Perceived Economic Crisis in Rust Belt Manufacturing Counties


The presidential election of 2016 confirmed the potency of confrontational campaign rhetoric in galvanizing latent political attitudes in America, specifically with rank and file members of manufacturing labor unions. Indeed, Donald Trump proved to the country that he could command a powerful message and communicate his message effectively to a populous that, due to their pessimistic attitude about the current political establishment, was incredibly receptive. In particular, it’s clear that Trump’s victory in states like North Carolina, Michigan, and Wisconsin was due in part to the contagious perception of economic crisis among rural, insulated, white, manufacturing communities. The collective mindset of being tired of party politics and Washington-style trade deals, a mindset that spread despite blatantly contradicting the candidate’s tangible policy proposals, was common especially amongst workers in steel, automotive, and agriculture industries, as well as many other manufacturing sectors. However, The United Steel Workers, the United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Workers of America, and the United Mine Workers of America unions all faithfully and publicly backed Hillary throughout the campaign. By comparing the voter turnout of workers in rural manufacturing counties with the public statements from their labor unions, the strength of the aforementioned mindset becomes visible; that those who work or previously worked in manufacturing industries were voting in spite of fact and policy, they were voting due to an attitude of frustration and for the promise of change.

According to a Pew Research Center poll conducted prior to the election, 71% of Trump supporters believed that the economy has gotten worse over the past four years. The sentiment amongst many Republican voters was one of discontent, frustration, and yearning for change. This attitude conflicts with the national economic trend with respect to labor, as the national unemployment rate has fallen in the past four years, from 7.9% in the first month of the Obama administration to 4.9% this past October, reaching a high of around 10% according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, voters this election judged the American economy based on their feelings, not on statistics that the political establishment produces. This may be due to the trend of many Americans beginning to view the federal government as self-serving, deceptive, and cumbersome. Indeed, the same Pew study stated that, “just 19% say they can trust the government always or most of the time, among the lowest levels in the past half-century. If we look at this attitude in the context of voters who live in manufacturing counties in the Midwest, for example, it becomes clear the degree to which the outlook of frustration was influential.

American steel is a major example of an industry that became political activated during the campaign, and counties in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Ohio all augmented Trump’s victory in the Rust Belt Midwest due to their opposition to trade deals, programs that Trump demonized throughout his campaign. According to the president of the Iron and Steel Institute, Thomas Gibson, “more than 12,000 steel jobs have been lost in the past year, as imports took a record 29% of the U.S. market. At the same time, U.S. steel production has continued to decline. Domestic shipments for 2015 stood at nearly 87 million tons, a nearly 12% decrease over what American steel mills shipped in 2014.” It’s suspected that one contributing factor to this steady decline is the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which created an economic partnership between Canada, Mexico, and the United States in 1994. The goal of the deal was to liberalize trade between the three countries, and to an extent it has created massive amounts of economic growth through the repeal of tariffs on economic goods, specifically agricultural commodities. However, although some companies gained market share through the massive growth of imports and exports, American steel companies have lost significant market command. In addition, companies are partially incentivized to move their manufacturing facilities to Mexico, where they will have much fewer environmental and labor restrictions. Lastly, NAFTA has changed the wage market in America, providing more low-wage competition for manufacturing jobs.

However, in spite of the attitude of disgust towards NAFTA and the perceived lack of loyalty on the part of the U.S government to domestic American manufacturing labor, the United Steelworkers Union had this to say just days after the election in an open letter to its members: “the USW endorsed Hillary Clinton… She outlined a detailed set of policy initiatives on jobs, trade, infrastructure, education, health care, race relations and immigration that would not only move our nation forward, but expand opportunity for all.” This is a major example of a case where attitude overwhelmed policy and endorsement. As we know now, steel country went overwhelmingly for Trump, even counties that had gone Obama in 2012. These counties flew in the face of their labor union’s endorsement, denied the words of Hillary Clinton and her policy proposals, and went with the promises of Trump to bring things back to the way they were before the Democrats took control of legislation.

The automobile industry is in a similar situation, it is experiencing a similar economic stagnation to the hardships that have plagued the steel industry during the past decade. According to the Council on Foreign Relations study updated in July of 2016, “the U.S. auto sector lost some 350,000 jobs since 1994—a third of the industry—while Mexican auto sector employment spiked from 120,000 to 550,000 workers.” Once again, Trump seized the opportunity, promising manufacturers economic prosperity and a chance to terminate the trade deals. In a rally in Detroit, Michigan, the “Motor City,” a town defined by the automobile industry, Trump appealed to car manufacturers by condemning the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, saying, “just imagine how many more automobile jobs will be lost if the TPP is actually approved…Hillary Clinton will never withdraw from the TPP. She is bought, controlled and paid-for by her donors and special interests.” The TPP is a deal similar in style to NAFTA, it was designed to liberate trade between North American and Asian countries by eliminating tariffs, a tactic designed to make American goods and companies more competitive. However, this competition may have lead to companies cutting costs through decreasing their wages and labor force.

Regardless of the effects of these deals, the United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Workers of America reminded its members that, “Hillary Clinton has made a commitment that she will renegotiate NAFTA. She has been consistent in this position…She has also committed that she will oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and any similar trade agreements that do not meet the UAW’s high standard for creating living wages, enhancing labor rights and protecting human rights.” If workers in these industries were disappointed with the detrimental economic effects that these trade deals caused, then Hillary was proposing to renegotiate them, whereas Trump promised to obliterate them. Destruction in favor of renegotiation was many people’s decision, once again based on the frustrated attitude found in rural counties across the Midwest. Realistically, in the case of automobiles specifically, these workers may be in for a tougher road than NAFTA and TPP ever could have produced, as most major automakers who sell cars in America have plans to build new plants in Mexico, and some, such as Ford, Chrysler, GM, and Nissan, have already done so. With Trump threatening these defecting American automakers with import tariffs of up to 35%, the auto industry could end up clinging to the trade deals, even though their workers are fervently in opposition. In the case of those working in domestic automobile manufacturing plants, the reality is that Trump’s deal busting plan will probably bring ruin to the industry; but these voters voted, as before, in service of their fear and frustration, in this case directly against their own self-interest.

Finally, the coal industry represents another captivating instance of abandonment of the Democratic Party in favor of Trump. Coal country in much of West Virginia and southeast Pennsylvania houses an industrial apparatus that has become all but extinct. Since the 1970s, new machinery and technological advances have taken over many jobs. Combine that trend with increased environmental regulations on carbon emissions and it’s easy to see the demise of coal companies and their outputs; the trend has been towards coal miners and their families losing their jobs and, in turn, their livelihood. Thus, when Hillary Clinton said the words, “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right?” it hit particularly hard, especially for regions that have depended on coal for decades. She was, of course, taken out of context. She was elaborating on how she planned on pushing jobs back into coal country by growing clean energy initiatives in those regions that would put former coal-miners back to work reviving the energy sector and advancing environmentally friendly initiatives. Furthermore, Clinton was the candidate that consistently advocated on behalf of retired coal miners who were suffering from health problems. As President of the United Mine Workers for America, Cecil Roberts, said in a press release prior to the election, “I very much appreciate Secretary Clinton’s statement in favor of preserving promised retirement security for retired miners…This is not the first time she has been outspoken in her support for retired miners and their families.”

However, on the other hand, Trump rallies in West Virginia and Pennsylvania included promises to the coal mining communities. In one particular rally, he addressed West Virginians by saying, “I am thinking about the miners all over this country. We’re going to put the miners back to work…we are going to get those mines open.” The contrast between the two policy initiatives is stark; Clinton presents a plan to bring the budding clean-energy industry to dead manufacturing counties. In opposition, Trump offers an open-ended promise that he will reopen the factories. Once again, it is this difference that the crux of the election swung, the perception of economic crisis and the distrust of solutions from the Democratic Party in favor of change. The coal miners who have lost their jobs in the past decade don’t trust party politics, they see eight years of democratic administration that has done nothing to help them escape poverty, and then a powerful man promises them that their lives can return to the prosperity that flourished when coal was thriving in Appalachia. This perceived crisis overpowered even the voice of the president of their labor union, who knew, based on policy initiatives, that clean energy was a chance for actual revitalization of rural coal counties.

These three industries indicate an outlook of frustration with Washington that ultimately propelled Trump into the White House. According to Pew Center poll, “fully 81% say that most supporters of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump not only disagree over plans and policies, but also disagree on “basic facts.” Just 18% say that while Clinton and Trump supporters often differ over plans and policies, they can agree on basic facts. Basic facts are very rarely contentious, but in this case, the influx of Trump’s open-ended promises into the political discourse directly conflicted with facts, and eventually boxed them out. When Clinton told steel workers that she would protect their wages and healthcare benefits, and advocate on behalf of paid family leave, Trump accused her of being part of the Democratic regime that destroyed the steel industry in the first place. When Clinton promised autoworkers that she would renegotiate NAFTA, Trump accused her, and her husband, of being loyal to special interests that benefited, the pervasive distrust of Hillary Clinton as a politician overcame her proposal to renegotiate. When she assured coal workers that she would bring a new industry of clean energy into their counties to revive the dead economy that has inundated their lives with poverty, Trump took her words out of context and accused her of scheming to kill coal altogether as an environmentalist. This rhetorical fight was unprecedented, and Donald Trump’s inflammatory speech making played on the fear and frustration that existed in these counties, where voters want a change to the economic hardship that they’ve faced for years. Rural counties are so frustrated from neglect, they wanted to be heard, and Donald Trump promised them a voice, a chance, and ultimately, the economic despair of rural, white, manufacturing counties was the root cause of this attitude, one major contributing factor to Trump’s victory this election cycle.

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