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As GOP candidates evoke Reagan, Michigan Republicans say the future is Trump, indictments and all

In 2016, a voter brought a Ronald Reagan campaign prop from 1980 to the final campaign event of Donald Trump and Mike Pence in Grand Rapids, Mich.Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images

SHELBY TOWNSHIP, Mich. — The federal criminal indictment of former president Donald Trump has set up an extraordinary confrontation between President Biden’s administration and the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, one that could shape the next race for the presidency and the direction of the GOP for a generation.

It has also made Darlene Doetzel like Trump even more.

“Had it not been for the witch hunt, if they’d left him alone, I’d probably be for Ron DeSantis,” said Doetzel, a retiree and a devoted GOP activist wearing a pink blazer over a black T-shirt emblazoned with rhinestones that spelled out the word “Trump.”


“Since they’re persecuting my president,” she added, “I swear allegiance to him.”

Doetzel was leaving a packed meeting of the Macomb County Republican Party Executive Committee last Thursday, where Trump is still considered the rightful president and Biden a “usurper,” and where the news of Trump’s newest indictment barely caused a stir in a crowd that was listening intently as the evening’s featured speaker denied recent election results.

“Shut off the TV until we have free and fair elections,” the speaker, Michael Butz, told the crowd. “You can’t win in their fictional system.”

Forty years ago, Macomb County, a swath of industrialized suburbs north of Detroit, famously helped to power the landslide victory of a different Republican, Ronald Reagan, when white, working-class voters on both sides of the political aisle flocked to his genial brand of ideological conservatism. The subsequent recognition of “Reagan Democrats” forever cast the county as a bellwether. Since then, Macomb has backed Trump twice, embracing his anti-immigrant and anti-free trade rhetoric, which underscores just how hard it might be to dislodge him.

“I don’t think they’re Reagan Democrats anymore,” said David Dulio, a distinguished professor of political science at Oakland University, in nearby Rochester, Mich. “I think they’re Trump Republicans.”


What’s more, the fealty to Trump is a warning sign to his primary opponents who are hoping to ride the Reaganesque appeals that once worked so well here to the White House.

“Not interested,” Pam Pfeuffer said of those contenders as she made her way back to her car after the meeting. “I liked Reagan, but I need someone who’s going to do something.”

The clearest and most Reaganesque messaging in the field comes from former vice president Mike Pence, who launched his own presidential campaign last Wednesday with 1980s-style visual branding and a campaign video that quoted Reagan himself.

“President Reagan described us as a shining city on the hill and above all he called on Americans to renew optimism, and believe in themselves again, to believe in each other,” Pence said, speaking over swelling music. At his first campaign event in Iowa, he told supporters he had joined the Reagan revolution “and never looked back.”

He is hoping to appeal to the same group of Republicans who powered Reagan’s victory, a so-called three-legged stool of Christian conservatives, fiscal conservatives, and foreign policy hawks, although it is not clear how willingly those blocs would combine.

“Reagan has become a revered historical figure, but he’s not a particularly relevant figure in today’s GOP,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “Trump has completely redefined the GOP, so that everyone is evaluated in relationship with Trump and their attitude about him.”


For Doetzel, the activist in the sparkly Trump shirt, Pence’s relationship to Trump was summed up in one word: “Traitor.”

“I will never vote for Mike Pence,” she said, complaining about his refusal to hold up the certification of the 2020 election as Trump had pressed him to.

Pence is not the only candidate invoking the 40th president. Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina quoted the same “city on a hill” line when announcing his own presidential run in May with a sunny optimism that has led multiple pundits to compare him to Reagan. And Governor Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, who has said he is not running for president, spurred new speculation about his ambitions when he released a campaign-style video of him praising Reagan while speaking at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library; another presidential hopeful, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, also made sure to stop visit the Reagan library back in March.

“Oh yeah, they want to connect themselves, they want to be like Reagan, they want to go to the conservative base,” Mark Forton, chair of the Macomb County GOP, said dismissively. It was Reagan, Forton said, who inspired him to get involved in politics, back when he was an auto worker in the 1980s, and he proudly voted for Reagan back then.

But much has changed since.

“In my view,” he said, “Trump is much better than Reagan.”

A glimpse of the committee meeting Forton presided over offers a window into the priorities of a slice of the Republican Party apparatus in 2023 as it faces the very real possibility of choosing a presidential nominee who is under indictment and facing possible prison time.


“We all know Donald Trump is the president of the United States and he was elected in 2020,” Forton said early in the meeting. “If we hope to win in 2024, between now and then, we must fix our elections system.”

Forton also accused Biden of “selling our secrets to the communist red Chinese.” Someone was selling shirts reading “Freedom first, responsibility second, safety third,” and stapled printouts on the members’ chairs suggested that drug “cartels may have a role in election manipulation.”

In recent years, Michigan Republicans have been beset by infighting, while Democrats notched significant victories in the 2018 midterms, won the state in the 2020 presidential election, and again won up and down the ballot in the 2022 midterms. Trump won Macomb County in both 2016 and 2020, but in a possible sign of shifting political winds, Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, won the county in 2022.

“You get variation. Swing,” said Stanley Greenberg, the Democratic pollster who first wrote about the Reagan Democrats who put Macomb in Reagan’s column.

At one point last year, the Macomb GOP split into two different factions, with Forton leading the group that believes Trump is the rightful president and a second group that had the backing of the state party. Forton ultimately emerged victorious. And, the state party is now controlled by Kristina Karamo, an election denier who lost her race for secretary of state last fall. She has blasted efforts by former governor Rick Snyder, a Republican from the party establishment, to raise money for Republicans running for the state Legislature.


“Macomb is kind of a microcosm of the struggles the Republican Party is having today in many ways,” Dulio, the professor, said.

A gathering of party activists is not necessarily representative of all voters here; to that point a more moderate Republican, John James, currently represents the area in Congress. But the party faithful can help select delegates and rules that can help shape a primary; and recent changes to the GOP’s nomination process in Michigan could give these activists even more power come 2024.

“Whoever’s indicting Donald Trump now, they will be the ones going to jail in the end. This is all coming to a head now,” Forton said. “It’s going to explode.”

Jess Bidgood can be reached at Follow her @jessbidgood.