Lordstown, Ohio—The 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.