This is not simply a function of the covid-19 crash. Employment in the U.S. auto manufacturing sector grew from 685,000 in August 2010 to 950,000 on the eve of the 2016 election — a gain of 265,000 jobs. The momentum continued into 2018, when employment in the sector peaked just shy of 1 million jobs. But then things started to sag. According to the Detroit Free Press, there were 2,400 fewer auto manufacturing jobs in Michigan in February of this year — that’s pre-pandemic — than there were when Trump took office.
That Trump is challenging Democratic nominee Joe Biden on car jobs is proof of either desperation or amnesia. The Obama administration, in which Biden served as a loyal vice president, weathered enormous criticism to bail out and restructure the American auto industry during its 2009 near-death experience. I should know — I was one of the critics. Despite my grumbling, the federal government ended up putting far less money into the deal than we feared while seeing better results than we predicted. And the domestic car business gained a new lease on life.
Those 265,000 jobs are just one measure of the revitalization. Output is another. By 2012, North American auto production was back to pre-Great Recession levels. Production and employment continued to grow briskly through President Barack Obama’s second term.
Autoworkers in Michigan and elsewhere aren’t stupid. They know the story of their industry over the past decade. Trump’s bid to claim credit for auto jobs recalls the Chico Marx line from the movie “Duck Soup”: “Who you gonna believe — me, or your own eyes?”
Recent polls suggest that voters may be increasingly skeptical of Trump’s self-proclaimed mastery over the economy. The “5 or even 6 percent” annual growth he promised in 2017 never materialized; his best year eked out 3 percent growth, and he will be very lucky if he finishes four years with any net growth at all, given the current slump. What has grown — to an extent previously unseen in peacetime — is the federal deficit, which has deepened every year under Trump. Result: The economy today is more juiced by federal debt than at any time since World War II. He promised to eliminate trade deficits; he has grown them instead.
Those polls may mean voters are learning a lesson that Trump’s private-sector lenders learned long ago. You don’t want this guy anywhere near your business. Over his long and bankruptcy-strewn career, he has promised to work wonders for Atlantic City tourism. Not. He boasted of revolutionizing East Coast air travel. Not. He was going to corner the fashion modeling industry, rebuild New York’s West Side and teach the next generation of real estate moguls. Not, not and not.
Trump has led the planet in the production of just one commodity: hot air. Long ago, he reached the point where no major bank would lend him a nickel — except Deutsche Bank, known for the large fines it has paid over accusations of laundering money for Russian billionaires. As Trump himself likes to say, Russia, Russia, Russia.
During his years as a reality television star, Trump was known for saying, “You’re fired.” A more accurate tag line would have echoed a cough syrup ad from the 1980s: I’m not a successful businessman, but I play one on TV. But he’s a billionaire! For that he can thank his daddy. In fact, Trump would be far wealthier today if he had invested his inherited fortune in an index fund and walked away, instead of tossing it down ratholes of his own making. According to the latest estimate from Forbes, the vaunted Trump economy has cost Trump roughly a third of his net worth, leaving him a billion dollars poorer than he was last winter.
Trump’s defenders like to charge those of us in the reality-based community with rooting for failure. But I have high hopes for the economic future of the United States — hopes based on the productive energy of Americans, not the windbag of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.