of political correctness.

“It got to be so bad when Obama was in office, it felt like we were going to have a civil war,” Mike said.

In what way?

“I didn’t realize until Obama was elected that I’m supposed to be a racist,” he said, throwing up his hands.

Confused, I asked Mike to clarify.

“I’m a white man, so I must be a racist. Right?” he said. “That’s what they say about people like me. But one of my best friends is a black guy. And I’ll just say it, you know, he’s my n—–.”

I glanced around us, but Mike didn’t bother. He seemed to know what I’d already observed: There were very few black attendees to be found.

He continued, “We joke around all the time about race. We constantly tease each other. We went to a restaurant, Buffalo Wild Wings, and he asked me, ‘Mastah, can I have me some chicken wangs?’ And I said, ‘Yes, boy, you’ve been a good Toby this week.’ And the waitress, her jaw hit the floor! She’d never heard anyone joke around like that. That’s the problem. Nobody can take a joke anymore.”

Before long, we were all the way down a related rabbit hole, this one about Mike losing multiple scholarships—and later, multiple job opportunities—to black men he believes were less qualified than he was, all in the name of “some affirmative action quota.” When I asked Mike what he viewed as the greatest threat facing America, he was decisive.

“All this immigration from Central America,” he said. “It’s a scheme, funded by George Soros and Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg, to get as many voters into this country as possible and steal the election from Trump.”


I spent all day at the gun show. Seven hours. Interviewed people until my hand cramped up from writing. And Schenk was right: Not one of them identified as a Democrat.

There was another level of uniformity that surprised me. Of the roughly two dozen Trump supporters I ended up speaking with, they were evenly split in terms of their certainty on Election Day 2016. One half recalled holding their noses in voting for him; the other half swore they never had a second thought. But when I asked the members of the former group how likely they were to vote for him again, every single person said their reluctance had vanished. There were no more doubts, no more concerns. He had passed—well, if not every test, the most important ones.

“You have to understand, people like me, we feel misunderstood,” explained DAVE COLEMAN, a 61-year-old pastor (and part-time police officer) from Perry, Michigan. “As an evangelical Christian, I’m looking out for the moral fundamentals of this country. And people like me, maybe we don’t understand Trump, or agree with his lifestyle, but we respect and appreciate that he upholds those fundamentals.”

He continued, “You have to engage with multiple levels of truth. That might sound contradictory or disingenuous. But on one level, what the president has done foundationally—with the courts, with regard to life, with regard to the Second Amendment—I applaud him for. But then he says the things he says, and he sleeps with the porn stars, and everything else, and obviously I can’t condone any of that. So, it makes me live in two different worlds. And ultimately, I have to be pragmatic. I think the president has been a terrible role model for this nation. But I choose to keep supporting him because of those fundamentals he is upholding, fundamentals that I know his opponents would not uphold.”

One day, Coleman said, he hopes not to have to choose. But for now, “I live in these two worlds. And really, we all live in those two worlds—we all have people we love whose views we disagree with, or people whose views we very much agree with but that we find abhorrent personally,” he said. “I’ve counseled a lot of people over the years who have very different views than I do, but I don’t label them or caricature them.”

He’s right, of course. I witnessed more than a few things that Saturday afternoon that wouldn’t fit neatly into a narrative—most notably, how for all the gun-show talk of hating Democrats, there was little discussion of guns. If anything, most of the policy complaints I heard came back to how the NRA’s intransigence was giving gun owners a bad name. Several people I met, people with upward of 20 or 30 guns in their home, told me they were considering quitting the organization due to its opposition to narrowly crafted, common-sense reforms.

Still, finding these slivers of nuance was a chore. Maybe it was the posters showing Trump urinating on Hillary Clinton. Maybe it was the extensive collection of Nazi memorabilia for sale. Or maybe it was the decorative signs, three for $20, featuring sayings like “Keep Calm and Carry” and “WARNING: I’m a bitter gun owner clinging to religion.” But something told me this crowd didn’t mind being caricatured. If anything, they seemed to relish it.

“You know, prior to about 11 years ago, we went to these shows all over the place. And there was none of this politics nonsense,” said TOM COX, a 76-year-old Saginaw resident, sitting behind a table weighed down with enormous bags of shotgun shells. “But there were eight years in between there that separated a lot of people from each other. This country should be a lot more cohesive than it is. But there was a guy in office those eight years who really knew how to bait us.”

“That’s right—and now Trump is doing it to them!” added RANDY YACKEL, a fellow 70-something from Saginaw who sat alongside Cox. “Trump is a damn fool with his mouth, but he knows how to bait those Democrats. He’s got balls of iron.”

To what end? I ask the old-timers: At some point, don’t they want something more from politics than a pissing match between rival factions?

“Oh sure,” Randy said. “I used to vote for Democrats. But they’ve all lost their damn minds.”

He lowered his voice. “I shouldn’t be telling you this, because I’m a big Second Amendment guy. But I’ll tell you—there are a lot of guns here I don’t think should be here. Like those mini-AK pistols with the 30-round magazines? There’s no sporting purposes for that. Give me a break.”

“Yeah, but you know what?” Tom said. “Give the Democrats an inch—”

Randy nodded. “I know, I know. They’ll be like Hitler taking away guns. And we’ll be the Jews.”


By then, it was closing time. The janitors were sweeping and the concession stand clerks were emptying their registers as the vendors took inventory and prepared for the next day’s show. Few customers remained. Eight inches of wet, heavy snow had fallen outside, and the roads were turning treacherous. I had a long drive back to Washtenaw County.

There will be many more occasions to write you in the year ahead, Washington. If you’ve got places you think I should visit, people you think I should meet, drop me a line: L2W@politico.com

Your old friend,

Tim