MACOMB COUNTY, MICHIGAN — In a banquet hall in suburban Detroit, Mark Forton railed against a gathering of "RINOs" 12 miles south of where he stood. The former chair of the Macomb County Republicans, ousted in a raucous coup back in April, asserted his rightful control of the party to the 300 loyalists, many clad in Make America Great Again apparel. His county convention, Forton said, was the "real" county party meeting to select delegates to send to the state convention at the end of the month.
Forton's assertions meant little to the Michigan Republican Party, which vowed to only recognize the dueling convention taking place elsewhere in the county, which has for decades been a national bellwether examined as an indicator of white middle America. Eric Castiglia, the chair who replaced Forton, took the stage at a different banquet hall and spoke of unity to the crowd that was mostly free of MAGA paraphernalia. But Rep. Lisa McClain (R-Mich.) arrived at the event fresh from Trump's golf course at Bedminster, where the former president had huddled with some GOP lawmakers the day after the FBI searched his residence at Mar-A-Lago. "What that man has had to go through is disgusting," she told the room. (Her words landed just as the Washington Post reported the FBI had searched the former president's residence in pursuit of, among other national secrets, documents related to nuclear weapons.)
When the gathering adjourned around 8:15 that evening, Castiglia handed me his phone to speak with Matt DePerno, the Trump-backed attorney general candidate who rose to acclaim clinging tightly to the Big Lie. Castiglia then offered to put me on the phone with Trump himself (an offer that, unfortunately, never materialized, whether due to distraction from Castiglia's admirers or better judgment).
If this was the "RINO" convention, one would be hard-pressed to explain why.
And yet, even as this was the locus of Trump-adjacent GOP power in this critical county, attendance there was dwarfed by that a few miles north at Forton's unauthorized gathering. Never mind that Forton had been removed from the leadership of the party because he was too fixated on relitigating the 2020 election in a moment when Republicans in the swing state had been desperate to bring independent voters back into the fold. Those who support Forton's ousting are decidedly Trumpian, but in the eyes of Big Liars, they are, to use a term I heard reporting at the state convention in the spring, "TINOs" — Trump in Name Only.
The dynamics in a swing county in a swing state speak to the disunity that continues to pull at the GOP. Most Republicans I spoke with in Macomb told me they want to get back to fighting Democrats, not each other. And yet, how tightly to embrace the election falsehoods is tearing the party apart. They're all down the rabbit hole. The only question now is how deep?
Mark Forton has been a fixture in Macomb County's Republican politics for as long as any local politicos can remember. He first ascended to the party chairmanship in the mid-1990s, around the same time he chaired Pat Buchanan's presidential campaign in Michigan. A member of the United Auto Workers union, Forton embraced a sort of populist conservatism out of favor with the national Republican establishment, but one that resonated with working-class voters who might otherwise side with Democrats. His leadership had been an odd fit in the birthplace of "Reagan Democrats," a curious group of suburban ticket-splitters who voted for Republican presidents as they backed Democratic candidates for state and local offices — socially conservative white voters who felt the national party was too fixated on the plights of minorities at their expense. Case in point: The Michigan GOP has ousted Forton from the county party's leadership once before: On the heels of the Buchanan campaign, in the midst of an earlier fight over the future of conservatism in the state.
But when Trump won the Republican nomination in 2016, Forton became the dog who caught the car. His longstanding belief that the Democrats and Republicans running a "uni-party" had been overcome by Trump's outsider victory, and as the former president zeroed in on Michigan for his election conspiracies, Forton emerged as a loyal, vocal defender convinced both of widespread voter fraud. He was among those who pushed Trump to endorse DePerno, who had raised nearly $400,000 for an "Election Fraud Defense Fund" as he pushed for an audit of the 2020 election results in Antrim County, insistent upon voter fraud where a hand count of the ballots showed none.
Last September, Forton spoke with the former president to help make DePerno's case. "He said, 'What can you do, Mark, to get this audit going?'" Forton recalled of their conversation. "I told him, 'Mr. President, the Democrats and Republicans rule Michigan together. We can't get one Republican to break ranks and say, We need an audit.'"
"He really does trust me," Forton added.
But that wasn't what mattered when Republicans convened at the Macomb GOP's county convention in April. "All Mark has done is attack Republicans who weren't sufficiently committed to relitigating the outcome of the 2020 election," explains Jamie Roe, a GOP consultant based in Macomb County. "He's an activist, not a leader," adds Michelle Smith, a Republican candidate for state representative. Forton's mission had fully consumed the county party: He'd call his own party's elected officials "RINOs" and planned protests against them from the county party offices — plus, he wasn't raising very much money. "And, I mean, you've seen the videos: He's a nutcase," Roe adds.
So at the prequel convention in April, Forton's detractors rose up to fire him. The shouting in a room of 500 gave way to chaos that included a police presence and an airhorn. "They're going to make an overthrow of the party, and you have a right to know what this county party has done in the last three years," Forton said as his supporters booed the nascent coup. Once the cacophony subsided, Forton was out, and Castiglia was the new party chair. "I'm just trying to bring back unity — to bring back what it means to be a conservative," Castiglia explained of his victory at the time.
Trump then called Castiglia to congratulate him on his victory. "He just wanted to know if I was going to be a good conservative," Castiglia said. "It was one of the best conservations I've ever had." What about the 2020 election? "That didn't come up," Castiglia said.
At the state convention at the end of April, Castiglia and his delegates were recognized as the official Macomb County contingent. Forton and his supporters seethed from behind the metal barriers that separated spectators from the delegates on the convention floor. "They're sick and tired of us doing this push," Forton said of his expulsion. A Forton supporter marched around with a sign that screamed in thick black Sharpie, "Stop Macomb County's Convention Steal by Non-Precinct Delegates and Corrupt RINOs!" For a contingent paranoid about stolen elections, they had to look no further than their own county party.
The question that hung over that state party convention was how much sway that Trump and his election conspiracies held over the GOP in a crucial swing state. The answer: Very much, as delegates chose DePerno and Kristina Karamo, a 2020 poll worker who rose to prominence declaring the election was fraudulent. Both candidates had been Forton's picks. Were they Castiglia's? He refused to endorse candidates before the convention, which angered Trump. " Election integrity is an issue on everybody's minds on both sides," Castiglia told me. "We want to just make sure we have a fair and honest election where every vote matters and every vote counts."
These days, Forton's outlet for frustration has mostly been on Rumble, the right-wing video platform, where he's railed against the party's attempts to back candidates he sees as insufficiently Trumpy.
"All I can go back to is August 2nd: We had a lot of 'America First' candidates, and they lost." Castiglia told me the week after the primary. " Republicans who voted in the Republican primary don't want this anymore." Moving beyond the Big Lie, however, is only a matter of degree. " I know there was voter fraud, I saw it with my own eyes, I know we have to make our elections more secure," he adds.
A state court recently recognized Forton as the rightful head of the Macomb GOP, but the state party doesn't care. "We don't make much of it," a party spokesperson said regarding the court ruling. "At the end of the day, the party is in charge." It issued a statement affirming it would only recognize Castiglia's convention (which billed itself as the "Republican Party of Macomb County," given the legal ruling that determined Forton is the leader of the "Macomb GOP").
But for all the state party's attempts to wrestle control from Forton, there's no doubt the party's energy was on his side. Forton's convention had been slightly better attended than Castiglia's, by people who had more than markings of Trump loyalists.
Less MAGA paraphernalia was evident at Castiglia's convention, many people there were hard-pressed to describe themselves as loyal to his project. Benjamin Turner, a newly elected delegate, told me he had felt really divided as to which convention hand. He decided upon Castiglia's because it was the one the state party said it would recognize. As for ideology, "that's a more complicated question."
Castiglia still wrestles with Trump's influence on the party. "President Trump is like a nuclear power plant," he says. "If you can work with him, he can power a whole city and nation, and do a lot of good. But if you use his name the wrong way, the power plant can destroy a city and a movement."
"I still love him as a president, but I do understand that we need a level county," he adds. "Macomb is going to matter in the next election. We need a stable Macomb County for everyone."
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