How Donald Trump Speaks to Ohio’s Autoworkers

How Donald Trump Speaks to Ohio’s Autoworkers

How Donald Trump Speaks to Ohio’s Autoworkers

Where coastal elites see a buffoon, many here see a man of action.


Lordstown, OhioThe first thing that hits you is the silence. On a normal day, the General Motors assembly plant here is one of the noisiest, busiest places on the planet. It churns out the Chevy Cruze—some 299,227 in the past year alone, rolling off the line every two minutes, seven days a week, 24 hours a day. But when I arrived in late January, the line was shut down, the vast employee parking lot deserted.

“The last hours, it was so quiet,” said Cassandra Pruitt, an autoworker at GM for 25 years. “For the past three days, I cried every day.”

On the morning of November 9, while the rest of the country was still mesmerized by the wreckage of the Clinton restoration, GM announced that it was laying off the entire third shift at Lordstown—about 1,200 workers. Apart from brief mentions in The Wall Street Journal and the trade press, the media paid little attention. Then, on January 3, Donald Trump tweeted a complaint that GM was selling Mexican-made Cruzes in the United States. Followed by a threat: “Make in U.S.A. or pay big border tax!”

Trump’s bluster (and a $7 million tax break from the state of Indiana) might have been enough to save 850 jobs at Carrier, but GM is made of sterner stuff. Despite being summoned to the White House with her counterparts from Ford and Fiat Chrysler, CEO Mary Barra—whose company posted record pretax earnings of $12.5 billion last year—went ahead with the layoffs on January 20, shutting down production just a few hours before Trump took the oath of office.

GM did put out a statement: “All Chevrolet Cruze sedans sold in the U.S. are built in GM’s assembly plant in Lordstown.” But this time, the facts were on Trump’s side. “When I read the VIN [vehicle identification] numbers, I couldn’t believe it,” said Barry Gonis, a salesman at Spitzer Chevrolet in Lordstown, which received about a dozen of the Mexican-made cars.

GM actually has three factories in Lordstown: Vehicle Assembly, where they put the cars together; the Metal Center, or “Fab Plant,” which stamps out body parts; and the Paint Shop. But hardly anyone lives here. Instead, most workers commute—either from Youngstown, 15 miles southeast, or from Warren, about eight miles the other way. Both towns straddle the Mahoning River as it flows east into Pennsylvania through a part of the country that had reliably voted Democratic for decades, but this year went for Trump.

I’d come to find out why. I also wanted to see what Trump’s working-class voters made of their man’s early form. And to get a sense of what would happen if he couldn’t bring their jobs back. By the time I left, I realized I’d been asking the wrong questions. I came looking for a story about politics, or economics. What I found instead was a story about culture.

Everyone I talked to knew why the Democrats lost Ohio. “Mrs. Clinton never said anything to bring jobs here, bring job security here,” said Nick Manfredi, who until he was laid off was the third generation in his family to work at GM in Lordstown. “If President Trump can help end NAFTA and stop the Cruze hatchback being built in Mexico, that’s your third shift right there.”

Tim O’Hara, the vice president of UAW Local 1112 in Lordstown, spent four months working to elect Clinton. But he admits that “40 to 50 percent” of his members voted for Trump: “You can talk about all the wedge issues, but it always comes back to jobs.” Scott Cavanaugh, a registered Democrat who voted for Obama twice, is one of those UAW members who broke for Trump. “This election, there needed to be a change,” he told me. What did he mean? “Jobs. Putting Americans out of work.”

Ohio has been bleeding factory jobs for 40 years. But the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Bill Clinton pushed through Congress—and which his wife praised as “proving its worth” before changing her tune, as she would later do on the Trans-Pacific Partnership—is still a sore subject here. “Trump was talking about NAFTA,” said Adam Keck, who spent four years with the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative. “Talking honestly about how people had less opportunity. How could this have surprised anybody?”

“I voted for Hillary,” Keck added. “But the messaging out of the Clinton campaign was so incredibly tone-deaf it made me cringe. I’d be like: What does that have to do with someone who used to make $80,000 a year [and] support a family? Now they’re making $35,000 a year. They’re supposed to be happy with that?”

Actually, Clinton did talk about jobs, in speeches in Toledo and Youngstown. But those came late in the campaign—and much of her audience simply didn’t believe her. There’s history behind that distrust: “When I’m elected president I won’t forget you,” vowed Bill Clinton when he came to Youngstown in 1992. But his pledge to bring 7,000 jobs to the area was abandoned soon after the election—“unless they’re all disguised as trees,” said Jim Graham, former president of the UAW’s Lordstown local.

Still, that doesn’t explain why so many disaffected Democrats decided to put their faith in the man who put the “alt” in “alternative facts.” Or why, despite a first month that has led many to gleefully predict impeachment, the Trump voters I talked to were, without exception, satisfied with their choice.

“Overall, I think he’s doing a good job,” said Cava­naugh. “Trump’s not one of those guys elected on campaign promises and not following through. At least he’s making changes right out of the gate.”

Even the layoffs barely dented their enthusiasm. “We’re basically human shields,” said Dominic Humphries, a UAW member who spent the fall handing out Trump caps and bumper stickers in the Lordstown parking lot. “GM wanted to lay people off to have leverage with Trump,” he said.

Where the left, and the media, saw a lying, pussy-grabbing racist buffoon, the Trump voters I interviewed described a president who never pretended to be a politician—and who, unlike almost every politician they’d come across, did exactly what he said he’d do: scrap the TPP; crack down on illegal immigration; confront the automakers (Trump’s jawboning session with the Big Three was big news here); sign an executive order to repeal Obamacare, and another to build that wall. Where we see outrage, or incompetence, they see action, action, action. Where we see a Republican Congress and administration at odds—over Obamacare or infrastructure spending—­they see a president who has their backs. So far.

Politically, Youngstown is the kind of place where the mayor—a Democrat—remains in office despite pleading guilty on four counts of corruption last year. Economically, it’s a depressed area, with a population that shrank from a high of 170,000 to 65,000 now, a median household income of $23,700, and four miles of abandoned roads.

Culturally, Youngstown is a meme for industrial decay. On September 19, 1977—known locally as “Black Monday”—­Youngstown Sheet and Tube suddenly closed its doors. By the time Bruce Springsteen lamented the city’s fate in 1995 (“Yeah, these mills they built the tanks and bombs / That won this country’s wars / We sent our sons to Korea and Vietnam / Now we’re wondering what they were dyin’ for”), the days when “you could quit your job in the morning and get another after lunch,” as Jim Graham puts it, were just a memory.

In its heyday, Youngstown’s Brier Hill Works employed thousands of first- and second-generation immigrants to tend the massive Jeannette blast furnace. Now the site is occupied by Vallourec, a French-owned plant that manufactures seamless pipe for fracking wells. “Today, 350 people work there,” says Mike Ray, councilman for Youngstown’s Fourth Ward.

The fracking boom has turned out to be another broken promise. “These were the fracking tanks which caused the earthquakes,” Ray says as we bump along a deserted railroad line in his Jeep. On New Year’s Eve 2011, Youngstown was the center of a 4.0 earthquake. When the same injection well triggered scores of further quakes in 2014, the state shut down fracking in the area. Yet local voters rejected a fracking ban five times.

I met Ray in the Royal Oaks, a shot-and-a-beer bar with barbecue on the menu and classic rock on the sound system. It’s the day after Trump signed the travel ban, the day after Pence spoke at an anti-abortion march, but Washington feels far away. Even Columbus, the liberal university town where a thousand protesters will mob the airport the next day, seems like another world. The TV over the bar remains tuned to the Senior Bowl, and the talk is of the Harlem Globetrotters, playing that night in the Covelli Center.

One sector in Youngstown has grown: prisons. The historian Staughton Lynd moved here in the 1970s to practice labor law. Lynd worked with the United Steelworkers, but when the mills shut down he and his wife Alice (a fellow attorney) found more and more of their time devoted to prison work. “We’ve got the only supermax prison in Ohio, the first private prison in the state—and another one they built in the 1990s,” he says. “Prisons have been substituted for steel.”

“When we first got here, the auto plants were booming—a kind of insurance policy for the steelworkers,” says Alice. “Now the unions are terrified of their own shadows,” Staughton adds.

We went from labor that was oppressed, to labor that was empowered, to labor that was abandoned,” says Bill Mullane. A former principal at Warren G. Harding High School, Mullane pushes back hard against the tendency to dismiss Trump voters as racist. “When Barack Obama ran, people here were not afraid of his blackness. They saw someone who talked about things that had meaning: getting the health-care system to work. Less focus on foreign wars.”

“I think the vote in Ohio was as much against Hillary as it was for Trump,” says Darryl Parker, the first African-American president of United Steelworkers Local 1375 at RG (formerly Republic) Steel in Warren, which filed for bankruptcy in 2012. Parker says his former members, whose average age was 55, don’t show up in the unemployment statistics. They’ve given up. “When you’re older and you had a semiskilled job, they look: Were you a unionized employee? The few places hiring are nonunion.” Parker doesn’t think the jobs are ever coming back. “We had 8,000 people working at Republic in the 1970s. They won’t ever have 8,000 people in one facility anymore.”

Unlike Youngstown, nobody writes songs about Warren, though it, too, has lost population and jobs—­indeed, whole industries. Between 1899 and 1903, the Packard brothers built cars here. Packard Electric, later GM’s Delphi Packard, became the world’s leading manufacturer of automotive and aircraft wiring—until GM shut the plant down in 2006. “Delphi used to employ 15,000 people in Warren,” says Jim Graham. “Now they’re down to 900.”

Currently president of the Warren City Council, Graham started out “as an assembler in 1968 on the Chevy Bel Air, moved on to the Vega. In those days we’d walk out two, three times a week. We were the most militant plant there was.”

When GM built Lordstown in the ’60s, the company hired a younger, better-educated workforce to run its new, more automated production line. But then GM tried to cut the time for assembling each vehicle by nearly half, and the UAW walked out. When they went back 22 days later, without the speedup, they’d cost GM $150 million and made “Lordstown syndrome” management shorthand for anywhere workers stood up and fought back— not just against low wages, but protesting “a job where you were treated like a machine.”

Tim O’Hara, who started at Lordstown in 1977, can still remember when “they’d walk out over anything.” But today, “GM has a lot more competition. Nobody’s going in looking to wildcat-strike. Our militant days are over.”

“The seeds of Donald Trump were really planted during the 1980s,” says Mullane. “We started thinking about our plight being the fault of others. Labor fought the movement of jobs and vilified those others. That’s a strategy that doesn’t allow people to cross lines of race, gender, and location to work together…. Unions here weren’t negotiating for upgrades,” he adds. “Or to make sure that employers who got tax abatements stayed here. We weren’t negotiating for environmental cleanup. Instead, we had autoworkers holding up signs and screaming at people in Hondas.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Graham agrees. “People still perceive NAFTA and TPP as the root of the problem. Until we say it will never be profitable to oppress other workers, corporations will always move for cheap labor,” he says.

For the metropolitan visitor, there is a strong temptation to romanticize a place like the Mahoning Valley, with its bare ruined choirs of brick chimneys and rusting metal. “Life around here has always been damned hard,” Bill Mullane warned me. “This was a company town. People got paid in scrip, had to shop at the company store.”

Cassandra Pruitt warned me too. “My dad and my uncle worked at [Republic Steel] shovelling coke into the furnace. That was an awful job. He’d come home black with coke dust. He died of lung cancer. But they were so happy just to have a job. They were the big people back home in Georgia. They sent money. My father had a seventh-grade education. Coming north to Ohio then was like moving from Mexico to America.”

We define ourselves by the stories we tell, and the stories I heard here were never the ones I talked about with my friends in New York—the protests, Trump’s cabinet of billionaires, his many conflicts of interest. Instead, I heard stories about work. Brandy Rogers told me that for her, getting a job at GM “was like winning the lottery. My mother was a steelworker. She talked about getting harassed in the 1970s. For us, we make the same money as the men.” Stories about making things, like when Jeremy Ladd, whose father worked in the Fab Plant, talked about how he “started in 1995, building seats for the Chevy Cavalier”—a summer job that was only meant to last until he started college. Or Josh White: “I build door windows. I mean I used to. I’m laid off right now.”

And I heard stories about loss—not just the loss of a job, but the loss of agency that goes with it. “These last months, it’s been like a morgue,” said Chris Nance, a union committeeman. “There’s more fear. I hate to admit that.” But also, more often, stories about a sense of lost identity. “You woke up in the morning, go to school, and you could smell sulfur in the air from the mills,” recalled Tim O’Hara, who grew up in Youngstown. “They keep telling us we can only be the consumers of the products. We can’t be the makers,” said Scott Cavanaugh.

“The area we live is a poor area,” said Manfredi. “There’s so much that needs to be fixed. The only good thing that happened around here was when Lebron James came back to Cleveland.”

For years now, leftists have been arguing identity politics versus economics—as if somehow the two could be neatly separated. As if racism and sexism weren’t intrinsic to how economic oppression works in America. As if the fairy tale of equal opportunity only short-changed people of color. Or women. As if class were simply a matter of income.

Nobody around here needed Bernie Sanders, or Elizabeth Warren—or Donald Trump—to tell them the system is rigged. What Trump did give them was the sense that they mattered. Not just their votes, but their culture, their sense of themselves as people who worked with their hands and played by the rules. People who felt they’d been written off by the Democratic Party—and had given up on politics. People for whom opioids, not religion, were the opiate of the masses. Trump found a way to reach these people on what felt like common ground: the ground of culture. He took a persona they already knew from TV—the domineering, politically incorrect boss—and ran with it all the way to the White House.

Eventually, the contradictions between Trump’s populist promises and a Congress dominated by corporate lackeys will bring him down. But can we really afford to wait? If not, then we’d better find a way to reach people whose own version of identity politics is built on a world of work that simply no longer exists—and for whom the usual promises of “retraining” have already proved hollow. People who want the dignity that comes from earning a living, not a guaranteed minimum income. And who have no aspiration to leave the class—or the culture—they were born into. In an ideal world, the Democratic Party would rise to the occasion. And maybe it will. Maybe the party will find a way to bandage the hidden injuries of class, and bind up the all-too-gaping wounds of race and gender—and discover that it does, after all, have a backbone, and a progressive vision—in time for 2018. And maybe that won’t be too late. Until then, though, it’s up to the rest of us.

Listen to D.D. Guttenplan discuss Trump’s appeal on the Start Making Sense podcast.

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