How Trumpism took over the Michigan GOP — and tore a small community apart

The first installment in ABC News' "Your Voice, Your Vote" series.

How Trumpism took over the Michigan GOP — and tore a small community apart
Julian Kim/ABC News
Video byJulian Kim
November 6, 2023, 6:09 AM

Marcia Mansaray has lived in Ottawa County, Michigan, her entire life: growing up, going to college, marrying and raising her children there. She thought she knew it well. But over the past several years, she said, she has watched her middle-class, family-oriented, historically Dutch community on the shores of Lake Michigan abandon the principles she always thought it held dear.

Mansaray, 59, had always voted Republican. For her, conservatism meant taking care of people and treating people with respect. That changed in the 2016 presidential election. "I could not vote for Donald Trump. I thought, 'This man has no character. I can't vote for him.'"

But ever since Trump won and transformed the Republican Party in his image, she has felt like her whole life and worldview have been under attack. A far-right Republican insurgency now controls her local government, and the rifts that have grown over the past few years are still tearing her community apart.

"We're in this very divisive environment in our country," she said. "And I feel like we're living that right here."

Many of Mansaray's neighbors feel the same. Political shifts in her home region of western Michigan helped flip the state blue in 2020, helping to deliver Joe Biden the presidency. But rather than moderate in order to win back voters like Mansaray, the state Republican Party has doubled down on a far-right, pro-Trump agenda. That could help push more voters toward Democrats in 2024 — or the protests and political vendettas currently roiling Ottawa County could be a sign of what's to come nationally if Trump is reelected.

A party in tatters

For decades, western Michigan rode or died with the Republican Party. But in recent years, both its voters and its party leaders have distanced themselves from Trump and the new GOP he represents. In the 2016 Republican primary, Sen. Ted Cruz defeated Trump in this part of the state; the 19.5 percent of the vote that Trump received in Ottawa County was lower than any other county in Michigan. In 2019, then-Republican Rep. Justin Amash, who is from nearby Grand Rapids, left the party entirely. At the time, he said modern politics was trapped in a "partisan death spiral."

After Amash left office in 2021, the heir of a local grocery store chain, Peter Meijer, took his seat and carried on Amash's maverick tradition. Meijer was one of 10 House Republicans to vote to impeach Trump after the events of Jan. 6, 2021. Lambasted by Trump loyalists for his vote, Meijer was primaried in 2022 by John Gibbs, a former missionary and software engineer who'd served in Trump's administration. Gibbs won the primary, but his extreme views and comments doomed him in the general election. He lost to now-Rep. Hillary Scholten, the first Democrat to win a Grand Rapids-based congressional seat in nearly 50 years.

It was part of a seismic victory for Democrats around the state. Two years earlier, Biden had reversed Trump's 2016 victory in Michigan with a slim majority of 51 percent. In the 2022 midterms, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson were reelected by double-digit margins, and, unexpectedly, Democrats won control of both the state House and Senate for the first time in nearly 40 years.

Many factors contributed to the Democrats' sweep, but a big one was far-right Republican candidates who pushed moderates toward Democrats. Gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon aired conspiracy theorists on her conservative talk show. Secretary of state candidate Kristina Karamo claimed the 2020 election was stolen, opposed vaccines and called abortion "child sacrifice."

Yet rather than moderate after its midterm losses, the state GOP has gone further to the right. Earlier this year, the party elected Karamo as its head. Since then, the Michigan GOP has imploded with infighting over the future of the party. Big donors have pulled out, leaving the party nearly broke. One county meeting led to a physical altercation and assault charges.

Seth Getz, a longtime Republican who ran for a western Michigan state House seat in 2022 and lost his primary, said he feels like a conservative without a party. "I still have these ideas that I've always attributed to Republicans," he said — ideas about trying to solve society's problems with the lightest, leanest good governance possible. Yet "somehow, Republicans have shifted and have left me behind." But many of the new guard in Michigan, those loyal to Karamo, told me that "country-club" traditionalists were just upset that the party was taken over by grassroots activists, those who came into politics inspired by Trump's presidency.

This September's Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference, held biennially at the palatial Victorian Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, showed a party under strain. The Detroit News reported that the conference drew only 300 to 800 people, compared with 1,500 to 2,000 in previous years. Meshawn Maddock, a former co-chair of the state party who has been charged with allegedly serving as one of Trump's fake electors in Michigan, told me that the people who didn't come to the event because they didn't like the current leadership were sore losers. "My husband and I came here when we did not like party leadership," she said. In the past, she said, she supported general-election candidates she hadn't voted for in the primary, like Mitt Romney and John McCain, for the good of the party — and now everyone else needed to do the same. "Donald Trump is that candidate, is going to win the nomination, so they need to get on board."

PHOTO: Michigan Republicans gathered at Mackinac Island for their biennial conference in September.
Michigan Republicans gathered at Mackinac Island for their biennial conference in September.
Julian Kim/ABC News

For Republicans like Maddock, there's no reason for the GOP to moderate to try to win back votes. Speakers at the conference concentrated on their still-simmering outrage over the COVID-19 lockdowns and what they see as a stolen 2020 election. The lockdowns in particular were a divisive flashpoint in Michigan, leading to a plot to kidnap Whitmer, and are still an animating issue for voters. "That is the best example we have of government overreach," said state Sen. Jonathan Lindsey. "People talk about, 'What does tyranny look like?' People talk about, 'What if the government were to do really terrible things, like take a heavy hand toward businesses or individuals?'" For many Michigan Republicans, the COVID-19 shutdowns were an example of that tyranny. And a group of them in Ottawa County decided to do something about it.

'A vendetta against the health department'

Three years ago, Mansaray was just like everyone, everywhere: trying to learn how to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Like most states, Michigan shuttered businesses and schools during the first wave of the virus. As the deputy health officer for Ottawa County's Department of Public Health, Mansaray was one of the faces of local efforts to follow state regulations, like mask mandates and business closures.

That's when the local battles began.

According to Mansaray and several other residents, Joe Moss, a self-described businessman and entrepreneur from Hudsonville, was incensed over these COVID-19 regulations, especially closing schools and masking children. He, a former small-business owner named Sylvia Rhodea and other like-minded residents began to organize and founded a group called Ottawa Impact to, according to its website, "preserve and protect the individual rights of the people in Ottawa County" and "oppose indoctrination of our county's youth and the politicization of public schools." (Moss, Rhodea and other Ottawa Impact members did not respond to our interview requests.)

Kim Nagy, a Democratic leader in the county, said she first became aware of Ottawa Impact when it volunteered to take over sponsorship of the 2021 Memorial Day parade. "It was overtly political," Nagy said. There was a Trump float and an anti-vaccine float, Nagy and others said. "It was not the Memorial Day parade that we were used to, which really honored veterans," Nagy said.

The next year, Ottawa Impact endorsed a slate of candidates for nine of the 11 seats on the county Board of Commissioners, the governing body of Ottawa County. Their slogan was "Faith, Family, Freedom," and each of the candidates had similar looking signs and coordinated campaigns. They aired ads on local radio. They signed a "Contract with Ottawa," making promises about how they would govern.

It was an unusual amount of effort for the normally sleepy local races, and it paid off. Eight of the Ottawa Impact candidates won their primaries over more traditional Republicans, and they won the subsequent general elections with little Democratic opposition. The insurgent conservative group had taken control of county government. Moss became chair of the Board of Commissioners, Rhodea the vice-chair. (However, two Ottawa Impact-endorsed winners have since announced they have cut ties with the group.)

PHOTO: Joe Moss helped organize a group called Ottawa Impact to oppose COVID-19 restrictions and was later elected chair of the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners.
Joe Moss helped organize a group called Ottawa Impact to oppose COVID-19 restrictions and was later elected chair of the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners.
Julian Kim/ABC News

During what is normally a routine, rules-setting meeting in their first January in office, the new commissioners wasted no time remaking county government. They changed the county motto from "Where You Belong" to "Where Freedom Rings." They closed the county's Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Department. They fired the longtime county administrator and, without posting the job opening and conducting a search for the position, hired Gibbs, who'd just lost his election for Congress. They tried to fire Adeline Hambley, who'd just been named the head of the health department, but she sued and has kept her job while the case makes its way through the courts.

The moves shocked the county. "I don't think people even realized what county commissioners did," Beth Parker, a 71-year-old retired preschool teacher who helped start a nonpartisan group called the Zeeland Area Action Committee to oppose Ottawa Impact. "It was that smooth of a business, they just knew what they were doing. And there weren't a lot of stones in the road."

And that was only the beginning. As the year's budgeting process began, Hambley felt that the questions and discussions normally held between the county administrator, the board and the departments were missing. The health department submitted its normal budget request in January, asking for $6.4 million from the county, and waited to hear questions or concerns. They never came.

In August, the Board of Commissioners proposed cutting the county's contribution to the health department by almost two-thirds, to $2.5 million. The amount was so low that Hambley argued it would shut down the health department.

Moss claimed the board was trying to return the health department's budget to pre-pandemic levels for reasons of fiscal responsibility, but Hambley argued that the proposed budget was less than what it had been in 2009. And the county wasn't facing declining revenue. The money that had gone to the health department was reallocated to the Department of Veterans Affairs. "It's like they're here for a vendetta against the health department," Mansaray said.

Protests broke out across the county, with people for and against the budget cuts coming out to support their side. It wasn't just partisan: The cuts, firings, and other activities not only brought out the county's Democratic minority, but also pitted moderate Republicans like Mansaray against the insurgents, just like at the state level.

Some of the fights even turned personal. "We all used to be able to sit down, you know — we'd go have drinks together and hang out," Nagy said. "And you knew that you weren't on the same page in terms of political philosophy, or programs, or policy. But you did not view people who were of the other party with suspicion. You didn't think that it was OK to call them things like 'groomer.' That stuff didn't go on, and now it does."

Nick Brock, who helped found a nonpartisan group called Vote Common Good: West Michigan, said he noticed the rhetoric getting heated during the anti-mask protests throughout the pandemic. "How they were talking about it wasn't in terms of partisan politics, of Republicans versus Democrats. It was this great, spiritual warfare that was going on. It was 'the good versus the evil.'" The fight over the health department funding had become a stand-in for bigger fights over the direction of the county and the nation.

PHOTO: After the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners slashed funding for the county health department in its proposed budget, residents began protesting the move.
After the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners slashed funding for the county health department in its proposed budget, residents began protesting the move.
Julian Kim/ABC News

In the face of the protests, the commissioners relented — a bit. But Ottawa Impact had still made its mark. The budget that finally passed, at the end of September, provided the health department with $4.8 million. As a result, six staff members have already been laid off, and cuts to other services are still expected.

In September, Moss spoke to a local conservative talk show radio host, Justin Barclay, and defended his and the board’s actions. He said that he was simply enacting the agenda that Ottawa County had voted for. And on his campaign website, he criticized the “constant barrage of false narratives and defamation” against Ottawa Impact. “It is my pleasure to stand between the Left and the people of Ottawa County,” he wrote.

The personal toll of politics

Mansaray and her husband Alpha live in a neat, modern house in a new development, full of both occupied homes and houses still under construction. The house is decorated with photos of the Mansarays smiling and close, Marcia's hair graying over the years.

Mansaray had always thought everyone fit in in Ottawa County — that it truly was a place where everyone belonged. But when Mansaray met Alpha in 2013, her worldview started to shift. He'd been born in Sierra Leone, was a practicing Muslim and came to Michigan to attend college. One of his children had autism, and another came out as transgender. Through them, Mansaray learned more about what it was like to come to western Michigan as an outsider. Now, she has come to realize the truth of something Alpha said: "We are in the same space, but the experience is different."

"Our family is very diverse," Mansaray said. "We have a lot of elements about us that Ottawa Impact doesn't like. And when they got rid of the DEI office and called 'Where You Belong' Marxist ideology, without explaining it, that said something to me and my family."

PHOTO: Marcia Mansaray met her second husband, Alpha, in 2013. They live in Ottawa County.
Marcia Mansaray met her second husband, Alpha, in 2013. They live in Ottawa County.
Julian Kim/ABC News

Mansaray still carries around a mug printed with the county's former motto. But even she sometimes feels like a stranger in the place she has always called home. She couldn't believe people she grew up with weren't celebrating advances like vaccines and weren't taking science and public health seriously. She was shocked and scared when she even started receiving personal threats. "A guy who owns a gun shop … said, 'I am selling way more guns and ammo than I've ever seen in my life,'" she said. "And he goes, 'People don't like you. You need to watch your back when you go out to your car.'"

Now, the Mansarays are thinking of leaving the county, and maybe the country. Because what's happening in Ottawa County is part of a nationwide trend. Many other local and state governments are seeing moves to install Trump loyalists in positions of power, battles over DEI offices, lingering anti-vaccine sentiment and other culture war issues. Mansaray feels like Ottawa County is a warning for the whole country, as far-right politics gains a foothold. "Gosh, you know, it feels a lot like fascism," she said. "It really does. I mean, it's so extreme. It's religious extremism, and that's scary."

At the same time, the extremism that's alienating Mansaray, and causing chaos in the state Republican Party, may also help turn once-red strongholds like western Michigan blue. Vaccine skepticism, attacks on diversity initiatives and election denialism may motivate a small group of conservatives, but they're unpopular among virtually everyone else. Trump's narrow victory in Michigan in 2016 helped deliver him the presidency: Now, loyalty to Trump in the state may be his party's undoing, and may help deliver the 2024 election to the Democrats.

Geoffrey Skelley contributed research. Julian Kim contributed reporting.