When General Motors idled its auto plant in Lordstown, Ohio , this month, President Trump adopted a familiar strategy: He issued a nasty string of tweets blaming other people and promised, in effect, that he would restore the past.
Trump’s angry, backward-looking approach may still appeal to some Rust Belt voters. But in the Ohio and Pennsylvania towns that helped win the presidency for Trump in 2016, his vow to turn back the clock hasn’t worked out very well, and there are signs the Rust Belt may be corroding for him politically.
Lordstown’s struggles, like those of other nearby factory towns, illustrate the harsh fact that manufacturing is a dynamic process. Old jobs are disappearing because of changes in technology and consumer preferences; trying to resist change is usually a fool’s game. Rust Belt communities that are succeeding are the ones that have adapted by embracing new technologies and innovation.
Presidential leadership in this period of technological transition should focus on the future rather than the past. But Trump seems almost a technophobe. Axios reported this week that he thinks driverless cars are “crazy.” He tweeted March 12, after the crash of a high-tech Boeing jetliner: “Airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly. . . . I see it all the time in many products. Always seeking to go one unnecessary step further, when often old and simpler is far better.”
Trump’s response to Lordstown was to attack David Green, the United Auto Workers Local 1112 president, implying that he was at fault along with GM, and demanding that he “get his act together and produce.” Green had sent letters to Trump in July 2018 and February 2019 warning about threats to the plant. Trump didn’t respond.
After Trump’s Twitter tirade, Rep. Tim Ryan, the Ohio Democrat who represents the Lordstown area, fired back: “The President’s tweet . . . is offensive and does nothing to help bring back the manufacturing jobs he promised to my district.”
Ryan argued that “the best thing is to help” GM renovate the Lordstown plant and perhaps build electric vehicles there. Local residents said much the same thing to the Vindicator newspaper of Youngstown, Ohio, over the past few weeks: GM or a new owner should focus on new technology and making products people want to buy, rather than restore production of the low-selling Chevrolet Cruze.
Trump is vulnerable in the Rust Belt because he made such extravagant promises when he successfully wooed voters in 2016. “He won this area — a largely Democratic area — and he has not said a word yet, and that’s just pathetic,” warned Jim Graham, a former union leader at GM Lordstown, during an interview with the Vindicator back in November, when GM said it planned to halt Cruze production there.
Local residents remember Trump’s proclamation at a July 2017 rally in nearby Youngstown: “Those jobs [that] have left Ohio, they’re all coming back . . . Don’t sell your house.” Tommy Wolikow, a former Lordstown worker, told the Vindicator: “I kind of turned into a Trump supporter at that time. I believed what he said. Almost two years later, I’m seeing nothing but job losses.”
Homeowners in Youngstown certainly haven’t seen a boom. According to Zillow, the online realty broker, the median price of homes currently listed in Youngstown is $39,900. The national median price of homes currently listed is $279,000. Browse the real estate ads for factory towns across Ohio and Pennsylvania and you’ll see just how tough it is to be a Rust Belt resident, trapped in a downward cycle.
What’s the right answer for Rust Belt towns where the old manufacturing base has disappeared? An interesting example is Erie, Pa. Most big factories there have closed in recent years, but the city is rebuilding itself around its local universities and a big insurance company. Profits from a big gambling casino in Erie County are funneled partly to “innovation spaces” at four local campuses.
Erie may have lost manufacturing jobs, but it’s above the state average in advanced industries, says Ben Speggen, a local journalist who helps run a think tank in Erie called the Jefferson Educational Society. “There has been a real shift in understanding that our Rust Belt economy is not solely tied to manufacturing,” he says.
Another key to success is welcoming foreigners. About 10 percent of Erie’s population is refugees, according to James and Deborah Fallows in their recent book, “Our Towns.” One of the 10 characteristics they found in successful local communities adapting to change is that “they make themselves open.”
One more lesson from Erie County, in the heart of the Rust Belt: Trump won there in the 2016 presidential election, but in the 2018 midterm congressional election, the county voted Democratic.