MONROE, MI – He flipped anxiously between news stations, bracing for an announcement of bombs falling and troops boarding planes destined for the Middle East. It was a nightmare he hoped he would never see again.
Michael Ingram’s son, Michael Jr., died in Afghanistan in 2010 at age 23. Every day since, Ingram has prayed for American presidents to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and bring every last soldier home. Instead, it seemed to him this week that the United States was edging perilously close to another one.
The highest-stakes week of President Donald Trump’s administration, when a standoff with Iran pushed the countries to the brink of war, was felt most viscerally by people like Ingram and in places such as Monroe. This blue-collar corner of southeast Michigan has buried young soldiers at a rate higher than in most other places of the country. Here, matters of war and peace are deeply personal.
They may also be politically important come November. Monroe is a swing county in a swing state, part of a cluster of Rust Belt communities along the border of Ohio and Michigan that voted for Democrat Barack Obama but then flipped to help put Trump in the White House in 2016. Its assessment of his performance as commander in chief could decide whether he stays there next year.
Conversations with people here, including many with veterans and military families, reveal how complex that assessment is. Trump's campaign promise to stop the “endless wars" resonated with many, but so did his pledge to answer aggression with relentless strength. Trump supporters in Monroe say they are not against military action. They just want to win and win quickly. They said they trust Trump will.
A week that began with uncertainty and terror ended with Ingram, and others here, seeming to stand more resolutely behind Trump. Last week, Trump authorized the targeted killing of Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani. Iran responded by firing more than a dozen missiles at American bases in Iraq in its most aggressive assault since seizing the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979.
As the bombs rained down, Ingram had been so tense that he remembered the exact moment Trump walked behind a podium to announce a detente that meant America was not going immediately into war: 11:22 a.m. Wednesday.
“I was proud of Trump because I thought it was going to get a lot worse. I thought it was going to be bombing all night long, and I don’t want anyone to die,” Ingram said of the president he voted for three years ago and suspects he will again.
His sentiment was repeated by others in this former union stronghold of about 150,000 people, where American flags fly from poles in lawn after lawn. The median household income nears $60,000, higher than the national average, even as the area has suffered some of the same blows to its manufacturing economy as other Rust Belt counties.
Larry Mortimer, a 36-year-old veteran of the Iraq War, did not vote in 2016. He now considers himself undecided. But this past week pushed him closer to Trump, he said, because the president made America look tough.
“It shows that if you pick on us, we’re not going to let you get away with it,” Mortimer said, “and in turn we’re going to show force, we’re not going to back down.”
Monroe County, population 150,000, has had six military casualties since 2001, putting it above the national per capita averages.
Places such as Monroe that have seen their sons and daughters die overseas at higher rates voted disproportionately for Trump, according to a 2017 study by researchers from Boston University and the University of Minnesota. Even when the authors accounted for other factors that could tilt the scales in Trump's favor — lower college graduation rates, income level, racial diversity — they found Trump did better than previous Republican candidates in communities that have shouldered a heavier burden for the war.
Doug Kriner, one of the authors of the study, sees the connection as part of Trump's appeal to the forgotten men and women of America. Much of the country pays scant attention to the wars, while only a small slice of Americans go to fight. The research found those Americans responded to the politician who promised they would no longer be overlooked, Kriner wrote.
Kriner, now a professor at Cornell University, saw a warning for Trump in his research: Trump risks turning off voters who embraced his pledge to avoid “stupid wars” and being viewed as “another politician who overlooks the invisible inequality of military sacrifice."
“For most of the first three years, Trump barked loudly at times, but was quite restrained militarily,” Kriner wrote in an email interview this past week. “But now his saber-rattling has crossed over into a dangerous escalation that risks a wider conflagration. I don't think voters in these constituencies where Trump made inroads are necessarily anti-war. But he might not seem like a breath of fresh air anymore, but rather more of the same.”
After voting twice for Obama, Monroe County swung hard toward Trump, selecting him by a margin of more than 20 percentage points. His victory here was critical to claiming Michigan and the White House.
Andy Dybala went both times for Obama, embracing the Democrat's promise of a brighter, more peaceful world. But Dybala grew disheartened, in a large part because of continued military attacks a world away. Now he’s the founder of the Bedford Trump Train, a canvassing group in a township in Monroe County, working to get out the vote for Trump.
“I don’t want any of my fellow Americans to be over there dying, and I don’t want any fellow earthlings to be in situations where they can’t prosper because we’re in war in their country,” he said. “They’re just going to hate us more.”
Dybala said he trusts Trump’s temperament to steer the U.S. away from war. He thinks the president’s bombastic and mercurial personality is mostly show and that Trump is more level-headed than his Twitter account might suggest.
Dybala's partner in the Bedford Trump Train is married to an immigrant from Ghana, Rita Adler, who had nightmares last week because she doesn’t believe Trump has the disposition to negotiate war and peace. Trump has called foreign leaders names and run roughshod over traditional diplomatic niceties.
“I am so scared of Trump,” she said. “You are the father of the land, you have to respect when you talk, so you don’t offend.”
Some who did not support Trump in the last presidential election said they were surprised to find themselves impressed with how he handled the situation with Iran.
In 2016, for the first time in Terry Van Sickle’s 73 years, he did not vote for president. He’s a Vietnam veteran and found both Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton unpalatable so left his ballot blank. He was stunned as he watched Trump's address to the nation last week.
“I think that was the first time I ever saw him act like a president,” Van Sickle said.
It might have made him consider voting for Trump but for one thing: Trump included a dig at Obama, alleging the Iranian missiles were paid for by funding unfrozen by Obama’s administration as part of the Iran nuclear deal. Van Sickle found it petty and distasteful for the commander in chief to make a political swipe at such a monumental moment.
But it is that recalcitrance that causes others to support Trump unconditionally.
“I want him to go blow the hell out them, make it a sandbox, call it a day. No more politically correct,” said Karen Orofino, a 67-year-old Trump voter who says there’s nothing Trump could do between now and November to sway her vote away from him. “I know that sounds heartless, but I’m so over the pussyfooting around there. We’ve lost too many American lives.”
A Pew Research Center poll conducted in October 2016 found that Trump supporters were more likely to say that the U.S. should deal with its own problems than help other countries. But they were also more likely to say they were more concerned that military action would not go far enough in stopping Islamic militants. A 2019 Pew poll found at least 8 in 10 Republicans expressed confidence in Trump to use military force wisely and navigate an international crisis.
Matt Vititoe, a Navy veteran of the Persian Gulf War who runs the county’s Democratic Party, worries that the high stakes of America’s conflicts in the Middle East will be lost in partisan political battles and become just one more thing in the daily torrent of Trump news.
“There’s a certain numbness that people feel because it seems like it’s always something,” he said. “I think there’s a bit of Trump fatigue.”
But for some here, the week roused them from political indifference.
Sgt. Michael Ingram’s mother hasn’t voted in years. Politicians kept promising to bring home American troops and no one ever did, Patricia Kitts said.
“When my son passed away, everything went out of me,” she said. “I felt like why vote for somebody that keeps saying they’re going to do something and nothing ever changes?”
She said she doesn’t support war in the Middle East but she supports America's troops. In her son’s honor, his family started a charity called Mikie's Minutes that sends calling cards to soldiers so they can phone their families for free. She runs in competitions and carries the American flag, with 39 ribbons bearing names of the dead, each a person she or her son knew personally. It’s so heavy, she said, that it gave her bone spurs on her shoulder, but she continues to run with it anyway because she fears that many might forget their sacrifice, including her son’s. He was goofy, always having fun, she said. She called him Pookie.
This past week was one of the worst for her since his death. She saw videos of troops preparing for battle: marching across a tarmac, climbing the stairs to the airplane and disappearing inside, heading for an uncertain future. She thought of the last time she saw her own son, and that the family of one of these soldiers might have to endure what she has. She felt physically sick; she turned off the television, told her co-workers not to tell her what was happening and deleted Facebook from her phone.
She’s going to vote this time, she said. It will be for whichever candidate convinces her that the ending wars will be the priority.
“Bring our babies back,” she said. “And if you promise to bring our troops home, you better bring them home.”
AP Director of Public Opinion Research Emily Swanson and data journalist Angeliki Kastanis contributed to this report.
Catch up on the 2020 election campaign with AP experts on our weekly ``Ground Game’’ politics podcast