CLINTON TOWNSHIP, MICHIGAN—In Donald Trump’s world, the Republican primary is already over.
That was the former president’s message to the hundreds of supporters who gathered to see him Wednesday evening at a factory just north of Detroit. Trump did not directly reference the Republican primary or any of his rivals, who at the moment were gearing up to begin their second debate in California. Instead, Trump railed against Joe Biden and urged his supporters to "swamp" the polls in 2024.
"For decades, you’ve watched rotten and crooked politicians like Biden treat American jobs as disposable and American workers as expendable," Trump said. "They sat back and got rich by taking bribes to let other countries rape and pillage our jobs."
With a commanding lead in the polls, Trump’s campaign is looking towards the general election and attempting to win the support of the blue collar workers who helped propel him to victory in 2016. That year, Trump won more union voters than any Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1984.
Dozens of United Auto Workers appeared to take a break from picketing the Big Three automakers to see the speech, waving signs that said "Auto Workers for Trump." Union members in attendance lauded the former president’s tariff policies, which several said were the only way to protect their jobs. One man donned a union shirt and said only protectionism can keep manufacturing jobs safe.
"Biden doesn’t care about us, he was only here because Trump was here first," the man, who said his name was Fred, told the Washington Free Beacon. "Biden wants to sell us out to China."
Biden joined a United Auto Workers picket line nearby in northern Michigan on Tuesday, the first U.S. president to ever join a picket line. But Biden announced his trip five days after Trump, leading critics to accuse him of political opportunism.
Although Drake Enterprises, where Trump spoke, is not a union shop, its location offered insight into how his campaign will attempt to unseat Biden in 2024. The plant is located in Macomb County, home to precisely the white working class voters whose support Trump will need to secure another term.
Trump’s overtures to the working man may still not be enough. Trump won Macomb County —which former president Barack Obama carried twice—in 2016 and 2020. But Trump’s lackluster performance in other Detroit suburbs cost him a win the second time around.
Nor has the Republican Party fared well in Michigan since 2016. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was one of a wave of Democrats elected in 2018, and in last year’s midterm elections the party secured a majority in the state legislature for the first time in nearly 40 years.
With President Biden’s embrace of electric vehicles, Trump believes he has found a wedge issue to peel off union votes. United Auto Worker members who spoke with the Free Beacon on Tuesday expressed concern about the industry’s shift away from the internal combustion engine. Ford CEO James Farley has said that electric vehicles require 40 percent less manpower than their gas-powered counterparts.
Trump’s speech leaned heavily into populist rhetoric and broke with traditional conservative economic orthodoxy. He promised a second term would bring a "revival of economic nationalism to the United States."
"I want a future that protects American labor, not foreign labor," Trump said. "A future that puts American dreams over foreign profits and a future that raises American wages and strengthens American industry that builds national pride."
Trump said he supported the auto strikes but urged union members to pressure their leadership to call for an end to electric vehicle mandates and subsidies.
"You can be loyal to American labor or you can be loyal to the environmental lunatics," Trump said. "But you can’t really be loyal to both."
Whether Trump is getting ahead of himself with his trip to Michigan remains to be seen. Although polls suggest he should secure the nomination with ease, a survey of Iowa caucus goers released Wednesday found that 79 percent are either considering candidates other than Trump or declining to support him. In New Hampshire, 77 percent of Republican primary voters said they are considering candidates besides Trump.