By Edward McClelland
As a camera panned down Saginaw Street in Lansing, Mich., past an empty-windowed storefront and a party store infamous for selling beer to teenagers, autoworker Brian Stead described what would have happened if President Barack Obama hadn’t bailed out General Motors.
“In less than a year,” Stead explained, “a place like Lansing would be a ghost town.”
Stead was one of the stars of a five-minute video shown at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, touting Obama’s support of the auto industry, auto workers, and auto towns. Vice President Joe Biden summed up the administration’s achievements with the pithy slogan: “General Motors is alive and Osama bin Laden is dead.” Republican nominee Mitt Romney had written a New York Times op-ed opposing the bailout. Its title: “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” That November, Obama swept the Rust Belt, winning Michigan 54%-44%.
Three years later, Donald Trump flew into Flint with his own message for autoworkers: at the Genesee County Republican Party’s Lincoln Day Dinner, Trump told an anecdote about seeing “boatloads” of Japanese cars in the Port of Los Angeles, then promised to stop the Ford Motor Co. from investing $2.5 billion in Mexican engine plants.
“Mexico is killing us on trade,” Trump said to cheers from 3,000 listeners, the biggest Lincoln Day crowd in the county’s history. “Mexico is the new China…They’re taking our factories, and they’re rebuilding these massive plants in Mexico.”
This time around, Trump carried Michigan – a state that hadn’t voted Republican since 1988 – by 13,000 votes. He sealed his Electoral College victory by sweeping Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin, which had all voted twice for Obama.
The Rust Belt has always been the nation’s economic bellwether – the Great Recession grew out of the mortgage lending crisis, which hit Cleveland harder than any city. Now, it’s the nation’s political bellwether, too.The Rust Belt has always been the nation’s economic bellwether – the Great Recession grew out of the mortgage lending crisis, which hit Cleveland harder than any city. Now, it’s the nation’s political bellwether, too. Trump defeated Clinton here by linking her to the unpopular North American Free Trade Agreement, which was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, over the objections of organized labor, and has been blamed for exporting manufacturing jobs to low-wage Third World countries. David Betras, the chairman of the Mahoning County, Ohio, Democratic Party, wrote a memo to the Clinton campaign, warning them that Trump was killing their candidate on the issue: “I don’t have to make the case that blue collar voters are, to put it mildly, less than enthusiastic about HRC’s positions on trade and the economy,” Betras wrote, as quoted in the Washington Post. Clinton still won Mahoning County, with 49%, but Obama had gotten 63%. Trump carried Ohio – which has now voted for the winner in 14 consecutive elections – by 8-1/2 points, a bigger margin than he achieved in Georgia. Meanwhile, Clinton was so confident in the traditionally blue Upper Midwest that she didn’t campaign in Wisconsin, and neglected Michigan until a last-minute trip to Detroit on the Friday before the election.
Trump is already rewarding his blue collar supporters. He took credit for persuading Ford Motor Co. chairman Bill Ford not to move a Louisville assembly plant to Mexico, which was an exaggeration, as Ford was never planning to do so in the first place. But Ford was considering moving production of its Lincoln MKC SUV, which accounts for 9 percent of the plant’s production – and now they’re not. And in a video released on November 22, Trump promised to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, another unpopular international trade deal.
Trump may be trying to pay back the Rust Belt, but that doesn’t mean he’ll win it again in four years.But while Trump may be trying to pay back the Rust Belt, that doesn’t mean he’ll win it again in four years. The Rust Belt is so electorally volatile because its problems are too deeply rooted for any politician to solve, so it keeps throwing out politicians who fail to solve them. And Trump’s promise to bring back manufacturing jobs will founder on the fact that most were lost to robots, not low-paid Mexican workers. An Indiana steel executive once told me his mill can produce as much with 5,000 workers as it once did with 25,000. When POLITICO went to Johnstown, Penn., to find out “What Trump Voters Want” (jobs, duh), it found voters had no more patience with Trump than with the Democrats.
“Six months to a year,” was one man’s timetable for economic progress. “Steel may never come back, but we’re sitting on a ton of coal. We’re also sitting on a ton of natural gas. He’ll create jobs.”
That doesn’t mean the Democrats can sit back and wait for Trump to fail. They need their own message for the Rust Belt. They can start by electing Rep. Tim Ryan of Youngstown, Ohio, to replace Nancy Pelosi as House Minority Leader. A Rust Belter who meditates and wrote a book about green eating, he can bridge the divide between the coasts and the Midwest. He’s promising to keep the party focused on economics, rather than social issues that may not resonate as loudly in northeast Ohio, such as transgender bathrooms.
“You look around here, and I can’t tell you how many people have lost their pensions,” he told the Post. “It’s not a sexy issue. It’s a bread and butter issue, especially in the Great Lakes states. And no one was talking about it.”
Because of the electoral reality that the Democrats are going to win New York and California, but have to compete for Ohio and Michigan, the party will have to focus on those rusty issues, even if they don’t motivate a majority of Democrats. For the next four years, the Rust Belt will loom large in American politics. In 2020, we may be trying to explain why Trump couldn’t hang on to it.
Edward McClelland is the author of Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President and Nothin’ But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland, and How To Speak Midwestern, out December 1 from Belt Publishing. Ted’s writing has also appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Columbia Journalism Review, Salon, Slate, and the Nation.