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The Trump supporters stalked by doubt and conspiracy

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The writer is a contributing columnist, based in Chicago

Back in 2016, Brian Pannebecker was the first Donald Trump fan I had ever met. The wiry, energetic Michigan autoworker, whose Midwest twang sounded like home to me, insisted he would stick with his political idol “through thick and thin”. That’s not quite how things worked out. 

As court cases and indictments against the former president began to multiply last year, Pannebecker — like many Midwest Trump supporters I have interviewed — wobbled. He wanted the Trump message, but not the mess. Founder of Autoworkers for Trump, he renamed the group “Trump supporters for Vivek” (Ramaswamy) because the then-hopeful — who has since dropped out of the presidential race — “was like a clone of Donald Trump but without all the baggage”.

“I thought this was the end for Donald Trump. But it turns out I was dead wrong,” he told me. Now his group is back to calling itself Autoworkers for Trump. 

Like Pannebecker, some doubters have come back into the Trump fold, political analysts say, citing the former president’s unprecedented strong showing in the Iowa and New Hampshire Republican primaries. But Pannebecker worries that even a small proportion of fed-up former fans peeling off could still scupper Trump’s chances in another close presidential election in November.

Despite the primaries, there are signs that opposition to Trump remains considerable: 27 per cent of Republican voters in a national Pew Research Centre poll in December said they would be “very” or “somewhat” dissatisfied if he were the nominee. Soundings from Iowa and New Hampshire showed that a chunk of Republican primary voters cast votes to block him — rather than as a positive choice for his rivals.

“I don’t necessarily think people will switch to the Democratic party,” says Susy Avery, former Republican party chair in the perennial battleground state of Michigan. “I think what will happen is they will just skip the top of the ballot” — where the choice of president is made.

Pannebecker admits that there are still “a lot of people who agree with [Trump’s] policies but don’t like the brashness, his obnoxious New York attitude, the lying, the embellishment”. If it comes to a battle with Joe Biden, he adds, “Maybe they just won’t vote.” But he raises another possibility: in line with the conspiracy theories, he believes the former president won’t make it to the ballot in November. “They will JFK him [a reference to the assassination of former president John F Kennedy], or he’ll have a ‘heart attack’ or a piano will drop on his head in New York City,” he says.

“Almost no one thinks he is going to make it to be president . . . [because] they’re going to take him out before that,” says Chris Vitale, another autoworker from the electoral bellwether Michigan county of Macomb. He says that’s the consensus among fellow Trump supporters around the water cooler where he works for the automaker Stellantis.

“There is just no way they are going to let him win,” says Vitale, who criticises Trump on many points of style and substance, but hasn’t wavered in his vote. “Look what has been done to try to bury him, even in terms of ‘lawfare’,” he says, referring to the plethora of lawsuits, indictments and legal efforts to prevent Trump from appearing on state election ballots (one such case will be heard by the Supreme Court this week). So both men fear their candidate will never take office even if he wins. And what if he loses? “There will be civil unrest for sure if he loses,” says Pannebecker.

But James Benson, another Trump-supporting autoworker from Ford’s Dearborn Truck plant, says he doesn’t believe this scenario: “They may dream about it, but most conservatives, when it comes down to it, are not terrorists.” Trump partisans will be upset but they won’t riot in the streets, he says. 

How many of 2016’s “thick and thinners” will waver during the next nine months of “lawfare”? It’s shaping up to be an ugly fight — but with Trump leading Biden in polls in some key battleground states, it’s too hard to call whether Trump will triumph despite it, because of it — or not at all. 

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