The writer is a contributing columnist, based in Chicago
“It’s wrong. Wrong! That district attorney should be disbarred.”
Suzanne Windle, 64, voted for President Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020 and she leapt to his defence again, hours after he became the first ex-president in US history to face criminal indictment by Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg. And she did it with exactly the mix of vehemence and outrage that Trump is counting on to give him another shot at the US presidency.
But signs are that Trump had better think twice before counting on voters like Windle, whom I met when savouring one of the cultural rites of Midwestern springtime, the Friday night Lenten fish fry at the Polish Centre of Wisconsin. Windle — and her self-described “office husband” Tom Comiskey, 65, longtime work colleagues now retired — represent a class of Midwestern Trump voter that I find myself running into more and more: the kind that passionately defends the former president, but isn’t sure they want to vote for him again.
“As much as I like, or liked, Trump, it just would be too polarising to have him run again, I don’t think he will be the nominee — but the Democrats will do anything they can to prevent it,” says Comiskey. And it’s not just Republicans like him who question the indictment’s motivation in this way: 62 per cent of Americans told one poll last week that they think it is mainly motivated by politics.
Windle is Polish by birth, Comiskey Irish and I am descended from Italian immigrants: three blue collar US ethnic groups who helped power Trump’s rise in the Midwest.
We digested our cod, pierogies and chips, piled in shades of beige in a white styrofoam box, to the strains of a polka played on the accordion — the music and food of my Midwestern childhood. And we talked about what comes next: Windle says she’s “on the fence” but that she’s “leaning towards [Florida Governor Ron] DeSantis — because with him you just don’t have all this bullshit” — by which she means legal and other “dramas”.
An 18-year-old volunteer, who asked to remain nameless, says he, too, planned to vote for DeSantis: “I would only vote Trump if DeSantis doesn’t declare,” he tells me.
The consensus among Democrats, independents and Republican voters at this and other Lenten fish fries in southern Wisconsin was that Trump’s indictment is likely to have only a temporary effect on his electoral prospects. It’s unlikely to motivate Republican or independent voters to come to the polls for him — or inspire Democrats to turn out against him, they said.
One diner, carefully helping his wife into their SUV after a fish dinner at St Thomas Aquinas Catholic church in the rolling country of southern Wisconsin, says the indictment will not affect anyone’s choice of candidate. “I like my Ford, you like your Chevy, nothing is going to change that.”
Trump’s campaign said it raised $4mn in 24 hours after the indictment — and who knows what might happen when he turns himself in to New York prosecutors on Tuesday — but Wisconsin pollster Charles Franklin, director of the influential Marquette Law School Poll, says he thinks any rally could prove temporary. Trump’s Republican favourability ratings have hovered around 70 per cent no matter what, he says. Even impeachment proceedings had no impact.
DeSantis is a threat precisely because he is favoured by the same voters who like Trump, his polling shows. “He’s not the candidate of the never-Trumpers, he’s a threat from within the Trump coalition,” Franklin tells me. Maybe that’s why Trump scored 71 per cent favourable ratings on the latest Marquette poll, but would still lose if paired directly with DeSantis: 52 per cent of Republicans chose the Florida governor and only 46 per cent Trump when paired head to head. In a presidential battle, the same poll found, Biden and Trump would each get 38 per cent of the vote with 20 per cent wanting a different candidate. In a DeSantis vs Biden contest, DeSantis got 42 per cent and Biden 41 per cent.
The one thing the Wisconsin fish eaters agreed on is that this won’t help heal America’s political divide. “Trump really polarised the country,” Comiskey says. “I don’t think we will ever be the same again”.