WARREN, Ohio — Eight miles northwest of the General Motors assembly plant expected to close next year, two workers and a customer at an auto-parts store pointed fingers: Americans just don’t want to drive small cars like those produced at the plant. Gas prices are low, making big vehicles even more attractive. And GM can get cheaper labor elsewhere.
But none of the three men pointed a finger at President Trump, who had promised residents here and throughout the industrial Midwest that he would stop the closure of factories. At one political rally in the area last year, he even urged residents to stay put and not sell their homes.
“It’s a company. Why should the president of the United States be allowed to tell a company what to do?” said Michael Hayda, 64, a former factory worker and a driver at the store who is registered as a Democrat and voted for Trump in 2016.
His co-worker Bill McKlveen, another Democrat who voted for Trump, agreed and noted that auto-industry workers have been getting pink slips for decades, long before Trump took office.
And even a customer who would like to see Trump impeached said he doesn’t fully fault the president.
“There’s only one law we all obey, and that’s the law of supply and demand,” said Paul Niemi, 68, who fixes wood pallets for a living and was motivated by Trump to vote for the first time earlier this month, selecting a straight Democratic ticket in the midterm election.
The economic struggles here in Trumbull County — even amid a booming national economy — pose a potential political challenge for Trump, who built much of his 2016 campaign around the idea that he alone could turn the tide on generations of decline across the Rust Belt. Yet interviews with residents here this week show that few tie their region’s continuing troubles to the president, who often seems able to promise the world yet suffers little damage from supporters when he fails to deliver.
For decades, this longtime Democratic stronghold that voted for Trump in 2016 has watched its factories and steel mills close or dramatically downsize. Its population has decreased as younger people have moved away to bigger cities that offer more opportunities. Many towns in the county are filled with abandoned houses and potholed streets. It often feels as if there is more demolishing than building.
Even when the county seems to be getting ahead, attracting new employers and reviving downtown Warren, something like the GM closure in nearby Lordstown will happen to knock it back.
“I’m ready and willing to go. This is a great town to grow up in, the people are great, the community’s great, but I don’t feel like I have a choice, because it doesn’t look good here,” said Cheryl Jonesco, 40, who was laid off by GM in June and suspects that the corporation has planned this closure for years. “It’s just empty buildings. It’s sad. It’s empty homes. Maybe something still can be done, but I don’t know.”
Trump’s views on manufacturing and international trade were some of his strongest, clearest positions during the 2016 campaign. He promised to break with presidential norms and personally bully companies into keeping jobs in the United States. Just last year, Trump held a campaign rally in nearby Youngstown and told the crowd that more jobs were on their way.
“Let me tell you folks in Ohio and this area: Don’t sell your house. Don’t sell your house. Do not sell it. We’re going to get those values up,” Trump said at the rally. “We’re going to get those jobs coming back. And we’re going to fill up those factories, or rip them down and build brand-new ones. So, it’s going to happen.”
Trump’s supporters and his critics say they would welcome any help the president could provide. Trump has said he is “very disappointed” with GM’s decision and discussed it with GM chief executive Mary Barra. Trump threatened to cut subsidies to the company if it did not change course, proclaiming in a tweet: “I am here to protect America’s Workers!”
“I told them, ‘You’re playing around with the wrong person,’ ” Trump said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, referring to the impending Lordstown closure. “We will all together get the point across to General Motors. And they better damn well open up a new plant there very quickly.”
The GM plant is Lordstown’s largest employer and “the only real mainstay that we’ve had,” said the village’s mayor, Arno Hill. The plant opened in 1966 and, at its peak, employed 15,000 workers.
The day after Trump was elected in 2016, GM announced it was cutting one of its three shifts at the plant, affecting 1,200 workers. In June, it cut another shift, laying off 1,500. On Monday morning, GM announced that it was cutting 15 percent of its salaried workers and stopping production at five plants in North America, including the one in Lordstown that assembles the Chevrolet Cruze, a small sedan with lagging sales.
The news quickly spread through the county as friends, relatives and neighbors texted and called one another to estimate the impact on their communities. Local officials estimate that for every job at the GM plant there are seven jobs in the community that depend on the plant. In addition to the 1,500 GM employees who expect to lose their jobs in March, cuts are expected at local companies that support the plant, as well, including factories that make bumpers and car seats.
“When they said, ‘We’re pulling the plug,’ it surprised me but it didn’t shock me,” said Hill, a conservative who voted for Trump and said that, overall, the president’s policies and actions have been good for his village and the manufacturing industry. He said many presidents have broken their promises to voters in the area, including Bill Clinton, who once said he was going to open a Pentagon payroll processing center that would create 7,000 jobs but never did.
“People say a lot of stuff on the campaign trail,” Hill said. “People say, ‘Well, Trump’s a liar.’ If you take it that way, then a lot of people out there are liars.”
There’s also a general sentiment here that corporations have become so powerful that even the government can’t keep them in check. Some locals say they have little faith that politicians from either party can influence a bottom-line-focused corporation.
“They know years in advance what they’re going to do, what products are going where. It’s not something that I think anybody can really make a difference on now. They already know what they’re doing,” said Tara Gress, 37, a mother of two teenagers who works the only shift left at the plant. “It’s a big company. They don’t care. . . . It’s a business. We’re numbers. It doesn’t matter. All of the begs and pleads for this community, it’s not going to make a difference.”
Gress started with GM in 2000 at a plant in western Ohio. When that plant closed, she moved to a plant in Indiana and then, about five years ago, to the plant in Lordstown. Gress, who didn’t vote in the last presidential election, hopes to transfer to yet another GM plant.
“I already have too much time invested that I’m just trying to get through” to retirement, she said. “If I would have known back in the day what I know now, I wouldn’t have stayed.”
Rep. Tim Ryan, a Democrat whose district includes the Lordstown area, said some of his constituents are slow to blame Trump because they have little faith that the government can positively influence their lives.
“It’s been such a long time since workers have really seen the government work on their behalf,” Ryan said. “There’s no confidence right now that the government can do things.”
He added, “We need a workers’ revolution in the country where workers come together and get ahold of the government.”
Ryan said that over the past 30 years, unions have lost their power and the working class has been divided. Meanwhile, he said major corporations such as GM have received massive tax cuts and other incentives. He noted that 80 percent of U.S. venture capital money is invested in California, New York or Massachusetts and said neither party has presented a national growth policy that extends beyond the coasts.
“It’s like people don’t give a damn if someone at General Motors Lordstown loses their job. You know? General Motors doesn’t give a damn. Washington, D.C., doesn’t give a damn. There’s no long-term plan or vision in the country for these workers,” Ryan said. “It’s like these workers are completely ignored. It’s like the Midwest is completely ignored.”
Ryan said that Trump seized on these feelings during his campaign but is not following through now that he’s president.
The Trump supporters working at the auto-parts store — Hayda and McKlveen — disagreed. Sure, the assembly plant in Lordstown will probably close, but they said that probably would have happened no matter who was in the White House.
Meanwhile, they say they like what Trump has done to impose tariffs on imported goods, slowly reduce the number of people receiving welfare and prevent immigrants from entering the country illegally. When they vent their frustrations, they talk a lot about how the country seems unfairly rigged against workers like them.
“I’m one of those deplorables from northeastern Ohio. I’m the one they just love more than anything. We’re the ones that threw the surprise punch” and elected Trump, Hayda said. “Most of my friends, most people you talk to, they did the same thing. They might have been Democrats, but they were tired of all the politics and said, ‘Let’s vote for someone who’s not a politician.’ That’s why Trump won.”