By Anne Trubek
The Rust Belt, linguistically speaking, is one of America’s newest regions. It was largely created in 1984 by, of all people, Walter Mondale. At a campaign stop during the presidential election, Mondale made a speech to steelworkers at the LTV plant Cleveland in which he decried Reagan’s position on trade, particularly the lifting of quotas on steel imports, which had sent the industry into crisis. As he put it: “Reagan’s policies are turning our industrial Midwest into a rust bowl.”
The press tweaked Mondale’s dust bowl reference into “Rust Belt,” to make it play off the “Sun Belt,” another new term for an American region, this one coined in 1969 by Kevin Phillips in his book The New Republican Majority, to describe a happier set of shifting demographics and economic policies.
Now, for the past 32 years, the term has been deplored, praised, and parsed. There is a sizable contingent — mainly baby boomers who remember the moment the term was coined — who consider it derogatory and strive to have it replaced (recent attempts to rebrand the region include the “Trust Belt” and the “Freshwater Region”). But the term sticks, resoundly trumping “America’s Heartland,” with its whiffs of nostalgia and rural idyll.
Definitions of where, exactly, the Rust Belt is, are also often debated. There is no answer. The term was invented by a politician and the media, not geographers; there are no natural borders, as there are with the East and West Coast, say, or topographic features, as with the Great Plains or the Rocky Mountains. The Rust Belt is a historical term, like New England and the Sun Belt (even “Midwest” is as much historic as geographic). “Post-Industrial Midwest” can serve as a synonym (along with its cousins, “industrial Midwest” and “formerly industrial Midwest). Michigan, Ohio, and Pennyslvania are central to the region, as well as parts of Illinois, Wisconsin, and New York. “As far west as Milwaukee and as far east as Buffalo” usually works. Borderlands, such Cincinnati and St. Louis, can be fun to debate over beers — just how rusty are they? — but in the end, if anyone is unsure if a region’s economy was previously based in manufacturing and has since been losing population, then it’s okay to consider it part of the gang.
The term is now used internationally, too — China and Russia and Germany and just about any country with a history of manufacturing have “Rust Belts,” at least when it comes to headlines to describe declining industrial regions. With the 2016 presidential election, the term is being used more than it has in recent memory by the American press, usually to describe the surprising popularity of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, who are campaigning, just as was Walter Mondale, for more restrictive trade policies.
The most common culprit for Rust Belt woes cited in this election cycle, often by voters supporting Trump or Sanders, is NAFTA. But NAFTA was passed by Bill Clinton in 1994; it had been a decade earlier, according to Mondale, that the damage had been done, by Ronald Reagan. And even that earlier date is sketchy: according to economists and those who lost their jobs, the region had turned to rust another decade earlier yet, during the 70s, as the demand for steel waned—it was being overproduced, as, after the industrial revolution and the two world wars, need was lessening, which was then compounded by the 1973 oil crisis. Black Monday, perhaps the most symbolic date in Rust Belt history, when Youngstown Sheet and Tube suddenly shuttered, leading to the loss of some 40,000 jobs, was in 1977, and it was the 70s — not Mondale’s 80s or NAFTAs 90s — that the region’s population peaked. It has been declining ever since.
Those manufacturing jobs are not going to ever return to 1970s numbers, no matter how loudly Trump and Bernie yell. The white working class lacking jobs and opportunity has been here for over 40 years now, long before Obama, or Clinton, or, even, Reagan.
The term Rust Belt continues to accurately define the region, to the consternation of both those who have never liked it and those who wish the economy — any economy — would show up and turn the rust from open sore to quaint artifact. “Rust Belt” may lack geographical strata but it has historical layers, and they are thick and redolent. It is a phrase born of loss, but now that it has acquired texture, depth, and decades worth of meaning, it would be a loss to lose it.
Anne Trubek is founder and publisher of Belt.
Banner photo by Francis Mariani.