GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (Reuters) – Diana Jones and her father were having a lovely visit at her favorite hipster eatery in Grand Rapids, Michigan, one evening this week. Martin Jones, a retired machinist who lives in a rural area about 40 miles away, shared vacation photos on his iPhone and Diana talked about a new boyfriend.
FILE PHOTO: U.S. Attorney General William Barr’s signature is seen at the end of his four page letter to U.S. congressional leaders on the conclusions of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian meddling in the 2016 election after the letter was released by the House Judiciary Committee in Washington, U.S. March 24, 2019. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
Then they were asked to discuss politics. Suddenly, they could barely look at each another.
“We don’t talk about that,” Diana Jones, 22, muttered. “It’s not a good idea. It never goes well.”
President Donald Trump on Thursday will hold his sixth political rally in this booming Midwest city of almost 200,000. It will be his first major appearance since Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded his investigation into whether Trump conspired with Russia to win the 2016 election.
Mueller found no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, while his findings on whether Trump obstructed justice were inconclusive, according to a summary of his report released by U.S. Attorney General William Barr on Sunday.
But if the schism between the Joneses is indicative, the Mueller probe will not be the final word on questions about Trump’s dealings with Russia and the issue may continue to play out as Trump’s re-election bid heats up.
Diana Jones, who voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential contest, thinks Trump is a “criminal, an animal, a racist and an embarrassment.” She is angry with his anti-immigration stance, efforts to ban transgender people from the military, and reversal of several Obama-era regulations intended to protect the environment.
“He definitely obstructed the investigation, and why would he do that if he didn’t have something to hide?” she said over coffee at The Old Goat.
Her opinion echoed a new Reuters/Ipsos poll, which this week found 53 percent of Americans continue to believe Trump tried to stop investigations into Russian influence on his administration and 48 percent still think Trump or someone from his campaign worked with Russia to influence the 2016 election.
“And there’s a lot more there besides Russia. One of these other things will catch up to him,” Diana Jones said.
On the other side of the divide is her father, who owns two hats with Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan and predicts that Trump will “go down in history as one of the greats.”
“He didn’t win because the Russians helped him, he won because he came here to Michigan and Wisconsin and spoke to working people,” said Martin Jones, 64. “And he’ll win again in 2020 because he has delivered what he promised us.”
TRUMP AND “FURNITURE CITY”
Michigan is one of Trump’s main early targets for his re-election bid. Michigan, which had long been a Democratic stronghold with heavy backing from union members, helped Trump capture the White House, as did Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
The Grand Rapids area holds special significance for Trump. He closed his 2016 campaign in the early hours of Election Day with a rally in the “Furniture City,” nicknamed for its historic manufacturing industry of home and office goods.
He went on to net nearly 9,500 more votes than Clinton in Kent County, which encompasses the increasingly Democratic city of Grand Rapids as well as a ring of Republican-heavy suburbs and farming communities. Trump won Michigan by just 10,700 votes.
He returns to Grand Rapids not necessarily to appeal to young voters like Diana Jones but to a vast swath of rural, conservative, white Michigan.
Those voters have reason to be happy. Among Rust Belt cities most battered by decades of outsourcing, Grand Rapids is “the only one of those regions that has more manufacturing jobs today than it did in 1990,” according to an August 2018 report by City Journal, a publication of the Manhattan Institute.
“With the economy firing on all cylinders as it is, especially in west Michigan, there’s no reason for these people at this point to be disenchanted with Trump,” said Bill Ballenger, a former Republican state legislator who now analyzes Michigan politics at The Ballenger Report.
“They’re probably grudgingly saying, ‘The guy may be crude, he may say some outrageous things, there may be some things he’s done we don’t like, but, man, he’s really delivered on the economy and that’s what we care about.’”
Yet Diana and Martin Jones are emblematic of the divide in their area, a traditional Republican stronghold becoming more of a battleground. In 2018, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer won Kent County as part of her victory in the Michigan governor’s race.
Diana Jones is an urbanite who picks up cosmetology gigs through Craigslist and whose diverse range of friends includes gays, Muslims and undocumented immigrants.
Her father has spent his life in a small farm town, his social circle comprised almost exclusively of other white people he knows from the factory or his church.
“They’re trying to hold on to the old ways,” Diana said of voters like her father. “That’s what Trump is to them. I just hope that, in the long run, there will be enough of us to keep them from what the Republicans are doing to our country.”
Martin Jones disagreed.
“This is why we don’t talk about these things,” he said. “I feel as misunderstood as Trump does. We’re never going to change each other’s minds. Maybe she’ll understand when she’s older.”
Reporting by Steve Friess; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Leslie Adler