DETROIT – It was 3:05 p.m. on Election Day in Macomb County, about 25 miles northeast of Detroit and a bellwether whose voters have predicted the outcome of the last seven presidential elections.
In the weeks leading up to this day, fear and distrust had become constant conditions for an electorate destined to decide the political fate of a nation. On both sides of party lines people harbored suspicions that the other will try to steal the election, or that the election is rigged. Some had lost all faith in the democratic process. The possibility of violent confrontation continued to linger, the foiled plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer just a month prior. The reality that Joe Biden would likely become the next president of the United States would not set in for another two or three days.
Across the country, storefronts were boarded and gun sales continued to surge. But so far the day had held a tension of nervous calm here, sunlight streaking through the window of a diner as the only waitress on duty floated across the linoleum tiled floor with a pot of coffee, refilling the cups of a few stragglers.
I had my notebook flipped open, trying to pull together a cohesive narrative about what I had heard from voters at the polls today. There was a Black woman from Detroit who says she grew disillusioned with the Democratic party after she and her husband both lost their manufacturing jobs during the Obama years, and is now voting for Trump. And there was a white guy from the same district, wearing a cossack hat and a tactical gas mask, who said he voted for Biden because, as he sees it, it’s the next logical step in the peaceful and inevitable establishment of a full communist utopia.
“What do you think about this election?” I asked the waitress at a small diner.
“I think it’s good versus evil,” she said, looking down at me with wide-eyes through a pair of square-framed glasses.
I had heard similar words before, the idea that the country was in an open revolution against itself, that both sides have come to see the other as an existential threat, and that civil discourse over policy had long ago been checked at the door, leaving the country in a naked brawl to determine its identity.
The wheels of Air Force One screeched onto the tarmac of Lansing International Airport on a cold, wet day with one week until the election. A sea of red hats and red fists erupted as the President climbed out of a blacked out Chevrolet and approached the podium. ‘God Bless the USA’ roared over the cheers. A woman in a mink coat wept, clutching a man in a red NASCAR jacket.
Trump clutched the podium, glancing up at the sleet that had been falling on the crowd for hours as they waited for his arrival. He said he felt guilty that the crowd had been waiting in the cold, and out of solidarity he said he decided to brave the elements and walk to the podium.
“They said, sir, we have a car, it is going to take you from Air Force One. And I said I have to walk. I mean, these people are tough. They’re from Michigan,” he told the crowd to rapturous applause.
The last four years of the Trump administration have been a study in Orwellian theory. And in the wake of that, it seems trite to point to this one small distortion of the truth. But this wasn’t a press briefing, or an interview, or even a debate. Here the President was talking to his most loyal supporters — and lying to them about even the most mundane of facts.
I asked the man next to me if he had seen the President climb out of the Chevrolet. He shrugged, and said he had. “That’s just Trump,” he said.
Later, Trump paused his speech to play a video on a mega-screen lofted above the crowd. It flashed slow, black and white cut-scenes of Joe Biden stuttering, stumbling to get his words out. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness possessed the crowd. They booed and jeered and laughed. And the President laughed with them.
The line at the polling place in Warren, Metro-Detroit’s largest suburb, stretched out of city hall and twisted around a third story parking garage. Mike stood in that line, trading glances between the time and the mail-in ballot in his hand, which had been returned because his signature didn’t match town records.
He had skipped his lunch break at a nearby warehouse to vote, but now that break was over. Now he said he probably just wouldn’t vote, which didn’t matter to him because he hadn’t fully made up his mind anyway. In the last election, the first he had voted in, his Dad told him to vote for Trump. And he did. But his Dad died last year, and now he is having trouble deciding who and what to believe in.
“I don’t like Trump but I can’t just give it to Biden either,” he said, drawing on his vape-pen.
His issues with each candidate were mostly personal. He said he didn’t like Trump’s loose rhetoric and he felt like Biden was a puppet of darker forces on the left. As he hashed it out with himself, a man with a neatly-trimmed beard and a walk that echoed through the parking garage approached. He told Mike what he already knew: that those controlling Biden want to surrender the country to China and are licking their lips to seize their guns and unleash anarchy on the United States. To prove it, he pulled out his phone and typed in antifa.com — which redirects to Joe Biden’s campaign page.
Mike stumbled back, wide-eyed, “That’s exactly what I’m talking about,” he said, vowing to return on Election Day to vote, not for Trump, but against Biden. That was one vote of just over 2.6 million in Michigan.
“The truth of what has happened to our people has been pushed down for so long. And they don’t want to hear it. So we make them hear it by bringing it to the streets,” said a Black Lives Matter activist at a demonstration in Detroit.
“The truth is already here,” said a middle-aged man with glassy eyes, his head cocked back knowingly, waving a QAnon flag at a small but heavily armed demonstration in the suburbs of Grand Rapids.
In the dead of night, as Trump declared a false and vague victory over the presidential election in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, the gears of democracy were still grinding in the basement of the TCF Center in Detroit, where hundreds of poll workers had their heads down, hunched over collapsable tables working to ensure that every vote would count.
The news sent tremors rippling through the counting center, an open room with high-vaulted ceilings supported by concrete pillars. There was a dissonance in the push notifications that began popping up, alerting that our democracy was under attack from its own highest power, and the quiet, sacred democratic process at work in front of them. A group of poll workers gathered in front of a phone screen, muttering in hushed tones. One of many poll challengers roaming the concrete floor paused, flashing the news on his cell phone with another. They shrugged, unsure of how to process the news, and continued roaming. In the quiet functioning of American democracy, these were the gears slowly grinding. This was the dull hum of process and there were poll watchers representing both parties, despite the White House’s claims to the contrary.
“We knew this was going to happen,” said a poll challenger from the democratic party, sitting on the concrete with his sleeves rolled up and tie loose around his neck, eating a granola bar. “There’s nothing we can do but keep going.”
Outside the TCF Center, the hissing breaks and rattling engines of dawn were beginning to break on an anxious and uncertain day in the nation’s history. A throng of republican poll challengers, urged on by the President, were begging to descend the escalator. But the poll workers would remain in the basement, quietly and diligently counting the votes that would determine its fate.
On the eve of Election Day, a security guard named Costello sat on the night shift in the dim light of a Detroit apartment building. In 2016, Trump campaigned on the idea that his voters and their beliefs represented the silent majority of Americans. And he was right. But in the following days, as a wave of blue votes swept the state, it became clear that it was voices like Costello who represented the silent majority:
“Hopefully, enough people will have the common sense to understand that it is the right thing to do, to vote him out. With all that’s going on in the world, we need some sanity. Hopefully we can get it tomorrow. Because if we don’t do something about it, then what sanity does America have left. We’ve got the nation divided, people are just losing their minds, losing their jobs. What do you got to do to convince people that we need a leader who is going to change things. I don’t get it. I just don’t get it.”
“I’m going to be there voting first thing in the morning. I have to, because I didn’t trust the mail in stuff. And I didn’t trust walking in early. I’m going to be there, because that is what my forefathers died for. They fought so we could vote. So I might as well take my behind up there and vote.”
“Trump, he’s like the virus, and the lies that he says keep spreading. We’ve been living in the darkest days. And right now we need the truth,” said a security guard in Detroit. “It’s only the truth. You’re supposed to be able to tell the truth. But a lot of people don’t want to hear it.”
“We just want the truth,” said a woman protesting the election results in front of the Detroit Counting Center.
“When it really goes down, who gives a fuck about the truth,” said a chef on the University of Michigan campus, who plans to spend election day in a bunker.
There is a direct call and response from Trump’s tweets to his supporters. And as Trump cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election early Wednesday morning, that response was realized.
Footsteps could be heard echoing through the hall as dozens of Republican poll challengers stormed down the stairs at the Detroit Counting Center. Most said they were organized by a local GOP representative, but the challengers already on the floor were at capacity, and those coming in were blocked by a line of police officers at the door.
The prospective challengers, sealed tight behind a tall panel of glass windows, pressed their faces against the glass, furious as they watched the gears of the democratic process grading against them. “Stop the vote!” They chanted, rhythmically pounding against the glass and sending echoes through the hall. As the count marched on, the chants grew more desperate.
A cold wind swept through a parking lot in Detroit’s Belle Isle Park, as a few dozen Biden supporters who couldn’t get into the rally huddled around a car stereo to hear the candidate’s speech. With Stevie Wonder and Barack Obama setting the tone, Biden came out strong. He sounded, as one listener put it, presidential. But a string of coughs towards the end of his speech sent an anxious hush through the crowd.
Anthony Semler had always considered himself a Republican, the kind of Republican who owns guns and loves freedom. For him, it was an inherited trait, like the color of his hair. He had heard of the fabled Michigan militias when he was growing up, everyone had, but he had never even considered joining one.
But in the last seven months, all that changed.
When Semler first crossed paths with the Michigan Liberty Militia, a small, local and heavily armed paramilitary organization that had ties to some involved in an alleged plot to kidnap the State’s governor, it took place online. In April, a movement was brewing on various Facebook groups to occupy the Lansing Capitol building to protest what he and many others saw as excessive lockdown restrictions. He said he decided to join in, and like many others that day he brought with him tactical gear and a semi-automatic rifle — and made some friends.
Semler said he rubbed shoulders with members of the Michigan Liberty Militia for the following weeks, both online and at barbecues in his hometown of St. John, a small and affluent suburb north of Lansing. His six kids became friends with the kids of others in the militia. He said he never had any interest in going beyond that.
But just after national protests erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Semler’s boss began placing Trump and Blue Lives Matter signs in the front window of his supply store with intention. And when a group he describes as “antifa kids” moved in across the street, the signs started to get vandalized. One night, Semler said a rumor began circulating on Facebook that those “antifa kids” were coming to burn the store down.
Semler asked those in the Michigan Liberty Militia for support. There was never any sign of “antifa kids” after that, he said. Or, perhaps there never was from the start. What is certain is that the Liberty Militia stood guard in front of the store for two full nights.
Semler said he felt that he owed it to those in the Liberty Militia to repay the favor, so over the last five months he has shown up as support to defend Confederate monuments and marched armed in the streets to defend the second amendment.
“I’m not in the militia,” he said,with emphasis. “Most of the people mixed in with these groups are like me. We’re not parading around in front of the media. We’re sleepers. If there is something that needs to be done, we’ll do it.”
And now, in the wrought days following the election, there may indeed be ‘something’ to be done from the point of view of those who feel drawn to the militias and what they stand for. Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud have drawn the Liberty Militia from central Michigan to the Detroit Counting Center, asking Semler, his wife and a small faction of others for support. They left their long guns at home, he said. They’ll only need their pistols.
A cacophony of conflicting voices could be heard grinding against each other in the streets of downtown Detroit in the liminal days after the election. As Biden secured his lead and Trump desperately tried to claim both victory and fraud, riot police attempted to divide the sides into two demonstrations — but it was clear the divisions between the groups ran deeper than party lines.
On one side, a militarized Black Lives Matter group, armed with mace and guns stirred the ire of a brigade of activists in yellow jackets, demanding peacefully that every vote be counted. On the other side, an unidentified paramilitary group in camouflage tactical gear stood next to unaligned Trumpers, an anti-vaxxer, and three men with bull horns and distended jugulars, screaming baseless conspiracy theories about voter fraud: talk of poll workers throwing away votes, counting dead voters and a Ferrari with out of state plates dropping off 100,000 ballots in the dead of night.
I stood on the perimeter, watching as the two sides clashed, chanting over each other and over themselves.
There was an unnerving quiet as the protests were separated, the chants died down and both sides of the were left staring at each other from across a line of police sirens. Through the last four years, these groups have come to define each other through the friction of opposition. But as one of the most widely contested elections in United States history draws to a close, it is clear that the tension hasn’t faded.