As his Republican rivals gathered onstage in California for their second primary debate, former President Donald Trump took to another stage in battleground Michigan on Wednesday night in a bid to win over working class voters in the midst of an autoworkers' strike.

What You Need To Know

  • Former President Donald Trump visited Michigan on Wednesday to rally with working class voters amid an autoworkers strike

  • He delivered primetime remarks at Drake Enterprises, a non-unionized auto parts supplier in Clinton Township, about a half-hour outside Detroit

  • Trump's trip comes a day after President Joe Biden became the first sitting president in U.S. history to walk a picket line as he joined United Auto Workers in Detroit

  • The former president's appearance in Michigan took place as his Republican rivals gather onstage in California for their second primary debate

The speech, to a few hundred workers and supporters at a non-unionized auto parts supplier about a half-hour north of Detroit, contained many of the tropes and grievances Trump has hit upon in his speeches for years, but also a direct appeal to union workers and threats to their leadership to support his third presidential campaign.

“It doesn't matter what the hell you're getting an hour — Do me a favor, just get your union guys, your leaders to endorse me. And I'll take care of the rest,” Trump said, later adding “your current negotiations don't mean as much as you think."

"I mean, I watch you out there with the pickets but I don't think you are picketing for the right thing," Trump said. "But, if they endorsed me, your leadership, you can tell him I said it although I have a feeling they may be watching tonight.”

Trump's trip comes a day after President Joe Biden became the first sitting president in U.S. history to walk a picket line as he joined United Auto Workers in Detroit. The union is pushing for higher wages, shorter work weeks and assurances from the country's top automakers that new electric vehicle jobs will be unionized, the last of which Trump argued is pointless because electric cars require fewer workers to construct and he predicts those jobs will be shipped overseas in a matter of years anyway — if Biden remains president.

“He's surrounded with radical left Marxist and crazy people, fascists, bad people. He's selling you out to China. He's selling you out to the environmental extremists and the radical left,” Trump said. “People have no idea how bad this is going to be.”

“You can be loyal to American labor. You can be loyal to the environmental lunatics, but you can't really be loyal to both. It's one or the other,” the former president said.

While the union has withheld its support for Biden after endorsing him in 2020, United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain appeared at Biden's side during his visit Tuesday and remained deeply critical of Trump.

"I don't think [Trump] cares about working-class people. I think he cares about the billionaire class, he cares about the corporate interests. I think he's just trying to pander to people and say what they want to hear, and it's a shame," Fain said.

Trump aides insist its rank-and-file members "are in a much different place than their political leaders.”

“They're committing suicide on the back of your jobs. And you can't let that happen. The Democrats say they wave the white flag of surrender over your future to other foreign countries. You can't have it done,” Trump said on Wednesday night. “So if you could speak to Sean, he's listening right now, I'm sure. Sean: endorse Trump and you can take a nice two month vacation, come back, and you guys are gonna be better than you ever were.”

“Because the other way, you won't have a vacation, Shawn. And in a short period of time, you're not going to have a union, you're not going to have jobs, you're not gonna have anything,” he added.

A UAW spokesperson confirmed that the union had nothing to do with the event.

“And it has nothing to do with the strike,” the spokesperson said, adding that the employer, Drake Enterprises, invited Trump — which, they noted, is the opposite of being invited by striking workers.

In social media posts, Drake celebrated Trump’s visit, saying that, “politics aside, this is a tremendous opportunity to expand name recognition for Drake Enterprises,” adding that the company was “asked to host” the event.

Before, during and after the speech the Biden campaign hit Trump hard on his administration’s record of job creation, or lack thereof, and relationships with American unions. 

“Donald Trump’s low-energy, incoherent ‘speech’ at a non-union factory in Michigan was a pathetic, recycled attempt to feign support for working Americans,” Biden campaign spokesperson Kevin Munoz said in a statement. “Americans… know who Donald Trump really is: a billionaire charlatan running on empty words, broken promises, and lost jobs.”

The speech served as an effort by the GOP primary frontrunner and his campaign to draw contrast both with his primary rivals and his likely general election opponent in Biden.

While the other Republican presidential candidates duked it out at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, the former president was in the battleground state of Michigan emphasizing his massive polling lead — north of 40 percentage points in most national polls and around 30 percentage points at worst in early state polls — and drawing a direct contrast with the sitting Democratic president.

The dueling appearances reflect what will likely be a chief dynamic of the 2024 general election, which is increasingly looking like a rematch between Trump and Biden. Michigan is expected to be a critical battleground state as both candidates try to paint themselves as champions of the working class.

“To the striking workers, I support you and your goal of fair wages and greater stability. And I truly hope you get a fair deal for yourselves and your families,” Trump said. “But if your union leaders will not demand that ‘Crooked’ Joe repeal his electric vehicle mandate immediately, then it doesn't matter what hourly wages you get. It just doesn't make a damn bit of difference, because in two to three years, you will not have one job in this state.”

Trump has tried to capitalize on the strike to drive a wedge between Biden and union workers, a constituency that has moved away from its roots in the Democratic party and helped pave the way for the ex-president's surprise 2016 victory. 

In that election, the multimillionaire real estate magnate who resided in his own Manhattan skyscraper at the time, won over working class voters in Democratic strongholds like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, fundamentally reshaping voting alliances as he railed against global trade deals and vowed to resurrect dying manufacturing towns.

But Biden won those states back in 2020 as he emphasized his working-class roots and commitment to organized labor. He often calls himself the " most pro-union president" in U.S. history and argues the investments his administration is making in green energy and electric vehicle manufacturing will ensure the future of the industry unfolds in the U.S.

Trump, this time around, is seeking to capitalize on discontent over Biden's handling of the economy amid persistent inflation. He has repeatedly warned Biden's embrace of electric vehicles — a key component of his clean-energy agenda — will ultimately lead to lost jobs, amplifying the concerns of some autoworkers who worry that electric cars require fewer people to manufacture and that there is no guarantee factories that produce them will be unionized.

The Trump campaign has vigorously defended his record as pro-worker, but union leaders say his first term was far from worker-friendly — citing unfavorable rulings from the nation's top labor board and the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as unfulfilled promises of automotive jobs and the closure of a General Motors plant in Lordstown, Ohio.

The UAW's targeted strikes against the Big Three automakers — General Motors, Stellantis and Ford — began at midnight on Sept. 14 and have since expanded to 38 parts distribution centers in 20 states.

The union is asking for 36% raises in general pay over four years and has also demanded a 32-hour week with 40 hours of pay and a return of cost-of-living pay raises, among other benefits. It also wants to be allowed to represent workers at 10 electric vehicle battery factories, most of which are being built by joint ventures between automakers and South Korean battery makers. The union wants those plants to receive top UAW wages.

While Biden has not implemented an electric vehicle mandate, he has set a goal that half of all new vehicle sales be electric by 2030. His administration has also proposed stiff new automobile pollution limits that would require up to two-thirds of new vehicles sold in the U.S. to be electric by 2032, a nearly tenfold increase over current electric vehicle sales. That proposal is not final.

Trump promised on Wednesday to end all federal incentives for electric vehicles and pledged to be the president for the working class, painting the pro-union Biden as a corrupt member of the elite, ruling class.

“I promise you this with me as your president, our opponents will lose and our American workers will be the biggest winner of them all,” Trump said. “We will evict 'Crooked' Joe Biden from the White House. We will put America and our workers first, we're going to put them first. And we will do something that's very, very special, that I've been saying for a long time and we had it going at a level that nobody ever thought possible: We will make America great again.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.