Un­re­al­is­tic prom­ises to the Rust Belt may haunt Trump

Pres­i­den­tial lead­er­ship in this pe­riod of tech­no­log­i­cal tran­si­tion should fo­cus on the fu­ture, rather than the past.

The Buffalo News - - MONEYSMART - – Washington Post Writ­ers Group

When Gen­eral Mo­tors idled its auto plant in Lord­stown, Ohio, this month, Pres­i­dent Trump adopted a fa­mil­iar strat­egy: He is­sued a nasty string of tweets blam­ing other peo­ple and promised, in ef­fect, that he would re­store the past.

Trump’s an­gry, back­ward-look­ing ap­proach may still ap­peal to some Rust Belt vot­ers. But in the Ohio and Penn­syl­va­nia towns that helped win the pres­i­dency for Trump in 2016, his vow to turn back the clock hasn’t worked out very well, and there are signs the Rust Belt may be cor­rod­ing for him po­lit­i­cally.

Lord­stown’s strug­gles, like those of other nearby mill towns, il­lus­trate the harsh fact that man­u­fac­tur­ing is a dy­namic process. Old jobs are dis­ap­pear­ing be­cause of changes in tech­nol­ogy or con­sumer pref­er­ences; try­ing to re­sist change is usu­ally a fool’s game. Rust Belt com­mu­ni­ties that are suc­ceed­ing are the ones that have adapted by em­brac­ing new tech­nolo­gies and in­no­va­tion.

Pres­i­den­tial lead­er­ship in this pe­riod of tech­no­log­i­cal tran­si­tion should fo­cus on the fu­ture, rather than the past. But Trump seems al­most a techno­phobe. He tweeted March 12, af­ter the crash of a high-tech Boe­ing jet­liner: “Air­planes are be­com­ing far too com­plex to fly ... I see it all the time in many prod­ucts. Al­ways seek­ing to go one un­nec­es­sary step fur­ther, when of­ten old and sim­pler is far bet­ter.”

Trump’s re­sponse to Lord­stown was to at­tack David Green, the UAW lo­cal pres­i­dent, im­ply­ing that he was at fault along with GM, and de­mand­ing that he “get his act to­gether and pro­duce.” Green had sent let­ters to Trump in July 2018 and Fe­bru­ary warn­ing about threats to the plant. Trump didn’t re­spond.

Af­ter Trump’s Twit­ter tirade, Rep. Tim Ryan, the Ohio Demo­crat who rep­re­sents Lord­stown, fired back: “The Pres­i­dent’s tweet ... is of­fen­sive and does noth­ing to help bring back the man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs he promised to my dis­trict.”

Ryan ar­gued that “the best thing is to help” GM ren­o­vate Lord­stown and per­haps build elec­tric ve­hi­cles there. Lo­cal res­i­dents said much the same thing to the Youngstown Vindi­ca­tor: GM should fo­cus on new tech­nol­ogy and mak­ing prod­ucts peo­ple want to buy, rather than re­store pro­duc­tion of the low-sell­ing Chevro­let Cruze.

Trump is vul­ner­a­ble in the Rust Belt be­cause he made such extravagant prom­ises when he suc­cess­fully wooed vot­ers in 2016. “He won this area – a largely Demo­cratic area – and he has not said a word yet, and that’s just pa­thetic,” warned Jim Gra­ham a for­mer UAW leader at Lord­stown.

Lo­cal res­i­dents re­mem­ber Trump’s procla­ma­tion at a July 2017 rally: “Those jobs [that] have left Ohio, they’re all com­ing back ... Don’t sell your house.” Tommy Wo­likow, a Lord­stown worker, told the Vindi­ca­tor: “I kind of turned into a Trump sup­porter at that time. I be­lieved what he said . ... Al­most two years later, I’m see­ing noth­ing but job losses.”

What’s the right an­swer for Rust Belt towns? An in­ter­est­ing ex­am­ple is Erie, Pa. Most big fac­to­ries there have closed, but the city is re­build­ing it­self around its uni­ver­si­ties and a big in­sur­ance com­pany. Prof­its from a big gam­bling casino in Erie County are fun­neled partly to “in­no­va­tion spa­ces” at four lo­cal cam­puses.

Erie may have lost man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs, but it’s above the state av­er­age in ad­vanced in­dus­tries, says Ben Speggen, a lo­cal jour­nal­ist.

Another key to suc­cess is wel­com­ing for­eign­ers. About 10 per­cent of Erie’s pop­u­la­tion is refugees, ac­cord­ing to James and Deb­o­rah Fal­lows in their re­cent book, “Our Towns.” One of the 10 char­ac­ter­is­tics they found in suc­cess­ful lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties adapt­ing to change is that “they make them­selves open.”

One more les­son from Erie County, in the heart of the Rust Belt: Trump won there in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, but in the 2018 midterm con­gres­sional elec­tion, the county voted Demo­cratic.

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