Donald Trump campaigned for president on a promise to Michigan auto workers that “If I’m elected, you won’t lose one plant, you’ll have plants coming into this country, you’re going to have jobs again, you won’t lose one plant, I promise you that.”
Barely two years later, on the Monday after Thanksgiving, General Motors announced that it was closing major auto plants in Michigan, as well as Ohio and Maryland. Thousands of jobs are being cut, and the future for many of the remaining plants suddenly seems very insecure.
Trump, the candidate who claimed in 2016 that his Democratic rival “hasn’t got a clue” about how to maintain American manufacturing, is now exposed as the president who really hasn’t got a clue about keeping plants open and keeping workers on the job.
The heartbreaking reality is that Trump was never going to be a good president for the American workers who build cars and other vehicles in the nation’s historic factory towns. A reality-TV star with almost no understanding of the complex and demanding circumstance of domestic manufacturing in an age of globalization and automation, Trump peddled a combination of bumper-sticker slogans and past-their-expiration-date policy proposals on the 2016 campaign trail. That was enough to win narrow victories in a number of manufacturing states—Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin—that were hurting after years of bipartisan neglect. It is true that many voters who felt they had been let down by both parties took a chance on Trump. But Trump assumed the presidency without an agenda, and he embraced the schemes of a Congress led by two of the worst players in Washington on manufacturing issues: House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.
It was only a matter of time before Trump’s facade of empty rhetoric and false premises crashed into the reality of 21st-century economics and technological change. The midterm elections revealed the extent to which confidence in Trump had already crumbled. In the three Great Lakes states that gave Trump the presidency by delivering the Electoral College votes he had needed two years ago—Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—voters handed victories to the Democrats in three gubernatorial races and three US Senate races.
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Confidence will continue to crumble now that General Motors has announced that it will end production at five facilities in North America while laying off 8,000 salaried workers and 6,000 hourly workers. In a brutal slashing of jobs, which aims at saving $6 billion a year by the end of 2020, a company that just a decade ago was bailed out by US taxpayers plans to close some of its largest manufacturing facilities, including the sprawling Detroit-Hamtramck plant that is GM’s last facility in “the Motor City.” The now highly profitable company also plans to shutter a Lordstown, Ohio, assembly plant—not far from where Trump told workers just last year that jobs that had left the state are “all coming back”—and to cut production at Michigan’s Warren Transmission factory and a parts plant in Baltimore.
The company will stop making a long list of Chevrolet, Buick, and Cadillac sedans that have been mainstays of its production lines. And this will not be the end of the change as GM makes a transition toward production of self-driving cars using manufacturing models that share components across vehicles, utilize virtual tools, and embrace robotification.
Many of these changes were anticipated. It was possible to make smart policy moves and send savvy signals that might have bettered the prospects of American auto workers. Yet Trump, Ryan and McConnell got everything wrong. Instead of angling for programs and policies that could have positioned US workers on the winning side of technological transitions—and that would have eased hits that could not be avoided—Trump and his fellow Republicans governed as if it was 1985, with an emphasis on tax cuts for multinational corporations, reduction of regulations, and dismissal of environmental concerns. They played games with trade policy and tariffs, failing to recognize the reality of the global game that is afoot. And now, notes United Auto Workers Vice President Terry Dittes, the director of the union’s GM Department, GM is moving “to reduce or cease operations in American plants, while opening or increasing production in Mexico and China plants for sales to American consumers.”
Decrying “a bad combination of greedy corporations and policy makers with no understanding of economic development,” Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan, who represents Ohio’s Mahoning Valley, said on Monday, “President Trump has been asleep at the switch and owes this community an explanation. We tried to get his attention on this issue two years ago. He promised us that his massive corporate tax cut would lead to dramatic reinvestments in our communities. That clearly is not happening. The Valley has been yearning for the Trump Administration to come here, roll up their sleeves and help us fight for this recovery. What we’ve gotten instead are broken promises and petty tweets.”
Instead of responding to warnings that his decision to scrap fuel-efficiency standards could harm US manufacturers of compact cars, instead of creating incentives for US corporations to embrace innovative work-sharing programs, Trump pursued a foolhardy course that left GM workers vulnerable to what Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown on Monday referred to “corporate greed at its worst.”
Brown, one of the savviest analysts of trade and manufacturing policy in Congress, pointed out that “the company reaped a massive tax break from last year’s GOP tax bill and failed to invest that money in American jobs, choosing to build its [Chevy] Blazer in Mexico.”
Brown has been warning for months about threats to the Lordstown plant and to other GM facilities. He proposed responses, including a host of innovative measures designed to create incentives for the purchase of US-made vehicles and to address loopholes in the GOP tax plan. Sherrod Brown, a serious senator who focuses on policies for the 21st century rather than shopworn sloganeering, and who listens to workers on factory floors rather than making empty promises at campaign rallies, saw the danger coming. Donald Trump did not.