Donald Trump promised to save American manufacturing.
“It’s time to rebuild Michigan, and we are not letting them take your jobs out of Michigan any longer," Trump told thousands of supporters at a suburban Detroit shopping mall during the 2016 presidential campaign, pledging to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement signed into law by his opponent’s husband. "Hillary Clinton ... will never protect the freedom and jobs of the American people. … We will bring back your auto manufacturing business like you have never ever seen it before. … My plan includes a pledge to restore manufacturing in America.”
During that campaign, Trump also delivered a “jobs plan” speech in Monessen, Pa., a small town outside Pittsburgh that over the past 50 years has lost its steel mills — and more than half its population. He promised to restore the faded industrial town to its smokestack glory. To make Monessen great again.
“The legacy of Pennsylvania steelworkers lives in the bridges, railways and skyscrapers that make up our great American landscape,” Trump said. “But our workers’ loyalty was repaid with betrayal. Our politicians have aggressively pursued a policy of globalization — moving our jobs, our wealth and our factories to Mexico and overseas. Skilled craftsmen and tradespeople and factory workers have seen the jobs they loved shipped thousands of miles away. Many Pennsylvania towns once thriving and humming are now in a state of despair. This wave of globalization has wiped out our middle class. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can turn it all around — and we can turn it around fast.”
Michigan and Pennsylvania believed him. Both states voted Republican for the first time since 1988. But now Trump is threatening to slap a 25 percent tariff on automobiles and auto parts entering the United States, a move that the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., says would increase the average car price by $4,400 and result in the loss of 715,000 jobs. At a Commerce Department hearing, 44 out of 45 witnesses, including Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, testified against the tariffs. Only the United Auto Workers offered support for “targeted measures to boost domestic manufacturing.”
Why is Trump so determined to impose tariffs that could hurt, rather than save, manufacturing jobs? Because in his nostalgia for the heartland of yore, he mistakenly thinks he can take the nation back to the days before foreign cars.
Trump wants to bring back the 1960s remembered at events such as the Oldsmobile Homecoming in my automaking hometown of Lansing, Mich., which gathers together the remnants of a nameplate that was hard-core American iron 50 years ago (the 1966 Toronado was Motor Trend Car of the Year), but is now as obsolete as the Packard. At one recent Homecoming, I met a retired autoworker who had started at Oldsmobile in 1965, three months out of high school, on GM’s biggest hiring day since World War II. Thanks to good union wages and benefits, he had gotten married at age 20, built a house on three acres at age 27 and retired on a handsome pension at 55.
“We had a good wage, we had good health care, we had a good pension,” he told me. “Everything was there. I was there for the best years of Oldsmobile, as far as I’m concerned. I know many people that are production, salaried, engineers that I graduated with, they all say the same thing. We all saw the best Oldsmobile had to offer. I don’t think it’ll ever go back to the way it was.”
The heyday of American manufacturing, which lasted roughly from the end of World War II to the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973, is the focus of Trump voters’ nostalgia for American greatness. In the mid-1960s, 90 percent of the vehicles sold in the United States were built by General Motors, Ford or Chrysler — double their current share. Bullitt drove a Ford Mustang and Steve McGarrett fought crime in Honolulu out of a Mercury Park Lane Brougham. That was when any guy with a high school education — the sweet spot of Trump’s demographic — could walk straight from the graduation line to the assembly line, earning enough money to support a stay-at-home wife and a family. Back then, there were few immigrants to contend with for jobs, either: In 1970, the United States' foreign-born population hit an all-time low of 4.7 percent. It was an era when Americans didn’t have to compete with foreigners, either at home or abroad. We were winning. All the time. At a recent “Made in America” event at the White House, which showcased domestically manufactured products, Trump criticized previous administrations for letting “our people lose their jobs to workers in foreign lands” and declared “the era of economic surrender for America is over. America is fighting back and we’re winning again.” When Trump promises to “bring jobs back,” his listeners hear a promise to restore that golden age.
“People — especially when you go to Trump voters — they have this view of manufacturing that’s really emotionally packed,” Jeremy Rosner, executive vice president at the polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, told NPR earlier this year. “There’s definitely a huge, nostalgic ’50s, ’60s, heyday-of-America, Rosie-the-Riveter-laden kind of thing around manufacturing. So people in those communities who hear Trump or whoever it is talking about protecting those jobs, there’s a lot of emotional overtones.”
Although it may have an emotional appeal to his supporters, Trump’s tariff plan ignores the modern global economy, in which cars assembled in the United States use foreign-made parts. According to the cars.com American-made index, even the most American car, the Jeep Cherokee, contains 28 percent foreign parts — which could be subject to tariffs under Trump’s plan, and thus increase the cost of the vehicle. No federal policy can bring back the nation’s post-World War II industrial dominance, because so much of it was a function of the fact that the United States was the only country to emerge from the war with any industrial capacity, but Trump imagines that economic isolationism can re-create the conditions in which the United States was the world’s sole industrial superpower.
Regardless of that economic and historical reality, Trump’s appeal to the Rust Belt’s nostalgia for the days when a factory job was a “precious birthright,” to quote autoworker/author Ben Hamper’s shop memoir “Rivethead,” may have been decisive in his 2016 victory. The Rust Belt is the bellwether of American politics because its problems are too deeply rooted for any politician to solve, so it keeps throwing out politicians who are unable to solve them. President Barack Obama won the Rust Belt because he bailed out the bankrupt auto industry; Trump won it because he promised to bring back the jobs on the assembly line. At least Trump has a plan to force companies to move their operations back to the United States, no matter how counterfactual it may be — and it taps into anger about outsourcing that has transferred well-paying American blue-collar jobs to the Third World, devastating small manufacturing hubs, from Flint, Mich., to Galesburg, Ill.
“My own opinion on the tariffs and the things he’s doing are it’s all part of a master plan to get the jobs to come home,” Frank Pitcher, 51, a Ford worker outside Detroit who voted twice for Obama and then for Trump, told The Post last month. “In my 25 years, I’ve seen us start off with 145,000 workers and go down to 45,000.”
Don’t expect Trump to dial back on the economic nationalism that has proven so appealing to manufacturing workers, even if it doesn’t end up helping them. Because they’re concentrated in the swing states of the Midwest, they’re the most important faction in his electoral coalition. These workers view free trade and immigration as threats to their livelihood. Trump is their champion. As Noah Smith wrote in Bloomberg Opinion, “Make America Great Again” “has come to represent the idea that a strong leader, by force of will, can return the U.S. to the industrial economy and international dominance of the 1950s.”
So if you end up paying a lot more money for a Jeep Cherokee, or a Chevy Impala, or a Ford F150, blame Trump, blame the electoral college — and blame the Rust Belt’s nostalgia for its most prosperous era.