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Few striking autoworkers show up for Trump's speech at a nonunion factory

Former President Donald Trump addressed the UAW strike Wednesday in a speech he scheduled to counterprogram the second Republican presidential debate.
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CLINTON TOWNSHIP, Mich. — Former President Donald Trump called for a “revival” of the economic nationalism that fueled his successful 2016 campaign in a visit here Wednesday aimed at distracting from the second Republican presidential primary debate.

Trump’s speech at a nonunion auto parts company was also geared toward blue-collar workers in the midst of a United Auto Workers strike. President Joe Biden made history Tuesday by joining a picket line outside Detroit, becoming the first sitting president to do so.

Addressing an audience of more than 300 that included only a few of the striking workers, Trump ascribed the auto industry’s problems to foreign trade deals he has long railed against — pacts that Biden and even many Republicans have supported in the past. Trump also frequently complained that Biden and Democrats were pushing electric vehicles to please environmental activists at the expense of an industry still heavily centered on gas-powered cars.

“Joe Biden claims to be the most pro-union president in history,” said Trump, who toured one of the company’s factories before he began his remarks. “His entire career has been an act of economic treason and union destruction.”

He added a direct appeal to UAW officials. 

“Hopefully,” he said, “your leaders at the United Auto Workers will endorse Donald Trump.”

The crowd cheered loudly.

Trump’s appearance in this suburb north of Detroit is packed with meaning for a presidential campaign that could very well be a rematch of his 2020 race with Biden. 

By avoiding another debate with the GOP candidates looking to snatch the nomination from him, the front-running Trump is signaling he is more focused on a general election battle against Biden. Michigan is part of the swath of industrial and Midwest states that swung to Trump in 2016 and to Biden four years later. And, on a night his rivals tangled at former President Ronald Reagan’s namesake library, Trump was smack dab in Macomb County, legendary in the 1980s for its concentration of fed up blue-collar workers known as “Reagan Democrats.”

Trump won Macomb County in 2016 and 2020, but Biden narrowed the margin a bit, losing by fewer than 40,000 votes. Hillary Clinton lost to Trump by about 48,000 votes four years earlier. The area is a major hub of auto industry activity, from car makers and parts suppliers to dealers.

The audience Wednesday was a mix of workers from the host company, Drake Enterprises, and UAW members and area politicians. Many in the crowd waved “Union Members for Trump” signs printed in the University of Michigan’s blue and gold colors. The audience also included Trump fans with no deeply vested interest in the strike who were there more for Trump than for the autoworkers. J.R. Majewski, a Trump-backing Republican who last year lost a congressional race in Toledo, Ohio, made the 80-mile trip.

Paul Sheridan, who came from nearby Bloomfield Hills to see Trump again, said: “I mean, I’ve seen him speak in person, two or three times.And he’s always very good. And he speaks the truth. He’s funny. And so it’s always great to see him in person.”

But hardly any striking workers were on hand.

“There are a few strikers here, yes,” said Brian Pannebecker, a former local autoworker who organizes an Auto Workers for Trump Facebook page and helped shore up attendees for the event. “I don’t know where they’re at. But there are several — a handful.”

One of the striking UAW members on hand, Scott Malefant, concurred.

“I haven’t seen anybody yet,” Malefant, wearing a Make America Great Again hat, said as he waited for Trump to arrive. “I’m sure there might be a few.”

The event came off like a Trump rally in miniature, far smaller than the arena blowouts he was known for in his first two campaigns but with the same festive atmosphere — a food truck, the usual campaign playlist blaring over the speakers. Trump frequently went off on tangents unrelated to the labor dispute, delighting fans who cheered for him wildly and booed at mentions of Biden’s name.

When he hit on the strike and the auto industry, Trump talked up the “America First” themes familiar to his previous runs. And while he said he has nothing against electric vehicles, he repeatedly asserted that Biden’s push to make more of them would hamstring the U.S. industry.

“The things that you make in Michigan, they don’t need any of it,” Trump said of electric car manufacturers.

Trump also held himself up as a more reliable champion for autoworkers and the industry at large, at times sounding like the president who in 2017 told supporters in Youngstown, Ohio, not to sell their homes, because manufacturing was coming back on his watch. Two years later, General Motors closed a plant in nearby Lordstown. Plants have also closed in Warren, Michigan, and Baltimore. The number of auto manufacturing jobs held relatively even during Trump’s administration, adding about 35,000 jobs from January 2017 to February 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics

“It’s obvious why Donald Trump is not at the Reagan Library tonight — he’s leading the Republican primary field by 40 points,” said Rich Luchette, a Democratic strategist. “But from a general election standpoint, Trump’s speech at a nonunion shop is a mistake. It will no doubt remind voters of Trump’s abysmal record on labor issues. Trump packed the National Labor Relations Board with anti-union appointees. Trump failed to bring back auto manufacturing jobs.”

Large throngs of Trump supporters and protesters marched near Drake before Trump arrived, waving signs and chanting. American Bridge 21st Century, a progressive super PAC, paid for a plane to circle the area with a banner reading “TRUMP SOLD US OUT.”

Biden’s re-election campaign, meanwhile, promoted a new cable TV and digital ad Wednesday aimed at Michigan voters, specifically in Detroit, Grand Rapids and Lansing. 

“He says he stands with autoworkers,” a narrator says of Trump. “But as president, Donald Trump passed tax breaks for his rich friends, while automakers shuttered their plants and Michigan lost manufacturing jobs.” 

Biden, the ad asserts, “doesn’t just talk; he delivers.” 

Several Trump backers in the crowd Wednesday acknowledged that Biden’s visit to the picket line Tuesday was a smart move.

“I’m not a big fan of him,” Malefant said. “But, you know, any support we can get, we’ll take it.” 

Asked whether Trump should have joined a picket line, Malefant countered that he “wouldn’t want to see the guy get booed or anything.”

“I think there’s always going to be a warmer welcome for Democrats when it comes to the unions,” Malefant added. “I mean, a lot of people would boo Biden, but it’s not a popular thing with unions, so we kind of keep our mouths shut.” 

Pannebecker, the organizer of the Facebook group, said Biden should not take sides in the dispute.

“I don’t think the president of the United States should be sticking his nose into contract negotiations between businesses, companies and workers,” he said. “President Trump’s here today to talk about what he accomplished during his first term and what he hopes to accomplish during his second term.”