The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump may prosper from tariffs even if this faded port town doesn’t

Norfolk Southern ceased its coal operations in Ashtabula Harbor in 2016, taking away a valuable sector of the community. (Dustin Franz/The Washington Post)

ASHTABULA, OHIO — This northeast Ohio town was once the busiest port on the Great Lakes, with hundreds of men laboring each day to unload and transport the tons of iron ore that fed steel mills in Youngstown and Pittsburgh.

Now, after decades of decline that many here blame on unfair foreign competition, the docks are still, and the old steelworkers’ union hall is a used-car lot.

Ashtabula is the kind of place that President Trump, and his chief trade adviser Robert E. Lighthizer, who grew up here, aim to help with Thursday’s announcement of a plan to boost domestic manufacturing by imposing tariffs on imported steel and aluminum.

But while communities like Ashtabula show why protectionism may be a political winner for the president, blocks of dilapidated clapboard houses signal broader economic woes that the administration’s proposed trade measures do not address.

“I don’t think it’ll ever come back like it used to be. Those days are gone,” said Ray Gruber, 66, a retired machinist and United Steelworkers union official.

Trump’s intent to levy import taxes of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum, the most dramatic steps so far in his “America First” campaign of economic rejuvenation, stirred an outcry from Republicans in Congress, close U.S. allies such as Canada and corporate leaders.

The president showed no signs of sharing their alarm. Trump has for 30 years maintained that foreign countries cheat American workers out of their jobs. That assertion is disputed by mainstream economists but carries evident ­political appeal.

Few here expect the president’s trade remedies to bring dramatic improvements in their living standards. The old steel mills and factories have been closed for too long. Too many of the people who remain lack the requisite skills.

Most of the roughly 5 million American manufacturing jobs lost since 2001 resulted from the closure of entire facilities rather than partial layoffs, according to Gordon Hanson, an economist at the University of California at San Diego.

If tariffs prompt companies to move production back to the United States, they would likely opt for highly automated plants that require fewer workers. Trump’s tariffs “would bring back 21st-century factories where we lost 20th-century factories,” Hanson said this week at the National Association for Business Economics conference in Washington.

And Ashtabula’s problems can’t all be blamed on foreign competition, according to Ned Hill, an economic development specialist at Ohio State University.

Technological changes in steelmaking, notably the rise of electric arc furnaces, also hit the town hard. Such mills consume scrap metal rather than the iron ore that cargo vessels brought from Michigan to Ashtabula via Lake Erie.

Starting in the 1970s, several local employers also decamped for the nonunion South, lured by attractive tax preferences. More recently, opioid abuse has further undermined the area’s economic foundation, making hard times feel more like a permanent condition and less like a trial to be endured.

The county recorded 39 drug overdose deaths in 2016, according to the most recent data available from the Ohio Department of Health, up from just five a decade earlier. Employers routinely complain that too few job applicants can pass a required drug test.

Like other enclaves in the industrial Midwest, Ashtabula County is older, poorer and less educated than the nation as a whole. Only 1 in 7 adults hold a college diploma compared with one-third nationwide, the Census Bureau says.

“The economic deterioration we’ve experienced has more to do with companies fleeing unions, technology . . . and the absence of education,” said Ren Carlisle, who owns a gift shop near the harbor.

The reality of Ashtabula’s malaise is indisputable.

The city’s median household income is just $28,865, half the national figure, according to Census Bureau estimates. More than one-third of Ashtabula’s roughly 15,000 residents live in poverty. On the streets, Dollar General stores are ubiquitous.

Ashtabula is among the poorest quarter of Ohio’s 88 counties, but its economic and social ailments are not unique.

“The conditions that exist here exist right through the middle of the country,” said local writer Carl Feather, author of a history of the port.

Trade is steadily reshaping politics in American communities where imports have risen at the expense of domestic manufacturers.

Between 2000 and 2016, the Republican presidential candidate’s share of the vote increased where local labor markets were most vulnerable to competition from imported Chinese goods, according to economists Hanson, David Dorn, David Autor and Kaveh Majlesi.

Worries over trade-related job losses added 1.7 percentage points to Trump’s vote total in counties whose workers were most directly threatened by China, they concluded.

Sensing opportunity in the area’s working-class despair, Trump in 2016 became the first presidential candidate since John F. Kennedy to campaign in Ashtabula County. He appeared before a raucous crowd in nearby Geneva, where he bemoaned the steel industry’s erosion, assailed trade deals and warned, “We are living through the single greatest jobs theft in the history of the world.”

Twelve days later, en route to capturing Ohio’s 18 electoral votes, Trump routed Hillary Clinton in the county, 56 percent to 37 percent. It was the first time a Republican presidential candidate had won here since Ronald Reagan.

Opposition to the trade liberalization pursued by presidents from both parties was a key factor in Trump’s appeal in Democratic strongholds such as this one. More than 4 out of every 10 voters in 2016 told pollsters that trade costs American jobs. Trump won 64 percent of their votes, according to CNN exit polls.

The Republican also won union households in Ohio, though not nationwide.

“I’d reluctantly admit that industrial workers in the heartland voted for President, then-candidate, Trump because he was offering a solution they knew was needed,” said Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers union.

The union boss, who has been critical of Trump for moving too slowly against trade cheats, says the president still has an opportunity to unite working-class Democrats and Republicans in a new coalition of trade skeptics — but only if he does more.

“These things could lead to a new alignment on trade,” Gerard said. “Or we could just end up with lots of frustrated, angry workers.”

Every Wednesday morning, in a one-story brick building tucked along a residential street, the sense of economic loss is palpable as men gather for coffee in the office of the Pipefitters Local 120 union. On this day, most describe a place whose best days lie in the past.

“I moved out here in the ’70s when it was a boom,” said Mike Driscoll, 76, a retiree. “There was all kinds of work here.”

There isn’t now, at least not in jobs that offer a decent wage and health insurance. Men who are 30 or even 40 years old are starting as apprentice pipe fitters, just to get a foothold in a trade that provides benefits, said Don Ols, the union’s business representative.

The local, which once had around 120 members, has shrunk to no more than 20 men. Rather than their preferred work building the industrial piping that runs through steel mills and power plants, pipe fitters these days more often work shorter, less lucrative jobs installing heating and cooling systems in schools and hospitals.

When the occasional factory job arises, union leaders try to rotate the younger guys in to make sure they retain their core skills.

Even though none of the nine men seated around a brown metal table voted for Trump, the administration’s rhetoric about returning lost manufacturing jobs to the United States resonates.

“All of the steel mills wouldn’t have shut down if we hadn’t been importing all that steel from China,” said Russ Demagall, 47, another union official.

Ashtabula’s hunger for new jobs is so strong that people here still talk about a 1978 U.S. Steel proposal to build a giant mill in neighboring Conneaut as if it were a recent development. The plan, which would have employed nearly 8,500 people, was abandoned as the industry slid into decline.

“All it’s going to take is one company to come out here. . . . We have the infrastructure; we have the lake; we have everything you need,” said Mike Schaab, 60.

Greg Myers is trying to find that company.

As executive director of a local economic development agency, Myers pitches the county to prospective employers. He touts the regional airport’s new runway and the $86 million extension of a natural gas pipeline from Pennsylvania, which will fill industry’s gaping need for less expensive energy.

Nowadays, he hopes to nab a nearly $500 million project from a foreign investor, which would bring 120 to 150 new jobs — desperately needed in a county with a 5.9 percent unemployment rate.

But the path to success runs uphill. Ashtabula hasn’t attracted a deal like that in a decade.

“We’re battling against history,” Myers said.