Newton, Iowa—According to my GPS, One Dependability Square doesn’t exist. Yet here it is: huge, sleek, with alternating stripes of beige stone and wraparound windows, and completely deserted. The old brick factory buildings around back still say Maytag in white letters one story high. You might say it’s the loneliest place in town.
For over a century, Maytag washers and dryers spread the gospel of high-quality American manufacturing across the globe. At its peak, the Newton plant employed 4,000 workers—in a town of 16,000. But after the North American Free Trade Agreement, the company started moving production to Mexico. In 2006, Maytag was bought by Whirlpool, which shut down the plant the following year, laying off a workforce that had shrunk to 1,700. The headquarters has remained empty ever since.
“Those were good, good-paying jobs,” says Frank Liebl. The Newton Development Corporation’s executive director, Liebl prefers to talk about how the town has reinvented itself as a hub for Iowa’s nascent wind-energy sector. Trinity Industries, a Texas company that manufactures giant turbine bases, has a plant here. So does TPI, an Arizona firm that makes turbine blades. However, Liebl admits that many former Maytag workers “are still hurting.”
“We’ve replaced the jobs, but not at that level,” he says. “Maytag was a three-generation company. You didn’t have to go to college. You could start at Maytag at $18 an hour. Today, that doesn’t happen.”
Nancy Brown’s husband worked at Maytag for 34 years. His union contract stipulated that he would receive health insurance for the rest of his life as a retirement benefit. But Whirlpool eliminated his coverage. Stories like that bring the candidates to Newton. Bernie Sanders drew some 350 supporters to the high school in September. Hillary Clinton, who has a paid organizer here, came in July. Yet The New York Times’s account of her house party, which described the town as a “farming community,” only mentioned Maytag as the name of a local blue cheese.
Herman Cupples worked at the plant alongside his father and mother-in-law. “My son was on a Maytag scholarship. All that’s gone,” he says. Cupples says he’s tired of politicians and their promises. “We vote for people. They go up there to Washington. And they do nothing.” That’s why, Cupples told me, he’s voting for Donald Trump.
The Republican front-runner has come to a Newton forum on “job creation” sponsored by the local NBC affiliate. When the moderator asks the audience how many worked at Maytag or had family members who did, two-thirds hold up their hands. Although Trump will make news later in the day by telling a reporter he “would certainly implement” a database to track Muslims in the United States, for now he’s trying to show a more sympathetic side. It isn’t easy—at one point, he compares the 1980s farm crisis to a slowdown in the Manhattan property market. He lies without shame or self-consciousness, claiming President Obama “actually said the attack in Paris was caused by global warming.” And it’s hard not to hear ominous overtones in his promise “If I win, we’re all going to be saying ‘Merry Christmas.’”