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Biden, Trump campaign efforts in Michigan show a sharp contrast in tone

MADISON HEIGHTS, Mich. — The Biden-Harris pep rally at a union hall here was thrown together quickly, not wanting Donald Trump’s visit to Oakland County the next day to go unchecked.

The two events could not have been more different, either in scale or in tone. A small community of Democratic activists came Friday, seeking the jolt of energy they felt their campaign lacked, and their anxiety was palpable, both for the difficulties of winning and the consequences of failure.

Then on Saturday, a mass of Trump supporters waited hours in the cold for a glimpse of their champion and the collective thrill of pouring out their passions to his routine of insults and vows and threats.

These competing gatherings offered a glimpse of the strategies both sides are pursuing in the run-up to November, with many expecting a Biden-Trump rematch at the ballot box. Democrats are looking for ways to revitalize voters who sided with President Biden in 2020, as polls show his approval rating stuck in negative territory. Trump is using a polarizing pitch to animate his base, excoriating his critics and decrying the 91 criminal charges he is facing.

The Democrats met in a beige room with a fluorescent glow, one of the many modest labor offices that dot metro Detroit like old VFW posts or churches or chain stores. There were far too many black folding chairs for the dusting of attendees, and one of the organizers encouraged everyone to move up to the front. But the greater challenge was just getting people to sit down from their side conversations.

No one here was a stranger. They knew each other from past campaigns, from presidential to the most local — the latest being persuading voters to approve a property tax to fund public transit. They were the most reliable, committed party faithful, here to freshen up their enthusiasm and messages so they could go on to inspire their networks on behalf of an incumbent president who, admittedly, was not doing a lot of inspiring on his own.

“They’re not going, ‘Oh, I’m voting for this one because I think he’s the best,’” confided the host city’s mayor, Roslyn Grafstein. “There seems to be a lot of apathy.”

As much as Democrats here knew they could not afford to take anything for granted in this crucial county in this crucial state that could decide the electoral college — and as much as they stressed the stakes of the election, for rights from abortion to voting — they also acknowledged that they were still searching for a way to energize a worried and weary electorate. To one speaker, that meant not just warning about the perils of a second Trump term but also promoting the possibilities of four more years of Biden.

“We can try to scare people about Donald Trump; it’s kind of easy to do,” Oakland County Executive David Coulter said. “But the Democratic Party, this president and vice president, have an inspiring message. … We got to inspire them.”

Biden himself last visited the state on Feb. 1, meeting with union workers and a Black business owner while taking precautions to avoid protests from the state’s large Muslim population, which is brimming with outrage over American support for Israel’s war in Gaza.

The incumbent, 81, has been making unusually few public appearances amid widespread agonizing over how he shows his age, and his surrogate as the special guest at Friday’s event was Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.), a 35-year-old San Diegan in her second term and a member of House leadership. “If you had any doubt about how important Michigan is to the Biden-Harris campaign, they asked me to come to Michigan when it’s 70 degrees at home, and I said yes,” she said to laughter and applause. (The high that day was 33 degrees.)

Jacobs delivered an affirmative case for Biden’s record on jobs, infrastructure, drug prices and student loans, while an organizer handed out fliers from the political action committee of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), warning that Trump, 77, would pursue federal abortion restrictions and urging people to “vote like hell” to “stop the bans.”

“Donald Trump wants an America where we are not the ones who get to decide and be trusted about our most fundamental rights, whether that is the right to make decisions about our own bodies and our own health care, or the right to marry who we love, or the right to vote,” Jacobs said. She recounted her own experiences on her fourth day in office, Jan. 6, 2021, cowering behind chairs in the House chamber. “He was willing to let me, my colleagues, Vice President Mike Pence and our democracy die. Joe Biden believes that our democracy is worth saving. His presidency is proof that democracy can actually deliver.”

Outside on the curb, a man walked by wearing a scarf in the white and black print of the Palestinian people, along with a woman who started pointing and calling out, inaudible through the thick windows. A few of the organizers inside started closing the blinds to avoid any further disruption. But it was already an unwelcome reminder of the party’s fractures over the destruction in Gaza. Some organizers are encouraging Democrats to select the “uncommitted” option on their ballots in the Feb. 27 primary here, aiming to hit 10,000 such protest votes — symbolizing roughly the margin of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss to Trump in Michigan. They said a phone bank on Saturday reached more than 1,100 people and recorded 668 who said yes.

As the pep rally at the union hall wrapped up, Pontiac-based community organizer Kermit Williams voiced concern with the “uncommitted” movement, even for participants who weren’t bent on objecting to Biden in November. “Once you start skipping over somebody, it becomes a habit,” he said. He also acknowledged that the Trump campaign is targeting Black men to build on gains or dissuade them from turning out, and he noted his own disappointment with the lack of any Black speakers at Friday’s Biden-Harris event.

“They could have done more, and the president has tried to do more,” Williams said. “And so this election is the ultimate ‘take one for the team.’”

A little later, over coffee, Democrat Haley Stevens said she wished more voters could see Biden the way she did, how he connects with people one on one. She said there is no way to force people to feel the effect of all the accomplishments Jacobs had listed, at a time when many people are exhausted by the news, tuning out the campaign, and hungering for community and connection as in-person activities move online.

“It’s got to be a campaign of love. It’s got to be a campaign of positivity,” she said. “Love wins. Love is louder.”

The next day, in Waterford Township, thousands of people started lining up outside the Oakland County airport, their breath pluming in the cold wind as they waited for hours in temperatures below 30 degrees. Their heavy coats concealed their festive Trump-branded apparel, which they could supplement at swag stands hawking Trump hats and Trump gloves, alongside bumper stickers reading “Joe and the Hoe Gotta Go” and “USA, Love It or Leave It.” A Trump float rolled up and down the road blasting classic rock and blaring “Save America!”

“The walk from the parking lot dang near killed me,” said Mark Forton, a Republican activist from neighboring Macomb County, known as an electoral bellwether. He joked that he walked passed a police SUV and asked the officer, “If I reach in there and slap you around a little bit, would you arrest me and take me to a nice warm jail?”

He added: “Macomb went big for Trump in 2016, and we’ll do it again. The people want ’im.”

Through the Secret Service screening, it was still cold inside an unheated plane hangar, but packed enough that some coats could come off to reveal a sweatshirt showing an assault rifle and the words “I will not comply,” a T-shirt that said “Democrats are Communists,” and another with the word “BULL” next to a caricature of Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.).

The campaign passed out signs that said “FIRE BIDEN,” and the crowd was shouting, “Joe can go to hell!” and “F— Joe Biden!” as Rep. Lisa C. McClain (R-Mich.) warmed up the crowd. At the mention of Whitmer, the crowd chanted, “Lock her up!” They danced and sang along to Pitbull and Johnny Cash, as much to stay warm as to have fun.

One woman screamed and then the entire crowd erupted in cheers as Trump’s gleaming jet glided past the opening in the back of the hangar, a deep blue missile across the pale pink dusk sky. He was flying in from a stop-off in Philadelphia to unveil a pair of gold-colored sneakers. A drumroll thundered over the loudspeakers, and the crowd broke into a Trump chant, but it was not time for his grand entrance yet — just the intro of James Brown and Luciano Pavarotti’s duet of “It’s a Man’s World.”

A young girl complained that she could not see over the standing mass, and her father assured her she would see later, when people sat down. “He goes on for hours,” he said.

“I don’t want to be here for hours,” she whined.

“Then go wait in the car.”

“I’m only 11, I don’t care about politics.”

“Shut up.”

When Trump did appear, it got only harder to see as people held up their hands to wave and record him on their phones. A woman in an orange sweatshirt stood on her chair, and a man behind her barked, “Hey, Orange! Sit down!”

“We’re not worried about the primary,” Trump said from under a red MAGA cap, gesticulating in black leather gloves as the crowd roared. “We want to win Nov. 5. We’re going to bring our country back from hell.”

“That’s right!” one person shouted back.

In one of his signature tactics, Trump spun the same accusations against him directly around on his opponents. Charged with trying to overturn the 2020 election, he called his prosecution a “threat to democracy.” Having named the critics he wants to punish in a second term, he described the array of civil and legal cases against him as all products of “bitterness and revenge and hatred.”

He assailed the $355 million fine issued the day before in a New York civil fraud trail against his businesses as an “atrocity” and a “disgusting charade,” calling the attorney general who brought the case and the judge, Arthur F. Engoron, who decided it “lunatics.”

“Treason!” a supporter shouted.

“Engoron’s a moron!” said another.

Trump polled the audience on which nickname he should use for Biden, “Crooked” or “Sleepy,” and some in the crowd shouted back their own suggestions. “Creepy Joe!” “Demented Joe!” “Suicide Joe!” “Traitor!” “Pedo!”

Trump derided the “fake news,” and the crowd turned around to jeer and throw up middle fingers at the press risers. He repeated his regular pledge to “drive out the globalists” and “cast out the communists, Marxists and fascists. We will throw off the sick political class that hates our country. They truly do. They hate our country.”

“We are like the stupid country,” Trump said. Without evidence, he accused migrants of coming from “insane asylums” and prisons.

“Deport the illegals!” a supporter cried out.

“Our cities, they’re falling apart. Our country is falling apart. We’re like a third-world nation,” Trump said.

The 11-year-old fell asleep on the floor, while her brother, wearing socks stitched with “Let’s Go Brandon” (code for a profane attack on Biden), stood on a chair for a better view.

“You’re freezing your ass off, right?” Trump said to more cheers and whistles. “But it’s warm because there’s love in this room. Right?”

“Yes!” the crowd shouted back.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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