on Saturday night. Photograph: Yuri Gripas/ReutersDonald Trump vowed America “will never be a socialist country” as he rallied supporters in Wisconsin on Saturday night and touted his economic record as he stepped up his re-election campaign in a state that is set to be one of the key battlegrounds of the 2020 election.
More than 10,000 people filled Green Bay’s Resch Center for the event, and many had begun lining up overnight to hear Trump speak. Much of his 90-minute speech concerned the economy and was lighter on his trade mark attacks on rivals than usual.
“America is working again and America is respected again all over the world,” said Trump. The president touted his record on job creation, claimed his tax cuts had benefitted all Americans, a claim disputed by many economists, and that his ongoing trade disputes with long-time US partners were paying off.
“The poverty rate for Wisconsin families has reached its lowest rate in 22 years,” said Trump. “The unemployment rate for Wisconsin workers has reached historic – it’s never been this low ever, ever. Think about that.”
Trump had met with the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, earlier in the day, and also commented on the shooting at a synagogue in California on the last day of Passover, calling it it a hate crime.
The president told the crowd Japan would be investing $40bn in new car factories in the United States. “We’re two and a half years and no administration has done as much as we have,” he told the crowd, eliciting cries of: “Four more years, four more years.”
Wisconsin was one of three midwestern states, along with Michigan and Pennsylvania, that have traditionally voted Democrat but voted instead for Trump in 2016.
It has also been at the center of his trade disputes. Wisconsin-based motorcycle manufacturer Harley Davidson and the state’s dairy industryhave felt the heat as US trading partners have retaliated against Trump’s tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum.
Trump won Wisconsin by just 22,748 votes in 2016, gaining 47.22% of the vote compared to Democratic rival Hillary Clinton’s 46.45% share. Trump’s victory was the first time in three decades that a Republican presidential candidate had won over Wisconsin voters.
Wisconsin’s unemployment rate has fallen to record lows since Trump’s electionSince his election Wisconsin’s unemployment rate has fallen to record lows.
But his approval rating suggests he is still widely unpopular in the state. Some 46% of registered voters in the state approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 52% disapprove, according to the latest Marquette Law School Poll.
Last year was a worry for Trump. Democrats swept statewide races in the midterm elections, narrowly taking out former governor and Trump ally Scott Walker.
Few doubt, however, that the race for 2020 will be anything but close.
Harvey Kaye, historian and a professor at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, said Wisconsinites were angry ahead of the last election. They felt the political class had forgotten them after the recession. Notoriously Hillary Clinton didn’t campaign in the state, so certain was she of her victory. Bernie Sanders won the state’s Democratic primary. Voting for Trump was an “opportunity to punch someone on the nose”.
Now the economy is Trump’s and Kaye is not so sure that Wisconsinites are impressed. Green Bay has suffered a hollowing of its retail sector since Trump’s election, losing Sears, the department store chain Younkers and retailer Shopko, amid crisis in the industry. And as with the rest of the country many of the new jobs being created are low paid and lack benefits.
Trump protester Bob Bergman: ‘What has he done except give tax breaks to rich people?’ Photograph: Dominic RusheKimberley Clark, the paper products company, is threatening to close facilities close to Green Bay. Meanwhile the state is reassessing the huge tax breaks it gave to Taiwanese electronics firm Foxconn to lure it to the state.
“Our roads have deteriorated, our education system is reeling and the state gave billions to Foxconn. It’s hard to imagine that Wisconsinites see the economy as something to be happy about,” he said.
Sanders clearly sees an opportunity. On Friday he took out a front-page ad in the Green Bay Press-Gazettecalling the president’s promises hollow. “Trump lied to Wisconsin workers,” read the ad.
After Clinton’s disaster, Democratic candidates are pouring into the state. Their national convention will be held in Milwaukee, Harley Davidson’s hometown.
But it wasn’t a message that resonated with the thousands who lined up to hear Trump, some waiting overnight to get the best chance of good seats.
Outside the Resch Center Linda Erber was wearing a bedazzled Trump hat and an army green jacket with I Really Don’t Care Do You? painted on the back like the jacket that got the first lady, Melania Trump, into so much trouble.
She drove three and a half hours to get to the rally. “I think he’s amazing. We have never had a president like this guy.”
Joe Berceau, who runs a local construction business, said he never like the Democrats or the Republicans but “I like this guy”.
“In the past two years business has never been so good. I can’t find guys to work for me,” he said.
There were protesters at the rally but they were few and were kept well away from the venue.
Bob Bergman traveled from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, about an hour south of Green Bay, to protest the rally. Carrying a Trump baby blimp placard and a sign reading “No Trump, No KKK, No Racist USA” Bergman and a handful of protesters were cordoned off on a traffic median a few blocks from Resch Center.
Trump “is a man with quick answers to the wrong questions,” said Bergman. “He appeals to racists, people who think they are more American than others because of the colour of their skin.”
“What has he done except give tax breaks to rich people?” asked Bergman.
Bergman is for Sanders. “Bernie is a real threat to Trump. I think he would have won,” said Bergman.