Will Trump’s Broken Promises to Working-Class Voters Cost Him the Election?
Last December, Bob Kemper, the grievance chairman of United Steelworkers Local 1299, was summoned to a conference room at Great Lakes Works, a U.S. Steel plant just south of Detroit. A cohort of senior managers told Kemper and three other union officers that the automotive industry, which buys almost all of the plant’s steel, was cutting its car production. With reduced demand for its product, most of Great Lakes would be “indefinitely idled.” Kemper knew this meant that members were getting laid off, but the terminology was unfamiliar. “Our contract says the facility has to be declared shut down in order for our members to get a severance,” Kemper told me. “We were trying to figure out what the fuck ‘indefinitely idled’ means.”
Nearly a thousand workers have since lost their jobs. The layoffs came at an inauspicious time for Donald Trump, who won the Presidency, in 2016, by flipping Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania by a combined total of seventy-seven thousand votes. (His winning margin in Michigan, barely ten thousand votes, was the slimmest of any state.) Two days before Election Day, Trump had held a rally in Macomb County, Michigan, a national bellwether for the white working-class voters who were once known as Reagan Democrats. “We are going to stop the jobs from going to Mexico and China and all over the world,” Trump said. “We will make Michigan into the manufacturing hub of the world once again.” A Republican Presidential candidate had not won Macomb County since 2004; Trump carried it by nearly fifty thousand votes.
The political importance of trade and manufacturing derives from the fact that the sector’s average pay, including benefits, is close to forty dollars an hour, roughly twice as much as the average job in retail. For workers without a college degree, who represent more than sixty per cent of the American workforce, the industry is one of the few that offers family-supporting jobs with benefits. And yet American manufacturing has been in decline for decades. Altogether, the U.S. has lost ninety-one thousand plants and five million manufacturing jobs since 1997. As President, Trump continued staging rallies across the Rust Belt, promising a manufacturing revival. In July, 2017, at an event in Youngstown, Ohio (“Steeltown, U.S.A.”), Trump promised that the jobs lost from the area’s abandoned mills would be “all coming back.” He implored the crowd, “Don’t move. Don’t sell your house. We’re going to fill up those factories.”
To complement such messaging, the Trump Administration has touted its trade policies. One of its most significant moves came in March, 2018, when the President imposed import tariffs of twenty-five per cent on steel and ten per cent on aluminum. Both U.S. Steel and United Steelworkers lobbied for the change, and it initially brought a rebound to the American steel industry. Four months after implementing the tariffs, Trump travelled to Granite City, Illinois, to celebrate the reopening of a U.S. Steel mill that had been closed for three years. “After years of shutdowns and cutbacks, today the blast furnace here in Granite City is blazing bright,” he said. “Workers are back on the job, and we are once again pouring new American steel into the spine of our country.”
But, like with many aspects of the Trump Administration, such boasting masked a profound failure. The Administration ultimately exempted Mexico, Canada, and Australia from the tariffs, and a few other countries were exempted in exchange for accepting a quota on their exports. In June, 2019, only seventeen per cent of the steel imported by the U.S. was subject to the trade policy. “It was a short-term sugar rush—it didn’t deal with the long term,” Scott Paul, the president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, told me. “It may sound counterintuitive, but the tariffs weren’t protective enough.”
America’s industrial base has actually deteriorated further during Trump’s Presidency; more than two hundred thousand jobs have been lost to offshoring and trade, according to the U.S. Labor Department. (Other estimates have found that as many as seven hundred thousand jobs were lost in just 2017 and 2018.) General Motors has closed three U.S. plants, including one that recently employed nearly five thousand people in Lordstown, Ohio; the company is now the largest automaker in Mexico. Boeing and General Electric have offshored thousands of jobs to low-wage countries, with no significant response from the Trump Administration. In fact, a new report by Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch found that more than four hundred billion dollars in federal contracts have gone to companies which offshored jobs during the Trump Presidency.
After winning the 2016 election, Trump dispatched Vice-President-elect Mike Pence to negotiate a deal with Carrier Corporation, an air-conditioning manufacturer that had announced plans to move fourteen hundred jobs to Mexico. The company agreed to keep about seven hundred jobs, in its Indianapolis plant, in exchange for seven million dollars in state tax credits. “This is the way it’s going to be,” Trump told the Times. “Corporate America is going to have to understand that we have to take care of our workers also.” But United Technologies, Carrier’s parent company, has since offshored nearly sixteen hundred jobs. At the same time, the Trump Administration has given the company fifteen billion dollars in government contracts.
Although Trump has failed to deliver on many of his manufacturing promises, he continues to campaign as though he had. Recently, he gave a speech in Janesville, Wisconsin, touting his deal to bring a Foxconn manufacturing plant to the state despite the fact that the project has become a notorious boondoggle. Wisconsin taxpayers have shelled out at least four hundred million dollars so far for a nonexistent LCD factory and fewer than three hundred jobs of the thirteen thousand that the company has promised to create. Similarly, at an event near Saginaw, Michigan, last month, Trump boasted that he “saved the auto industry” and brought the state “a lot of car plants.” But Michigan has lost fifty thousand manufacturing jobs since the start of Trump’s Presidency, about half of them in the auto industry. Jobs in Michigan lost to offshoring actually increased by more than two hundred per cent during the first three years of Trump’s Presidency, compared with the last three years of Obama’s.
Andrea Hunter, the president of Local 1299, who was with Kemper when management announced that Great Lakes would be idled, saw the power that Trump’s false promises had on some of her members. In the summer of 2018, she was in the midst of negotiations over a new contract with U.S. Steel in Pittsburgh. During the talks, Trump declared, at a rally in Tampa, Florida, that U.S. Steel was building six new mills. “When Trump said it, we were all laughing,” Hunter said, recalling an exchange between the union representatives and company executives. “We said, ‘Y’all don’t want to give us any money, but check out these new plants coming.’ They said, ‘We don’t know what he’s talking about.’ Then I have to come back to my membership and say it’s not true. And some member will say, ‘Yes, it is.’ Now they’re calling me a liar.”
Local 1299’s union hall, in River Rouge, is down the street from the Great Lakes mill. Its squat brick façade and small white steeple are meant to evoke Independence Hall. An auditorium inside is decorated with a mural painted, in the late sixties, by a steelworker named J. J. Janiec. Titled “Forgotten History,” it depicts some of the American labor movement’s bloodiest battles—the Ludlow Massacre of 1914, in Colorado; the Memorial Day Massacre of 1937, in Chicago—foregrounded by a portrait of Philip Murray, a Scottish immigrant and coal miner who was the first president of the steelworkers’ union. (The painter’s grandson, a third-generation steelworker, lost his job at Great Lakes last year.) In the hall’s entranceway, near a plaque depicting Franklin D. Roosevelt—labor’s greatest ally in the White House—a stack of flyers advertised jobs with the Detroit Police Department.
On a Tuesday morning in September, Jeanelle Jones came to the hall to sign up for a workshop offered by Trade Adjustment Assistance, a federal program that helps workers who’ve lost their jobs to foreign trade find new careers. Jones is sixty-three and worked at Great Lakes for seven years, first as an overhead-crane operator and then as a safety representative. Before that, she worked on the assembly line at an axle plant in Detroit, but she took a severance package when the company began closing the factory and moving most of its production to Mexico. “My biggest fear right now is my age,” Jones said. “How many people are going to employ a sixty-three-year-old woman?” Jones also worries that a bout with lung cancer, in 2011, might dissuade a company from hiring her. “Normally you get asked, ‘Have you been diagnosed with something in the last ten years?’ ” she said. “I won’t be past that until next year.”
Jones signed up for the workshop with her friend and former co-worker Brandy Folks. Unemployment was about to run out for both of them. Folks, who has a six-year-old son, was concerned about finding a job that paid anything close to what she made as a steelworker. “I am not looking for a Bugatti,” she said. “I am looking to pay off my car and my mortgage without the worry that’s looming in my head.”
Folks’s parents had met while working at Great Lakes (which was then owned by National Steel) in the nineteen-seventies. Her mother, Pat, was one of the first women hired at the plant, and Folks’s baby shower was held at Local 1299’s union hall. After living in California, Nevada, and Kentucky, where she worked as a deputy sheriff, Folks returned to Michigan, in 2008, to be closer to her family. On her first day at the plant, she said, “I made the same amount of money as both of my parents, who were still working at that time.” But it was dangerous work. At the mill, Folks worked as a slab burner, cutting steel to the parameters of particular orders, and then in masonry, relining thirty-foot-deep iron and steel ladles with brick. “We don’t pinch our fingers, we don’t break them—we lose hands and legs,” she said. “Or you just die.” During her time at the plant, two 1299 members were killed on the job.
Folks said that she knows several laid-off workers who had come to Detroit on their second transfer, after losing their jobs at U.S. Steel plants in Granite City and then Lorain, Ohio. Many now planned to transfer from Michigan to a mill in Fairfield, Alabama. “If I wasn’t married,” Jones said. “I would probably have went to Fairfield.”
Exit polls after Trump’s victory showed that he had won sixty-one per cent of white voters without a college degree in Michigan. Among households with a union member, Hillary Clinton beat Trump by thirteen points, but that was twenty points fewer than Barack Obama’s margin over Mitt Romney four years earlier. Bob Kemper estimates that as many as half the workers at Great Lakes supported Trump. “Trump was the great savior of the steel industry,” Folks said, sarcastically. “I’m not going to be surprised if he does win again. He’s done an excellent job of fearmongering.”
After Trump took office, a new level of divisiveness came into the plant. Complaints brought to the union over racial harassment soared. Folks said that she had experienced racism and misogyny at work before Trump’s election, but it became more brazen afterward. “The climate changed,” Folks, who is Black, told me. “It became very polarizing, very much us versus them.”
One source of tension came during lunch hour, when some co-workers started wearing maga hats at the table. “Some people are saying, ‘Trump allowed me to be able to be me—I’m going to speak the way I choose to speak,’ ” Jones, who is also Black, said. “Trump cares about one thing, and that’s green. He cares about the filthy rich. He cares about the people that he feels somewhere down the road is going to be able to contribute to him, not the working-class people, not the poor-class people. Trump could care less about color. It’s about rich versus poor.”
Manufacturing employed more than a quarter of the American workforce in 1970. Three years later, wages for non-college-educated workers peaked. In 1976, Jimmy Carter narrowly won the Presidency, carrying nearly two-thirds of union households. The following year, on September 19, 1977, a day that became known as Black Monday, Youngstown Sheet & Tube announced that it would close one of its steel mills and lay off five thousand workers; older residents still remember where they were when they heard the news. The decision sparked a massive wave of deindustrialization across the Midwest. Youngstown had been the second-largest steel-manufacturing city in the country, after Pittsburgh. By the time Ronald Reagan campaigned in Youngstown in 1980, an additional nine thousand jobs had been lost. In his speech, Reagan told the unemployed steelworkers, “These [closings] would not have happened if I were President.”
The Republican National Committee chose Detroit as the site of its 1980 convention, where Reagan, during his acceptance speech, promised to “make America great again.” (Trump trademarked the phrase in 2015.) Reagan won every state in the industrial Midwest, helping to secure a landslide victory over Carter. But deindustrialization only deepened; by the end of Reagan’s second term, virtually all of the steel industry—some fifty thousand well-paying jobs—had vanished from Youngstown and the surrounding Mahoning Valley.
In September, 1984, Walter Mondale, the Democratic Presidential nominee, spoke to a few hundred workers at a rally outside a steel plant in Cleveland. Throughout his long political career, Mondale had been a strong supporter of the same free-trade agenda that Reagan had ultimately pursued in office. As a senator, he once led a successful filibuster to kill a labor-supported measure to limit cheap textile imports; as Vice-President, in the Carter Administration, he was associated with a recession and an eight-per-cent unemployment rate. Now, trailing Reagan badly in the polls, he was making a desperate attempt in Ohio and Michigan to win back Reagan Democrats. In Cleveland, he reminded the crowd of the promises that Reagan had made to the laid-off steelworkers in Youngstown. “First time, his fault,” Mondale said. “Second time, your fault.” Reagan had allowed foreign steel to take over more than a third of the U.S. market, Mondale said, “turning our industrial Midwest into a rust bowl.”
The phrase was meant to echo the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression, but journalists refashioned it into “Rust Belt,” instantly creating a term for a new American region without fixed geographic borders. (“As far west as Milwaukee and as far east as Buffalo usually works,” according to the Cleveland-based writer and publisher Anne Trubek.) Even as the area has become synonymous with plant closings and environmental catastrophes, such as the Flint water crisis, pockets of post-industrial economic revival are apparent—for instance, in downtown Detroit and Pittsburgh. Despite those successes, however, the human toll of deindustrialization is undeniable. Michigan alone has lost nearly a quarter of its plants and nearly two hundred thousand manufacturing jobs owing to trade since the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, went into effect, in 1994. A study published last year, in The Journal of the American Medical Association, found an eighty-five-per-cent increase in opioid-related deaths in counties where an auto-plant has closed within the past five years.
Historically, many economists have described free trade as a win-win: the United States could increase its exports, and consumers could buy inexpensive goods and benefit from new jobs created by the export boom. The idea, which was popular on Wall Street—corporations stood to gain from cheap labor costs and access to more markets—was often described by its advocates as a kind of inexorable force, immune to opposition. “This process, I believe, is irreversible,” Bill Clinton said in a 2000 speech. “In a single hour today, more people and goods move from continent to continent than moved in the entire nineteenth century.”
When Reagan first proposed a North American free-trade zone, in 1979, the idea was largely aligned with the Republican Party. George H. W. Bush negotiated NAFTA with Mexico and Canada in 1992. A year later, Bill Clinton signed the bill into law, despite the opposition of organized labor and the majority of his party in Congress. “NAFTA means jobs, American jobs, and good-paying American jobs,” Clinton said. Some economists have since pointed to higher over-all national income to argue that NAFTA, and the wider trend toward globalization, has been a net positive. But the redistribution of that wealth never materialized. A 2017 study by Josh Bivens, the director of research at the Economic Policy Institute, found that expanded trade has played a significant role in the rise of income inequality. In another study, Bivens found that trade with low-wage countries costs workers without a college degree nearly two thousand dollars a year in lost wages, even after accounting for the lower cost of consumer goods. “It’s true that, if you’re just looking at countries as a whole, national income in China and the United States is higher with fewer trade restrictions,” Bivens said. “But it’s not a win-win within the country. Most Americans are actually worse off because of globalization.”
Long before NAFTA, corporations searched for places, often in Southern states hostile to unions, offering cheap labor and fewer environmental regulations. Even the threat of moving a plant could extract steep concessions from unions. “There’s nothing you can do,” John Russo, an emeritus professor of working-class studies at Youngstown State University, told me. “When capital moves, it’s over.” After the passage of NAFTA, union leaders became even more powerless to protect their members’ jobs and benefits. During the 2000 election, Russo was walking through the Lordstown plant with the union’s shop chairman and other members of the shop committee. “They all said, ‘Vote for Gore,’ ” Russo told me. “This one worker looked at the chairman and said, ‘You said to me four years ago that anybody votes for NAFTA, we will never vote for him. Well, we’re not voting for Gore. And there’s nothing that you can say now that’s gonna make a difference.’”
It’s easy to forget that Obama ran as an economic populist. In a 2008 debate in Cleveland, he criticized Hillary Clinton for supporting nafta, and he ran a hard-hitting ad in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin attacking John McCain for opposing “buy American” provisions. “This is the same John McCain who supported billions in tax breaks for companies who ship American jobs overseas,” the ad said. Obama beat McCain badly in the Rust Belt, including in deep-red Indiana. He won Michigan by sixteen points. Four years later, Obama centered his reëlection campaign on the federal bailout of the auto industry, highlighting the fact that Mitt Romney, who had opposed it, wrote a Times Op-Ed titled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” Obama won Michigan again, despite Romney having grown up there and his father, George Romney, having been one of the state’s most admired governors. Yet as President, Obama advocated for free-trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and failed to aggressively punish trade violations by China and other countries.
During Obama’s second term, Robert E. Scott, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, started receiving calls from Stephen Miller, who was then working for Senator Jeff Sessions and is now a senior White House aide. “I’ve been publishing these studies on China trade and its effect on American job losses for decades now,” Scott told me. “Miller started calling me and asking me to explain them.” Miller, the architect of much of the Trump Administration’s immigration policy—including the separation of thousands of children from their parents at the southern border—saw early on the political valence of what Scott describes as the two-legged strategy of criticizing free-trade deals and blaming Black and Hispanic immigrants. “He’s a native-born fascist,” Scott said, “who clued into the negative effects of globalization and trade.” (The White House did not respond to requests for comment.)
In June, 2016, in Pennsylvania, Trump gave a major speech on trade that cited some of Scott’s research. “Our politicians have aggressively pursued a policy of globalization, moving our jobs, our wealth, and our factories to Mexico and overseas,” Trump said. “Globalization has made the financial élite, who donate to politicians, very, very wealthy. But it has left millions of our workers with nothing but poverty and heartache.” Trump went on to denounce Bill and Hillary Clinton for supporting various free-trade agreements, and highlighted Senator Bernie Sanders’s opposition to them.
Sanders revived his 2016 primary campaign with an upset victory in Michigan, where he had hammered Clinton for her support of nafta and other free-trade deals. In the Republican primary, Trump, too, won Michigan. The next day, he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper, “Michigan has been stripped. You look at those empty factories all over the place. And nobody hits that message better than me.” In the general election, exit polls in Michigan found that Trump won nearly sixty per cent of voters who thought that foreign trade takes away American jobs. “Donald Trump promised to rewrite nafta and drown the swamp monsters who have eaten people’s paychecks,” Scott said. “And we wonder how he won the blue-wall states? The wonder is that it did not happen sooner.”
Last month, Joe Biden gave a speech at the United Auto Workers regional headquarters, in Warren, Michigan, where G.M. closed a transmission plant in 2019. (The company is currently using the space to manufacture face masks.) Biden noted how Trump had promised that Michigan would not “lose one plant” while he was President. In fact, Trump had signed a tax bill, in 2017, that incentivized corporations to offshore jobs by slashing their tax rates on foreign profits. Though Biden supported nafta and many other free-trade agreements over the years, he has tried to distance himself from that position during the campaign. His platform includes a “Buy American” program, which would allocate four hundred billion dollars for federal purchases of products made in the U.S. In the spring, he promised the United Steelworkers, “I won’t enter into any new trade agreements until we’ve made major investments here at home, in our workers and our communities.”
Bernie Porn, the president of EPIC-MRA, one of Michigan’s oldest pollsters, told me that a week before the 2016 election “Clinton was leading among union members by only forty-six to thirty-eight per cent, with eight per cent for third-party candidates and thirteen per cent undecided—most of which went to Trump.” In EPIC-MRA’s most recent poll, Biden is leading among union members, seventy-one to twenty-three per cent. More broadly, Scott Paul, the Alliance for American Manufacturing president, believes that the Democratic Party may be finally shifting away from free-trade policies. “I think you’ve seen peak Wall Street Democrats,” he told me. “But both parties followed a philosophy, instead of opening their eyes. To me, that’s unforgivable, and we will never reclaim what we lost.”
Early one morning, Bob Kemper drove me around the periphery of Great Lakes Works, which spans two towns in Downriver, a cluster of eighteen small communities. As we drove through Delray, he pointed to a vast expanse of vacant lots. “These were all neighborhoods here,” he said, shaking his head. As we passed a grass-filled corner, he told me that his grandparents had owned a store there that had been burned down in the 1968 riots. Kemper, who is forty-five, grew up in Downriver; his father worked at the mill for almost thirty years. “I was hellbent on going to the Marines,” he said. “I met my wife when I was seventeen, and she convinced me that if I went to the military she would not be there when I got back.”
Kemper took a job at the mill. “Not all of us go to college. Not all of us want to pursue that kind of career,” he said. Like many new hires, he started at the coke plant, on Zug Island, our first stop. “You see thirty-five tons of coal on fire, with flames up to forty feet high,” Kemper said. “It looks like you’re staring into the gates of Hell.” The three dark towers were all silent now. After the last furnace shut down, in late March, a mysterious, low-pitched sound known as the Windsor Hum (because it was plaguing the residents of Windsor, Ontario, across the river) vanished. We were surrounded by mounds of coke breeze, and the smell of sulfur was overpowering. In 2010, the Detroit Free Press reported that six nearby Zip Codes were among the ten most polluted in Michigan.
Kemper, who has been at Great Lakes for twenty-four years, told me the smell was just one of the things you got used to. “When you blew your nose, it came out black,” he said. And there was the heat. “You’re dealing with temperatures of more than two thousand degrees in the mill,” he said. “You have equipment with up to two hundred thousand pounds of steel hauling around. Everything’s big, man. Everything’s big. It’s a neat place to work, don’t get me wrong. But it’s dangerous—you have got to keep your head on a swivel.”
We drove past the hot-strip mill, where steel is rolled out, and then the finishing facility, the only part of the mill that will remain open; it employs about three hundred workers. Along the way, Kemper pointed out the brick remains of adjacent factories, which manufactured armor plating and tanks as part of F.D.R.’s arsenal of democracy during the Second World War. They were now little more than ruins. I muttered something about America’s industrial history. “It’s here, and it’s devastated,” Kemper said.
Down the road from Great Lakes is Ford’s River Rouge complex, Henry Ford’s model factory, the birthplace of the modern assembly line. As we looked for a place to park, Kemper pointed to a footbridge leading into the factory, the site of the Battle of the Overpass. In the first three months of 1937, the United Auto Workers won hard-fought victories organizing against General Motors and Chrysler. But Henry Ford was more determined than his rivals not to let his company be unionized. That spring, when the U.A.W. organizers showed up on the bridge with flyers, they were viciously beaten by three dozen guards from Ford’s private security force. Walter Reuther, who would go on to become president of the U.A.W., was kicked, trampled, and thrown down two flights of concrete stairs. Four years later, the U.A.W. led a strike of the Rouge plant, which lasted ten days and ended with Ford’s capitulation.
Kemper lit a cigarette while reading about the incident on a memorial plaque. He admired Reuther’s militancy, he said, and would love to see some of that spirit return. During the 2008 campaign, Obama promised that, if labor rights came under attack, he would “put on a comfortable pair of shoes” and “walk on that picket line with you” as President. But, when both Michigan and Wisconsin passed anti-union legislation, “Obama didn’t come out with his shoes and march with us,” Kemper said. “Every four years, when the Democratic Party needs our support, it’s ‘Hey, what about the steelworkers.’ O.K., motherfuckers, do something for us now. I don’t want to turn anyone away from the only thing I think could possibly help us, which is the Democratic Party. We’ll phone-bank for them, we’ll canvass for them, we’ll defend them to the death out on the shop floor against a lot of our members. But we don’t see we’re getting the same defense sometimes. I think we’re ready to fight—we need to mobilize in these streets again. We just need some leadership.”
Trump’s relentless campaigning across the Rust Belt has masked the fact that many of his most powerful advisers—including Jared Kushner, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and his former top economic adviser Gary Cohn—are closely aligned with the free-trade ethos of Wall Street. The first sign of their influence came in April, 2017, when Trump announced that China was “not a currency manipulator,” breaking his campaign pledge to designate the country as such “on Day One.” For decades, the Chinese government has bought U.S. Treasury bonds to help keep its currency artificially low compared with the dollar. (It now has more than three trillion dollars’ worth.) For some fair-trade economists, the overvalued dollar is the most significant impediment to a revival of American manufacturing.
The Trump Administration’s trade measures have been marred by abrupt and haphazard implementations. In February, 2018, the Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, who made a fortune selling distressed Ohio and Pennsylvania steel companies to foreign investors, recommended that Trump impose tariffs on imported steel using an obscure provision of a 1962 trade law called Section 232, which allows the President to limit imports if it’s deemed essential for national security. The move shocked and angered allies such as the European Union and Canada, sparking a global backlash against the United States. “We will not sit idly while our industry is hit with unfair measures that put thousands of European jobs at risk,” Jean-Claude Juncker, then the president of the European Commission, said. “The EU will react firmly and commensurately to defend our interests.”
United Steelworkers and the Alliance for American Manufacturing, a business-labor nonprofit, supported the Trump Administration’s tariffs on steel and aluminum. But they also criticized the Administration’s failure to first organize collective action against China. “The sequencing managed to piss off all of our potential partners around the world,” Lori Wallach, the head of Global Trade Watch, said. Even after the U.S. tariffs, China, whose heavily subsidized steel industry produces more than fifty per cent of the world’s supply, was able to flood the global market and distort the price of steel.
The most successful of Trump’s trade advisers has arguably been Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. Trade Representative. In March of 2018, Lighthizer did go after China, determining that the country was engaged in predatory trading practices. Broad tariffs on Chinese goods were announced the following month. But their effectiveness was severely limited by the fact that the United States, once again, acted alone. The tariffs—which are now being applied to three hundred and seventy billion dollars’ worth of Chinese goods—had reduced the bilateral trade deficit between China and the U.S. before the coronavirus pandemic, but China has increased its exports to other countries. At the same time, America’s over-all trade deficit is nearing an all-time high.
Lighthizer told me he is proud of the Trump Administration’s record. He highlighted that five hundred thousand manufacturing jobs had been created during Trump’s first three years in office, that a new Chrysler plant had been built in Michigan, and that G.M. and other companies were investing billions of dollars to update older plants. Lighthizer also led negotiations for the U.S.M.C.A., a free-trade agreement between the United States, Mexico, and Canada that replaced nafta and which, by many accounts, is an improvement on its predecessor. It virtually eliminated what’s known as the investor-state dispute-settlement court system, which allowed corporations to sue governments for environmental and health laws that infringed on their profits. The new pact also includes a significant expansion of labor protections for Mexican workers, including a provision that allows any member of the public to report a company that violates a worker’s collective-bargaining rights or the right to organize. “I’m kind of one that believes that America has a stake in Mexico being prosperous,” Lighthizer said. “I don’t feel that I have a stake at all in Vietnam being prosperous, but Mexico is on our border, and we have a huge Mexican-American population.”
Lighthizer, a trade lawyer and former Reagan Administration official, is from Ashtabula, Ohio, a small town on Lake Erie. A doctor’s son, he went to Catholic school with the children of factory workers. He told me that the loss of decent manufacturing jobs in places like northeastern Ohio is a constant motivation for him. “The kids were all proud of their dads, because they had these jobs molding fibreglass at some plant or making stuff that goes on railroad cars,” he said. Lighthizer believes that the U.S.M.C.A. represents a sea change in American trade policy that will eventually bring back those kinds of jobs. To win over labor opposition, the agreement includes a provision that at least forty per cent of a car has to be manufactured in a facility that pays workers an average of sixteen dollars per hour or face a tariff of two and a half per cent. “I think we got rid of things that were incentivizing people to move factories out of the United States,” he said. “I think it’s going to end up, over time, bringing back literally hundreds of thousands of jobs.”
Labor advocates are less enthusiastic. Richard Trumka, the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the largest trade-union federation in the country, backed the U.S.M.C.A. after winning some concessions, but many other unions, notably the United Auto Workers, withheld their support. “It is not a ‘fix’ for the many problems created by nafta and other misguided tax and labor policies that have flourished for decades,” Rory Gamble, the U.A.W.’s acting president, said, adding that the International Monetary Fund has predicted that the agreement would actually lead to job losses in the auto sector. (Environmental groups strongly opposed the agreement; Greenpeace, the Sunrise Movement, and the League of Conservation Voters, among others, sent a letter to Congress noting that the U.S.M.C.A. “does not even mention climate change.”)
Wallach, of Global Trade Watch, said, “If nafta is the twelfth circle of Hell, this is two rings above Hell.” Still, she credits Lighthizer for whatever genuine trade reforms Trump has made. “He has done most everything he can,” she said. “But he has had to contend with total dysfunction, if not ideological opposition to actually taking the steps that would be necessary to deliver on even a realistic version of Trump’s promises.”
Scott, at the Economic Policy Institute, is more critical of the agreement and Lighthizer. “I think the benefits are second-order small,” he said. “It will help workers in Mexico unionize, but it’s not going to increase wages in the U.S.” He noted that the U.S.M.C.A. was hashed out in secret, with input from several hundred corporate advisers on U.S. government trade-advisory committees. “This deal followed the historical approach, which is strong-arming people in a room,” Scott said. “It’s corrupt. We’ve been doing it this way for thirty years, and we’ve gotten nothing but job losses and downward pressure on wages.”
The five hundred thousand pre-coronavirus manufacturing jobs that the Trump Administration is touting, Scott noted, is the same relatively small number that were created during the last three years of Obama’s term. “I think Trump, and also Lighthizer, have absolutely no strategic vision for how we are going to get the ninety-one thousand plants and five million jobs back.”
The day after Kemper and I toured the plants of Downriver, I drove to the union hall of United Steelworkers Local 8339, in Jackson, an hour and a half west of Detroit. The local represents the workers at a Gerdau plant, a “mini-mill” that made steel for transmissions, camshafts, and gun barrels. In January, the Brazilian company announced that it would shut down the plant’s melting and rolling operations, which cost nearly a hundred union members their jobs. Jim Saterlee and Troy Bland, who had just come from work, and Nick Dean, whose last shift was in early June, were hanging around the local’s small parking lot. Saterlee has worked at the plant for thirty-six years, but doubts that he will have a job for much longer. “I’m not optimistic,” he said. For Dean, economic fears are more pressing. “I was pounding as many hours as I could through this whole COVID thing,” he said. “I haven’t tapped my 401(k) yet, which I hope not to do, because I’m forty years old and down the road I’m going to need that money.”
Dean estimates that, with mandatory overtime, he made a hundred thousand dollars a year. “Now I’m stepping back into this economy where you can get a twelve-dollar-an-hour job through a temp agency. I was making over twenty, plus benefits, plus vacation time and a 401(k). You can’t find that around here.”
Like many parts of Michigan, Jackson was once an industrial powerhouse. “This was a booming area for our dads and our uncles,” Bland said. But, in the mid-eighties, a Goodyear Tire plant, which employed fifteen hundred people, closed. Well-paying jobs became even scarcer a couple decades later, after the closing of a Kelsey-Hayes factory, which made braking components for cars. Among the few manufacturing jobs left were those at the steel plant.
As we talked, Shawn Crowley, the president of the local, pulled into the lot. Crowley, who still has his job in the finishing division, told me that many of his laid-off members have gone to work at Post Foods, in Battle Creek, an hour and a half away. “Post never slows down,” he said. “In these downtrodden times, the cereal industry just goes through the roof. It’s one of the cheapest things to make and one of the cheapest things you can get at the store.”
None of the men had voted for Trump in 2016. They didn’t blame him directly for the plant’s layoffs, but they didn’t think he had done much for their industry, either. “I think the tariffs helped, for about a month or two,” Dean said. “But it turned out to be a smoke screen, because when he wrote the tax laws it made it easier for companies to go offshore.”
“Trump was a carny,” Saterlee said. “He knew what to say to get the blue-collar vote.”
“A lot of us followed the Carrier story—how those jobs just went away after he said he saved them,” Crowley said. “There are not as many Trump diehards this year.”
“I see a few people starting to back away,” Saterlee said. But he still thinks that Trump will win Michigan again.
The only undecided voter in the group was Dean, who in 2016 voted for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party candidate. “I may vote for Biden—I haven’t made up my mind,” he said. “But definitely not Trump.” (He ultimately voted for Jo Jorgensen, the Libertarian candidate.) Dean was raised in a Republican household, and his first vote was for George W. Bush. “I did vote for Obama the first time,” he said. “I bought the hope and change. And that we’re going to start getting out of these wars. I didn’t vote for him the second time—that’s when I started looking into third parties.”
“Biden certainly wasn’t my choice—I was for Bernie,” Saterlee said. “I have to vote for Biden, because Trump is more dangerous now than he has been. He’s getting more dangerous by the day. And a vote for anyone else . . .” He looked at Dean.
Saterlee makes a point of talking politics with Republicans, especially his wife’s family. “I just pick their brains,” he said. “How do you rationalize that he’s paid more to a porn star than he has in taxes? Is that O.K.? It’s not O.K. ‘Oh, but that’s fake news’—that’s their default. People say we really shouldn’t discuss politics—well, the fuck we shouldn’t! Everybody needs to discuss politics. It has to be more out in the open, because of these pricks in Washington.” He leaned against his pickup truck. “Otherwise, we’re for dinner.”
Since the layoffs began, Local 1299 has been transformed into a social-services agency. In addition to the weekly workshop offered by Trade Adjustment Assistance, the local’s officers help workers transfer to other plants, maintain their health-insurance benefits, and receive severance pay. (Despite Great Lakes being “indefinitely idled,” United Steelworkers managed to negotiate a severance package with U.S. Steel.) Workers have come to rely on the union, in part because Michigan’s unemployment-agency offices have been closed because of the pandemic. Elected officials reached out to Andrea Hunter, 1299’s president, to see if they could help; a state senator arranged for a teachers’ local to lend 1299 several Chromebooks. From March to August, Bob Kemper’s main job was helping workers process their unemployment claims. “We were fielding at least fifty members a day in early June,” Kemper told me, during my last visit to the hall. “I could fill out an unemployment application now without looking at the damn screen. We have a senior workforce here that quite frankly doesn’t utilize computers. These people would have just been screwed. That’s one of the benefits of having this concerted voice.”
COVID-19 is only accelerating the deterioration of America’s industrial base. Manufacturing employment is down by six hundred and fifty thousand jobs since the beginning of the pandemic, according to a new paper by Robert Scott, the economist, more than wiping out the Trump Administration’s previous gains. The trade deficit with China is growing again, as it is with the rest of the world, exposing America’s lack of domestic manufacturers. The high unemployment rate and threadbare safety net have only deepened the economic distress of 1299’s membership. “They keep calling us middle class,” Hunter told me, in her office. “I am not middle class—I am working class. Middle-class America makes two hundred thousand dollars a year and has a forty-hour workweek. That’s not us. Don’t call us middle class, like we’re different than the guy who works at McDonald’s. We’re not. What they don’t realize is you cannot have an affluent, working capitalist society based on consumption when you keep taking our jobs away.”
I stepped outside with Kemper, so that he could have a cigarette. I asked him how many members come to the union’s monthly meeting. “As long as you announce that everyone’s getting laid off: hundreds,” he said. “But, typically, roughly two dozen people.” He looked across the street at a row of shuttered businesses. “It’s devastating for this area,” he said, referring to the layoffs. “I’m not saying River Rouge was picturesque, but I will say all the storefronts were open when I was a child, in the mid-eighties.” Among the few new businesses were marijuana dispensaries along Jefferson Avenue, the town’s main artery. Kemper counted at least six.
Kemper’s own future is uncertain. The union may have to reduce the number of full-time officers, given its shrinking number of dues-paying members. If there isn’t a job opening at the finishing plant, Kemper will have to find a new livelihood. Like many workers across the Rust Belt, he has been forced to ponder his own obsolescence. “Are we a dying industry?” he said. He gazed at the entrance of the pot dispensary next door. “I don’t know. Maybe we are. But I don’t think it has to be.”
Dan Kaufman is the author of “The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics,” which was published in 2018.
Co-published with The New Yorker.