Rusted Factories and Broken Promises

by Cormac Kelly

Illustration by Weronika Ziarek

The news came as the steel furnaces were heating up. On the morning of September 19, 1977—“Black Monday,” as it is known locally—all five thousand employees at the Campbell Works of Youngstown Sheet and Tube in northeast Ohio were furloughed. The plant never reopened. The largest employer in the area was now the Lordstown Complex, which made cars for General Motors. 

As the decades passed and manufacturing throughout the American Midwest collapsed, the future of the Lordstown Complex remained in limbo. This region of Ohio was a Democratic stronghold. Through factory closings and increasing blight, Democratic presidential candidates, including Barack Obama, won this area by 60%. Yet little changed. The factories remained closed, and those which remained open, like the Lordstown Complex, slowly downsized. For families who had lived in the area for generations, the future looked bleak. Then came Donald Trump. 

On November 9, 2016, liberal commentators offered their equally stunned audiences a variety of explanations for Trump’s victory. Few were willing to explain why so many counties in America’s Midwest, which Obama won twice by large margins, went for Trump. To do so required partially indicting the Democratic Party. Its blue collar base, once the bedrock of Democratic support, had been habitually lied to, ignored, and mocked since the 1970s. The destruction of American manufacturing’s and the persistent supine response from Democratic leaders bred disaffection. Why the factories closed and how Trump masterfully weaponized the disaffection of blue collar Democrats are worth examining. “Rust Belt” communities must be brought back into the economy. If they are not, then the Trump presidency will have been the opening act of a darker chapter in American history.   

Members of United Steelworkers and their supporters demonstrate at US Steel’s McDonald Works in Youngstown, Ohio, January 1980. Photo by Steve Cagan

The decline of American manufacturing began in the late 1970s, brought on by a combination of high interest rates and the strength of the dollar. For decades, the United States had been the global economic hegemon. However, by the late 1970s, the dollar’s strength made American exports more expensive and imports cheaper. New competitors in Asia and Europe challenged American dominance. US corporations were dependent on their competition, outsourcing parts of their production to cut costs. In addition to its international subsidiaries, The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, headquartered in Ohio, had manufacturing done by Dunlop, a British competitor; technology innovation by Bridgestone, a Japanese competitor; and synthetic rubber production by Michelin, a French competitor. Interest rates, currency strength, new competition, and outsourcing all sparked the decline of US manufacturing and the resultant transition, in the words of historian Charles Maier, of the US from an “empire of production” to an “empire of consumption.” As manufacturing plants closed in increasing numbers, the region between western New York and southern Wisconsin gained a new name: the Rust Belt.  

The shuttering of the Campbell Works in 1977 came near the beginning of this trend. In the following 18 months, US Steel alone closed 16 plants, leaving tens of thousands unemployed in the process. The employees of the Campbell Works and their families began lobbying to reopen the plant. President Jimmy Carter’s administration offered a federal loan guarantee which would help reopen the plant under the ownership of a workers’ cooperative. Such an effort would shortly make a profit. However, in advance of the 1978 midterms, Carter withdrew the federal loan guarantee, the result of industrial lobbying. The Campbell Works rusted away. 

Carter’s about-face was emblematic of a quiet shift within the Democratic Party. Having rescued America from the Depression and presided over a booming post-war economy, Democratic leaders were jarred by America’s cultural civil war in the 1960s and Richard Nixon’s landslide 1972 victory. In the 1970s, the Democrats began to shed their image as the working-class party, instead presenting their ideal supporter as the upper middle-class creative. Economic questions receded in favor of social issues. Party leaders did not disavow their working-class supporters but rather believed they would remain loyal to the party even as deindustrialization swept the country. To those who claimed this practice was flawed, Democratic leaders claimed, with characteristic self-assured shortsightedness, that working-class Democrats had nowhere else to go.

Demonstration at US Steel’s McDonald Works in Youngstown, Ohio, January 1980. Photo by Steve Cagan

The Democratic Party’s shift of allegiance from the working class to business leaders was most clearly illustrated in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). It was a testament to how much the party had changed that NAFTA, a free trade agreement dreamed up by Ronald Reagan and negotiated under George H.W. Bush, was passed by a Democrat controlled House and Senate then signed into law by Bill Clinton. The agreement set up a free-trade zone between Mexico, Canada, and the United States, reducing tariffs on goods coming into the United States from both countries and bolstering the Mexican economy as a way of reducing immigration into the US. 

There is a tendency among American leftists and Trump supporters to present NAFTA as the killer of American manufacturing. In 2018, Trump claimed that “we lost millions of jobs” because of it. Manufacturing was in decline well before NAFTA, although the trade agreement did have a noticeable impact on certain industries. Bob King, the former president of United Auto Workers, described it as “a disaster” for the American auto industry, since cheaper labor costs in Mexico drew auto manufacturers there. The Mexican auto industry boomed because of NAFTA, and the American auto industry withered. The effect was also felt upon American unions in general. The threat of moving jobs to Mexico undermined the bargaining power of unions in negotiations with management.  

It is difficult to quantify the impact of an agreement as wide ranging as NAFTA. The strong emotions it arouses to this day makes this task even harder. Businesses who continue to profit from the agreement point to a 2010 US Chamber of Commerce report, which claimed NAFTA boosted American employment. It must be remembered that the US Chamber of Commerce is the largest lobbyist in the US, spending on average $84,446,684 annually to woo elected officials. A more reliable estimate from the Economic Policy Institute concluded that in the 20  years after NAFTA was signed (1993 to 2013), the agreement could be blamed for the net loss of 851,700 American jobs. While it aided US-Mexican trade, the effects were not evenly felt. When Clinton signed NAFTA into law, the US trade surplus with Mexico was valued at $1.7 billion. By 2014, the US had a $54 billion trade deficit with Mexico. NAFTA did not cause American deindustrialization; it exacerbated it. 

Youngstown, Ohio, January 1980. Photo by Steve Cagan

On the campaign trail in 2008, Barack Obama carried the progressive optimism which defined his candidacy across the deindustrialized Midwest. Amidst the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and the collapse of the housing market, Obama seemed to symbolize a willingness to depart from the free market orthodoxy that now ruled the Democratic Party. Unlike his Republican opponent John McCain, Obama was in his element addressing crowds about economic issues, acknowledging the effects of deindustrialization and the recession before elaborating on his plan to save suffering communities. Obama’s resounding victory in Rust Belt states testified to the confidence manufacturing communities and labor unions had in him. He seemed to embody the Democrats of the New Deal. As Franklin Roosevelt reborn, Obama would lead America into a new age of opportunity, raising Rust Belt communities from their downward spiral.

It didn’t happen. In fact, things got worse. 

Shortly before Trump’s inauguration, Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC, polled 800 Obama-Trump voters about why, having voted for Obama twice, they voted for Trump in 2016. Half of those polled said their incomes lagged behind the cost of living, while a further 31% said they were barely breaking even. On paper, the recession ended in 2009 but across the Midwest, the decline of manufacturing accelerated. In the first decade of the 2000s, 56,190 factories closed in the United States at an average of 15 a day. By 2010, with the US economy “recovering,” that average had increased to 23 a day.

Parallel with the political divide which became evident during Obama’s presidency was a growing division in economic reality. In 2013, the stock market was roaring with the Dow Jones Industrial Average (an index of 30 major companies) and S&P 500 (an index of 500 American companies), both hitting nearly 20-year highs. Yet in the same year, the Pew Research Center found 75% of Americans believed there still was a recession. Half of the respondents said their incomes and jobs had not recovered. For most of the country, especially those in the Rust Belt, signs of economic recovery were elusive. 

Demonstration at US Steel’s McDonald Works in Youngstown, Ohio, January 1980. Photo by Steve Cagan

Amidst widespread economic upheaval, the Rust Belt was primed for someone to use the language of class war. In a further testament to the shift of the Democratic Party, it was the Republicans who seized this opportunity. The first to exploit this rhetoric was the Tea Party movement in 2009, a fiscally conservative faction which succeeded in pushing the Republican Party further right. In the process, they used and disseminated Rules for Radicals, a manual for community organizing by the famed left-wing theorist Saul Alinsky. A particularly potent weapon against Democrats were the pronouncements of their donors. Mark Zuckerberg’s recommendation that those out of work should learn to code received much attention, as did Democratic mega-donor Michael Bloomberg’s response that such a thing was impossible since coal miners were too stupid. It is little wonder that with former Democrat strongholds feeling abandoned, 42% of Obama-Trump voters said they believed congressional Democrats favored the wealthy. 

Donald Trump seized upon this disaffection, presenting himself as the champion of the unheard and ignored, preaching protectionism and decrying political elites. In a packed field for the 2016 Republican presidential primary, Trump promised his audiences that as their defender, he would burn down the system that ruined their livelihoods. He saw politics as bloodsport and thus beat his opponents one by one. He gave his opponents no quarter, and his supporters loved him for it. 

Pundits were quick to note the demagogic overtones of Trump’s acceptance speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention. Its opening paragraphs painted a frightening portrait of a country gripped by anarchy, overrun with violent criminals, opportunistic immigrants, and ruled by an out-of-touch political class. Yet he also spoke of the economic devastation in a way no other presidential candidate had in recent memory: 

Household incomes are down more than $4,000 since the year 2000. Our manufacturing trade deficit has reached an all-time high—nearly $800 billion in a single year. The budget is no better…I have visited the laid-off factory workers, and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals. These are the forgotten men and women of our country. People who work hard but no longer have a voice. I am your voice.

He promised to resurrect the Rust Belt, to drain the swamp, to make America great again. 

Donald Trump walks to take his seat for the inaugural swearing-in ceremony at the US Capitol, January 20, 2017. Official White House Photo

It does not seem that Democratic strategists, Hillary Clinton’s campaign, or the army of liberal pundits comprehended the appeal of this message. In keeping with the prevailing Democratic Party trend, the Clinton campaign was socially left-wing but economically out to lunch, usually with moneyed executives. In her speeches, Clinton made clear she neither cared for nor understood the demands of Rust Belt communities. She instead attacked Trump on social issues and identity-driven politics, dubbing half of his supporters “the basket of deplorables…the racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it.” Clinton was not interested in addressing the economic insecurity which Trump was using to fan this supposed racism. 

Throughout the campaign, Trump blamed NAFTA for almost all of America’s job losses. It was a method which helped tarnish Hillary Clinton, whose husband had ushered in the original agreement. Yet it also deflected blame from American corporate leaders who had outsourced their labor. Trump relentlessly pushed the narrative that Mexicans nabbed American jobs through NAFTA and pledged to cancel it. This was a gross oversimplification, but blaming Mexicans meant he would not have to grapple with American business leaders. Attacking NAFTA was a cynical tactic. 

In her “basket of deplorables” speech, Clinton said the other half of Trump supporters were people who felt left behind. These, she said, “are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.” Empathize instead of help. She shared her husband’s belief that they had nowhere else to go. The extent which Clinton took for granted the support of old manufacturing communities was evidenced by where she campaigned. In Ohio, a key swing state, Clinton made 17 appearances, the vast majority of which were in cities: Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Toledo, and Kent. Trump, on the other hand, carried his message of economic populism to 26 appearances across the state. In Wisconsin, another swing state, Clinton didn’t make a single appearance between her nomination and Election Day.  

The 2016 election was won in the Rust Belt. Having gone for Obama twice, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin all went for Trump. 

Demonstration at US Steel’s McDonald Works in Youngstown, Ohio, January 1980. Photo by Steve Cagan

Trump’s presidency did not lead to a mass revitalization of manufacturing. Since the closing of the Campbell Works of Youngstown Sheet and Tube in 1977, the Lordstown Complex in Trumbull County had been the largest employer in the area. Yet fears persisted that one day the Complex would close. In 2016, Trump promised an economic revival. Having gone for Obama in both elections, in 2016 Trump won Trumbull County in one of the largest county swings of the election. 

On Trump’s Inauguration Day, General Motors laid off 2,000 employees at the Lordstown Complex. It appeared the plant was on the verge of closing. Seeing an opportunity, Trump made a speech in the area. The jobs were “all coming back,” he told them, “don’t move. Don’t sell your houses.” In 2019, General Motors shuttered the Lordstown Complex for good. Trump found conciliation in the fact that General Motors sold the plant to Lordstown Motors, a non-union company which employed a fraction of the initial 4,500 employees and paid half of GM’s weekly wage. 

It was a trend across the Rust Belt. Trump promised to rehabilitate manufacturing communities, but little changed. Aside from isolated, small reversals, conditions did not improve. Before the recession, the steel industry employed about 101,000 people. Those numbers fell precipitously and, despite a small recovery in the early years of Trump’s presidency, decreased to about 80,000 by October 2020. Overall, 1,800 factories closed in the first two years of his presidency. 

Demonstrators at US Steel’s McDonald Works in Youngstown, Ohio, January 1980. Photo by Steve Cagan

Trump’s failure to deliver on his economic agenda was not the centerpiece of Democratic criticism. Nor did the power of promising an economic revival to the Rust Belt receive much attention in the liberal media. Instead, Democratic leaders and much of the liberal commentariat fell over themselves to decry Trump supporters as deranged, racist, sexist, yokels intent upon creating the Fourth Reich on American soil. While Trump’s nativism attracted far-right support, painting all Trump supporters with the same brush purposely obscures the varied reasons they voted for him. When the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof urged his readers to empathize with some Trump supporters, particularly those impacted by deindustrialization, he was met with a hail of derision. As he later commented, “nothing I’ve written since the election has engendered more anger from people who usually agree with me than my periodic assertions that Trump voters are human, too.”

On the surface, it is surprising that in the 2020 election, Trump won more votes in each of the Rust Belt states than he did in 2016. Trumbull County again went for Trump, despite the negative publicity generated from the Lordstown closure. Yet it shouldn’t be surprising. Trump is a born demagogue. Despite his inaction, he utilized his America First rhetoric to convince a wide swath of the country that with a second term he would, to quote his 2020 convention speech, “build the greatest economy in history, quickly returning to full employment, soaring incomes and record prosperity.” 

In reference to Americans who had lost their jobs, Trump stated Biden had “spent his entire career outsourcing their dreams and the dreams of American workers, offshoring their jobs, opening their borders and sending their sons and daughters to fight in endless foreign wars, wars that never ended.” With the exception of Ohio, the Biden campaign paid more attention to Rust Belt states although, due to the pandemic, Biden made few public appearances. Biden’s promise to never turn his back on the Rust Belt fell on deaf ears. Trump was still seen as a rebel against the political class, especially career politicians like Biden, which had turned its back on the Rust Belt long ago. 

Youngstown, Ohio, January 1980. Photo by Steve Cagan

The Biden administration and the Democratic Party now stand at a crossroads. They can continue as they are, eschewing economic rehabilitation for superficial change. They can continue pretending that a left-wing economic agenda and a left-wing social agenda are mutually exclusive. Or they can once more become the big tent party, winning over disenchanted voters through meaningful action: healthcare, a living wage, and an economic agenda which benefits working Americans. 

There are examples of this style of Democratic politics. While Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden both lost Ohio, one of the state’s two Senators is Sherrod Brown, a Democrat who personifies the party’s old style of working class oriented politics. Brown’s victory margin over his Republican opponents has always numbered in the hundreds of thousands. He is immensely popular in Ohio. His appeal is only novel if you disregard what the Democratic Party used to be. 

Embracing economic policies that will help the working class demands a major shift in Democratic priorities. Ceasing to court personal profit from the party’s coterie of mega-donors will not be easy. Yet it is essential if the party wishes to succeed. Joe Biden says he wants to “restore the soul and to secure the future of America.” If this is to be more than empty words, Democrats must once more become the party of the people.

Cormac Kelly conducts research on the far-right in Britain and the United States. He is a graduate of the College of Wooster.

Categories: US & Canada