Donald Trump is looking past the Republican presidential primary. By skipping the second GOP debate Wednesday night to speak to striking auto workers in Michigan, Trump diverted attention away from his rivals and signaled that he has all but turned his focus to the general election.
In doing so, Trump wasn’t only counter-programming his Republican rivals on a California stage. He was confronting the man blocking his return to the White House, President Joe Biden, who became the first commander in chief in history to join a picket line the day before outside Detroit. And he was making a play for white working-class voters in a critical swing state where a bitter labor standoff has become a stark political test for the candidates.
“I put everything on the line to fight for you,” Trump said in a meandering, hourlong speech to workers at a non-union auto facility. “I’ve risked it all to defend the working class from the corrupt political class that has spent decades sucking the life, wealth, and blood out of this country.” At one point, Trump asked United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain and other union leaders for their endorsement. “They have to endorse Trump, because if they don’t, they are just committing suicide.”
Trump tried to contrast Biden’s support for Democratic-leaning unions by excoriating his administration’s embrace of electric vehicles, saying it would cripple the auto industry. "The damn things don't go far enough and they're too expensive,” he said. “I make a pledge to the automakers: a vote for President Trump means the future of the automobile will be made in America."
The pitch to middle-class voters in Michigan is part of a critical test for Trump. After narrowly winning the state in 2016, Trump lost to Biden in Michigan by roughly 154,000 votes in 2020. The former President senses an opportunity to make up ground with working-class Americans as striking Michigan auto workers seek a 40% wage increase to meet the rising cost of living.
It’s not only in Michigan that the battle for white working-class voters could prove decisive. The voting bloc makes up more than 40% of the entire electorate. In 2016, 62% of them cast ballots for Trump, according to a study conducted by researchers at Vanderbilt University—nearly double the total racked up by GOP President George H.W. Bush in 1992. But four years later, Trump’s support dipped and Biden won 33% of white working-class voters, compared to Hillary Clinton’s 28%, according to data analyzed by the Pew Research Center.
In his speech, Trump never mentioned any of his Republican adversaries, whom he leads by huge margins in polls. “They’re all competing for jobs and want to be Secretary of Something or they even say VP. Does anybody see any VP in the group? I don’t think so,” he said of the GOP candidates debating the same night in California.
Instead, the former President struck a populist tone. He lamented the loss of nearly 60,000 factories in America in the 21st Century, which he blamed on China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. “I have to give you the right numbers,” he said. “Otherwise, the fake news is out there.” (Data from the Census Bureau has shown that 59,794 manufacturing establishments shuttered in the United States from 2001 through 2015, but it’s far from clear that China was the impetus.)
Trump also slammed Biden’s policies designed to boost the production of electric vehicles, and made a direct appeal to blue-collar voters. “The workers of America,” he said to the crowd, “are getting screwed.” The message marked a new turn in Trump’s campaign to win back the White House. It’s not Republican primary voters he thinks he needs to worry about anymore. It’s the up-for-grabs voters who will decide the general election.
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