BIRCH RUN — They came, they said, to hear his blunt, often-controversial take on issues like immigration, succinctly summed up in one of his more popular one-liners — “We need to build a wall (on the border)”. For his presence, described as both arrogant and confident. Or because they wanted to hear something new.
After the speech some left disappointed, citing lack of substance to reporters. Others called his presence and approach to politics what they’d been praying for.
For the crowd of roughly 2,800 gathered Tuesday evening for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s first visit to Michigan during his campaign, he seemed to spark high interest overall if nothing else, with many breaking out in enthusiastic chants and rising to their feet throughout the speech.
Trump, who is currently leading in the polls for the Republican nomination despite a series of controversial comments about women, immigrants, and members of his party, visited the state for a sold-out fundraiser hosted by the Genesee and Saginaw County GOP.
In a roughly 50 minute speech, he touched on a range of issues, including China, the rest of the GOP field, the Obama administration’s proposed deal with Iran, and immigration, among others.
On China, Trump cited the nation’s recent move to devalue its currency, which lowers its worth compared to other country’s currencies.
Changes in currency value can have international impacts on trade, pricing, interest rates and other factors.
“Now, you know what devalue means, right?” he asked the crowd. “Devalue means suck the blood out of the United States. Our companies won’t be able to compete. They can’t compete now.”
Speaking to the Iran deal proposed by the Obama administration, Trump called it incompetent and said it could lead to nuclear proliferation.
“The worst thing that can happen is a bad deal,” he said. “That’s far worse than not having a deal. And this deal is beyond bad.”
An Iran deal negotiated under a “President Trump”, he added to cheers, would have included return of four Americans who have been identified by the U.S. State Department as being held in the country against their will. The current deal doesn’t mention the four.
Moving closer to Michigan, he also discussed the construction of a $2.5 billion Ford plant in Mexico, which he criticized as negative for American businesses.
“Ford is building a $2.5 billion car factory in Mexico,” he told reporters before the speech. “I went to the Wharton School of Finance. How does that help us?”
Speaking to the crowd, he continued the criticism, drawing some of the loudest applause of the evening.
“We don’t have to be business geniuses to figure well, they’re building a plant, it’s a massive plant, one of the biggest in the world,” he said. “And I actually gave them a good idea. Why don’t we just let the illegals drive the cars and trucks right through the border?”
Trump provided few policy details for most of the issues he mentioned— a common criticism of his campaign —but told reporters before the speech that he would roll out “numbers and specifics” within the next two weeks.
In response to multiple media questions about providing more details on policy, he cited several previous business deals where he said he’d succeeded by not going in with a fully defined plan.
“I think you’re going to see lots of plans…and you have to understand, when you’re coming up with a plan, in business, you’ve got to be flexible,” he said. “You’ve got to have flexibility.”
For attendees who left satisfied with the speech, though, Trump’s appeal seemed to lie more in other aspects.
Christian Lee, a Canton resident, said he liked Trump not necessarily because of a specific policy platform, but more because of how he approached politics and policy overall.
“I’ve always enjoyed his take on politics, and saying it straight and not trying to be politically correct,” Lee said.
Nancy Hyd-Davis, who volunteered at the event, echoed the appreciation of Trump’s presence.
“I like him more now than I did coming into it,” she said after the speech. “I think we’re too politically correct, and I think we need somebody with a strong personality.”
Keith Herzog, a Linden resident, and Donald Crawford of San Francisco, described a similar appeal.
“(A) voice of power, instead of laying down — the passion and confidence, I wanted to see it in person,” Crawford said.
“Everybody says he’s overly arrogant,” Herzog added. “But at the same time, I think he’s not, after listening to him in person, because they only put one side to him…he’s not as arrogant, he thinks through his ideas.”
When asked whether they thought Trump’s message would resonate in Michigan, which typically has swung Democratic in presidential elections but leaned Republican in the past few midterm elections, responses were mixed.
Citing Trump’s criticism of Ford’s plant in Mexico, Herzog said the issue would help him in the state.
“He wants it be here, he says — that alone will make Michigan vote for him 100 percent,” Herzog said.
“I think he could attract more people because he’s different,” Lee said. “I don’t know if he could make Michigan go Republican, but I think he has a better shot than Jeb Bush or someone who’s more mainstream.”
Outside the venue earlier in the day, the roughly 70 Democratic activists gathered to protest Trump had a slightly different view.
Bobbie Walton, head of the advocacy group Citizens Against Government Overreach, said she didn’t necessarily see a big chance for Trump in Michigan, but that his influence on election as a whole could matter.
“There will be some (votes for Trump),” she said. “But he’s setting the standard, and he’s starting the conversation, and we need to change the conversation.”
Another protester, David Roof, a Grand Blanc resident, had harsher words for the candidate and the crowd.
“It’s the attraction of people driving down a road and looking at road-kill,” he said.