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Why a 2016 Illinois Trump delegate won’t support him in 2020

“I don’t know if I would vote for [Joe] Biden or I would just sit it out. But I just can’t square that it’s worth it to vote for him [Trump].”

Mike Fratella in the foreground at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
Mike Fratella in the foreground at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
Lynn Sweet / Sun-Times

I met Mike Fratella in 2016, at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where Donald Trump officially became the GOP presidential nominee, poised to take on Democrat Hillary Clinton. The Elmhurst resident, a middle school science teacher, was a Trump delegate from Illinois.

Almost four years later, with the COVID-19 pandemic bringing an unprecedented health crisis and economic meltdown to the U.S., Fratella told me he won’t be voting for Trump in 2020.

What can persuade a change of mind for a Trump supporter? For the science teacher, it was Trump’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

“I’ve never voted Democrat for president. I don’t know if I would vote for [Joe] Biden or I would just sit it out. But I just can’t square that it’s worth it to vote for him [Trump],” Fratella said.

In 2016, Trump made sense to Fratella, an anybody-but-Hillary man. That Trump was not a “traditional Republican” was fine with Fratella, even though his roots were more with the regulars, not the Trump rebels. Fratella’s first deep dive into politics was volunteering for Bob Dole’s 1996 GOP presidential campaign, when Dole ran against Bill Clinton.

Fratella, 42, liked Trump’s “plain straightforward talk” at the time. “I think to me the alternative was having another Clinton in the White House, and moving further and further to the left, which I thought would happen if Hillary won. So I think that was the main attraction,” he said.

When schools closed and stay-at-home orders were imposed in March, Fratella started watching Trump’s daily Coronavirus Task Force briefings, which quickly became a Trump produced TV show starring Trump.

Fratella, in part, wanted to see what Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Deborah Birx, the coronavirus response coordinator, were saying.

“The other part of me was interested just to see what [Trump] would do and what kind of ridiculous statements he would make, you know, or who he would get into it with in the press corps or what kind of silliness he would get involved in,” Fratella said.

I asked Fratella when he realized Trump was going too far.

“I think it was kind of a slow build that each day there was something new where he was saying something incredible, or contradicting his experts.

“I remember him saying in the fall it will be gone. And then Dr. Fauci comes out and says ‘This isn’t going away’ five minutes later,” he said.

“…I don’t know if there’s one point specifically or if it was just kind of a snowball, snowballing effect. But it is frustrating as, you know, to see him just, you know say things that are scientifically untrue.”

A blatant example was Trump’s promotion of hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 cure.

“It was mind blowing that he would suggest a drug that he knew nothing about or that he had just heard secondhand that well, maybe this works and then the other day with the sunlight, the disinfectant, those kinds of things blew my mind, …..He’s telling people to inject or to put UV light in your body,” Fratella said.

What is it Trump’s base hears when he predicts the COVID-19 outbreak threat will soon diminish? I asked Fratella to translate.

“They hear the president, the leader of the country say, ‘It’ll be gone’ and they think that he may know something that they don’t,” he said.

You hear Trump talk a lot about his “base.” There is an important difference between the “base” and Trump backers, or in Fratella’s case, ex-supporters. He explains it for me.

“I think the difference between the base and a supporter is that the base will support him no matter what. Come hell or high water....Supporters are a little more analytical and their opinions are less fixed than the base,” Fratella said.

Many in the base, are not as willing, Fratella said, to “see the other side of an argument.”

“I don’t think I was ever part of his base. I was always a supporter, but I could see faults. The fault with the handling of coronavirus was just too much to reason through. It was more than just a policy. It was something that had immediate real-life consequences,” he said.

“I think some of those real-life consequences are being seen in the protests. People being defiant because they read him saying they need to ‘liberate’ their states.”

Added Fratella, the ex-Trump supporter, “That’s going to lead to more infections.”