Over the weekend, President Trump stepped into a controversy over the closing of a General Motors auto plant in Lordstown, Ohio. And did it in the most Trumpian way possible: over Twitter and laced with his trademark thin-skinned pettiness.
This whole affair demonstrates what Trump seems to believe is an area of considerable vulnerability: the perception that perhaps the U.S. economy is not the paradise of prosperity he would like voters to believe it is.
GM actually announced last November that the plant would close; they say they're shutting down production of the Chevy Cruze, which is built at the Lordstown plant, and shifting to more profitable trucks and SUVs. The plant had already gone from three shifts down to one, resulting in the loss of 3,000 jobs, and was shut down earlier this month.
But as Matthew Gertz noted, what seems to have prompted the president’s renewed attention to the plant was a segment on Fox News, which is of course where all the most thoughtful policymaking begins.
Three of the four tweets Trump has sent on the subject in the last couple of days came within half an hour of Fox airing a segment on the plant closing. But it was this one that really stuck out:
If Trump wants the plant to reopen, why would he attack a union leader who is fighting for just that? The answer lies in the things David Green said when he appeared on Fox, not so much about this plant but about the economy in his area. The host played a clip from a 2017 Trump rally in nearby Youngstown where he told the crowd that all the manufacturing jobs that had been lost were coming back and no one should sell their house, then asked Green if his members were sticking behind Trump. Green’s answer:
You know, I think that’s really just a matter of opinion. Some folks I know have switched gears, right, and thought, you know, when he came here and said all these great things, they were on board with that. And the fact that we’ve seen our Kmart distribution center in Warren close, a hospital close out here, all these brick-and-mortar businesses are closing, and now unallocated status at Lordstown, which will affect really thousands of jobs in the supplier base around it, people are starting to wake up. But part of it’s ego, too, right? I mean, if that’s your guy, people are going to stick with him.
Put aside the question of how many people are switching their votes. What matters is the picture Green is painting, of a community that is still struggling economically despite low unemployment nationally. The truth is that the people Green represents will probably be able to find some kind of job, but it’s unlikely to be anywhere near as good as the job they lost. The unemployment rate may be low, but if you lose a job at an auto plant where you make $30 an hour, you’re represented by a union and you have good benefits, the fact that you can get a job at Walmart making $12 an hour with no union and skimpy benefits may not be much of a consolation.
That’s the broader context of the American economy — not just whether people are working but what kind of jobs they have and whether they’re able to lead lives on something other than a financial knife’s edge — that Trump would prefer people ignore in favor of the simple assertion that things have never been better. When he blurts “3.8% Unemployment!”, Trump is trying to focus attention away from what Green is describing.
Then Green did something in the interview that surely made Trump even madder: He criticized Trump’s signature legislative victory, saying: “The tax cut actually incentivized corporations like that to pay less taxes on profits when they bring products in from outside our borders.” And when the host suggested that foreign automakers preferred going to places in the country where right-to-work laws gut union power, Green responded, “Well, they like to exploit workers. Workers just want a seat at the table.”
So that's not what Trump wants to hear. In some ways, this is looking like the story of the Carrier plant in Indiana all over again: A company announced a plant closing, Trump rode in and said he'd saved the jobs, and then when the cameras were gone, many of the jobs were lost anyway.
Which showed the problem in how Trump conceives of the economy. He thinks it’s all about “deals,” and because he’s a dealmaker, he’ll make deals and everything will work out great. He wants to tell a story in which he’s the hero, taking bold action that improves everyone’s lives.
But not only are most of the policy steps he has taken inimical to the interests of workers (like giving corporations big tax cuts and letting them rewrite every regulation in sight to their own benefit), he also seems unconcerned with the deep forces that drive the economy and the inequality they produce.
The irony is that when Trump campaigned in 2016 telling people the economy is “rigged,” the fact that people in places like Lordstown have been abused by those deep forces made them agree and hope that Trump could do something about it. It turned out, however, that no amount of “deals” will change things — especially when everything Trump does is designed to put more wealth and power in the hands of those who already have it.