In Detroit, Trump’s Postelection Offensive Has a Familiar Feel

DETROIT — The idea that the Nov. 3 election in this city was so flawed and corrupt that it could simply be overruled by state officials was “outrageous,” according to President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. “Very dangerous for our democracy,” said Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah.

To Dale Rich, a 72-year-old genealogist and photographer in Detroit, it was even worse than that: unsurprising.

“It’s just an extension of what’s been going on for many, many years to Blacks and Black communities,” he said. “They wouldn’t have pulled this stunt with a white community, but they’ve gotten away with so much with us for so long.”

The decentralized nature of American elections means that any efforts to overturn a national vote, as President Trump is trying to do, would come down to a handful of states, then to a few counties and cities within those states. For now, one of the states in the president’s sights is Michigan, which is apparently why he summoned a delegation of Republican lawmakers from the state to the White House on Friday.

Within Michigan, the place in the bull’s-eye is Wayne County, home of Detroit.

ImageThe vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris campaigned with Detroit's mayor, Mike Duggan, in September.
The vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris campaigned with Detroit’s mayor, Mike Duggan, in September.Credit…Elaine Cromie/Getty Images

“It changes the result of the election in Michigan,” said Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s lawyer, speaking at a news conference on Thursday, “if you take out Wayne County.”

This is true. And to many residents of Detroit, which is around 80 percent Black, the largest share of any major U.S. city, it is a familiar sort of math.

“This is not broken history, this is consistent,” said Lawrence Hightower, 69, a retired accountant who has been active in Detroit municipal politics for years. He acknowledged that some figures in Detroit, like the scandal-plagued former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, had not done the city’s reputation any favors. But he talked of a long line of attempts by white state leaders to take control of various city assets by citing mismanagement and abuse. He saw the latest election fraud allegations as all but predictable.

“In this super-polarized environment in an all-Black city, when you know doggone well that Republicans have been intimidated by Trump’s 70 million votes, not surprising in the least,” Mr. Hightower said.

Mr. Trump has been clear about what he thinks of voting in Detroit, a suspicion shared at least to some degree by two members of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers, who earlier this week initially declined to certify Detroit’s votes before changing their minds — and then trying to change their position again.

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The Wayne County Board of Canvassers chair, Monica Palmer, left, talking with the vice chair, Jonathan Kinloch, before the board’s meeting on Tuesday.Credit…Robin Buckson/Detroit News, via Associated Press

“It was obviously, you know, a pretext to try to cancel the Detroit votes,” said Mike Duggan, the Detroit mayor, in an interview, explaining that the precinct irregularities cited by the board members were, in fact, far fewer in number this year than in 2016, when Mr. Trump won Michigan.

“He is on this racial appeal that says to people, ‘You know, it’s the Black vote, that there’s something wrong with it,’ and yet, if you look at the analysis, he lost far more ground in suburban Detroit, suburban Atlanta, suburban Milwaukee and suburban Philadelphia,” Mr. Duggan said. “But he doesn’t want to talk about the fact that the huge shift in suburban women is the biggest factor in him losing those states. He goes to the same kind of us-versus-them appeal that has, you know, fueled his last four years.”

Jacque Hazard, 40, a barber who on Friday was casting a fishing line into the calm waters of the Detroit River, thinks Mr. Trump — “the most dangerous president we’ve had” — risks igniting racial unrest with his efforts to change the election.

“He can’t even lose right,” Mr. Hazard said, talking of how scary it was that crowds of Trump supporters were shouting “Stop the Vote” recently in downtown Detroit. “It’s a mess.”

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Jacque Hazard, 40, who was fishing at Mariner Park in Detroit on Friday, called Mr. Trump “the most dangerous president we’ve had.” Credit…Elaine Cromie for The New York Times

It is unclear exactly what motivated the Michigan lawmakers to go to Washington to meet with the president on Friday. When asked by a reporter whether Mr. Trump should concede the election, Mike Shirkey, the State Senate majority leader and one of the legislators invited to the meeting, responded by singing a hymn.

On Friday evening, after the meeting, Mr. Shirkey and Lee Chatfield, the Speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives, who had also met with the president, said in a statement that they had “not yet been made aware of any information that would change the outcome of the election in Michigan, and as legislative leaders, we will follow the law and follow the normal process regarding Michigan’s electors.”

They said they used their time with the president to ask for additional federal funds to fight the coronavirus.

Still, given the president’s focus on election fraud, some Detroit residents assumed the worst about the meeting.

“Why would they do this, when people have voted?” said Darla Marineau, who was standing behind the register of her boutique. “It’s absurd and ridiculous.” Mr. Trump, she said, was “trying to destroy everything in his wake on the way out.”

Though the nation is focused on what could happen to the presidential election results, there are more local but no less urgent realities for state politicians: constituents to reassure, future primaries to navigate, fractious parties to hold together. In an era of unpredictable partisan realignment, most Republicans still can agree on measures like voter ID requirements and on where they believe those measures are most warranted.

“Every part of the party believes that we should clean up the voting process,” said Douglas Koopman, a political-science professor at Calvin University in Grand Rapids. “Particularly in Detroit.”

Back home in Mr. Shirkey’s district, about an hour west of Detroit, his constituents were not entirely sure about the purpose of his White House meeting. In Jackson, Mich., some shared the skepticism or disgust voiced in Detroit about the claims of a tainted election and Mr. Trump’s attempt to overturn the result.

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Mike Shirkey, the Michigan State Senate majority leader, adjusted his protective mask as he arrived to meet with President Trump at the White House on Friday.Credit…Leah Millis/Reuters

“Why put yourself in a position to get strong-armed by the president?” Roger Auwers, a school district finance director, said of Mr. Shirkey. As for Mr. Trump, he said: “He’s trying to do as much damage as he can as he’s heading out the door.”

But more common seemed to be support for digging deeper into Mr. Trump’s allegations.

Andrew Alexander, 32, a construction worker who was eating a burger outside with a co-worker, said if Mr. Shirkey and the president were sharing doubts about the election results, that was perfectly justified. “There is a right to due process, and that should be sought out.”

David Hardie, 27, an insurance broker, agreed and then some. “It’s just a fact that with all mail-in voting, there will be a level of fraud,” he said. “They should let people get to the bottom of this.”

That’s what the president had been saying, Mr. Hardie said. And as for his own state senator: “I’d be more than thrilled if Shirkey supports him.”

Back in Detroit, Mr. Rich was resigned, seeing the attempts to cast doubt on his city’s votes as a reflection of the president’s audacity and the increasingly nasty environment of the country.

“Whether anyone likes it, the Black vote is powerful,” he said. “Otherwise, why would they go out of their way to try to suppress it? Such efforts used to be more subtle. Now? Anything goes.

“In the larger picture,” he continued, “I think it will get worse.”

Mary M. Chapman reported from Detroit and Campbell Robertson from Pittsburgh. Julie Halpert contributed reporting from Jackson, Mich.

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