PIQUERO: Clinton took Rust Belt for granted, Trump won because of it
Opinions Column: The Principled Millennial
In my previous column, I wrote about the media and polls and their effect on the outcome of the election. In this column, I will analyze how economics and demographics played a key role in determining the winner of the election. How did President-elect Donald Trump, against all odds, pull out a surprise win over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton? The answer lies far, far away in what many refer to as “flyover country.”
The industrial Midwest has slowly been dying. This is not my opinion, this is not my personal belief. This is a simple fact. The “Rust Belt,” as it is commonly referred to, is comprised of such states as Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania. This is where a majority of American manufacturing comes from. Think Ford, GM, U.S. Steel Co. — quintessentially American brands. This is the American heartland where a majority of auto manufacturing, steel manufacturing and coal production takes place. At one point, blue-collar jobs derived from these industries served as models for American capitalism. Wages were good, employment was high and satisfaction was virtually guaranteed. American families prospered, and the country followed suit. Now, a very different landscape has emerged.
Anyone who has ever passed through or seen pictures of Detroit, Michigan, Youngstown, Ohio, Gary, Indiana, and other industrial cities, would never believe that these desolate and dilapidated communities were once the prosperous enclaves of the past. The term “Rust Belt” takes a much more literal meaning when one sees images of hollowed and abandoned factories, barren landscapes and long stretches of buildings stripped of their former glory. How could these areas, once idolized as a proud representation of the “American Dream,” become so destitute and deprived?
At the moment, that is the million-dollar question. Economists, scholars and politicians debate the reasons for this. Some assert that the decline of manufacturing is a result of automation of key industries. The idea is that industrial workers have slowly been fazed out with the rise of robotics and technology. They contend that, as one researcher put it, “the return of more manufacturing won’t bring back many jobs, because the labor is increasingly being done by robots.” This bleak assessment of the situation only serves to enhance the already increasing pessimism of many workers who fear that they might be next on the chopping block, only to be replaced by a robot who doesn't need to be paid. But the rise in technology does not tell the whole story.
Trade. Trade. Trade. The five-letter word that won Trump the election.
Trump started his dazzling campaign railing against the terrible trade practices of our country which he viewed as destroying American manufacturing and ruining the lives of industrial workers. He famously quipped in his first public speech that “the American Dream is dead.” Although derided for this supposed disingenuous and “anti-American” remark, Trump knew his audience, and he knew them well. Trump was not talking to the city dweller who worked a 9 to 5 and lived a hectic, if not comfortable life. He was not talking to the upper middle-class family who, despite the slow growth economy, lives a relatively stable existence. No, he was talking to non-college-educated, blue-collar white people in the industrial Rust Belt whose health, wages, jobs and communities have been decimated. He was talking to the areas which have experienced extreme pessimism, increased drug abuse, suicide and depression. The so-called “forgotten man.”
Trump is the first candidate in generations to make trade a cornerstone of his bid for President of the United States. From the onset, he has ripped nearly all aspects of American policy on trade. The inability to identify China as a currency manipulator, the entering of free trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which he viewed as enabling companies to outsource jobs to Mexico, Indonesia and China, the politicization of trade by “bad negotiators” who put personal interest above country and the inability of successive political administrations to adequately protect U.S. jobs. This message struck a chord with workers who have little more to lose but so much to gain from a Trump Presidency. And, as I highlighted in my previous article, these are the exact people who handed Trump the victory.
Clinton and her brand of progressivism failed to speak to these people’s anxieties, instead tailoring her message to coastal urbanites with differing concerns. She utterly disregarded these workers and took the fact that the Rust Belt is traditionally democratic for granted. She hardly campaigned in the region and barely spoke about the issues that these people cared about. Harping on identity politics did not work. These people care about jobs, they care about their very livelihoods, not abstract notions of idealism and racialism perpetuated by her campaign.
It was a mistake that cost her the election, and it was a mistake that sent Trump to the White House.
Michael Piquero is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in political science and history. His column, “The Principled Millennial,” runs on alternate Fridays.
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