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Trump and the Rust Belt: Making Sense of the Election

By Marc Tucker — November 17, 2016 6 min read
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Like so many others, I’ve been trying to make sense of this election.

Months ago, the experts said that the election would be decided in the Rust Belt states. If you look at the state-by-state map as it stood on the morning after the election, you will see that they were right. One Rust Belt state after another thought to be in the impregnable Democratic Blue Wall—states that had voted Democratic in the last six presidential elections—went for the President-elect.

Last April, more than six months ago, I wrote a blog that anticipated this outcome. In it, I said:

In recent administrations, when both Democrats and Republicans were in the White House, the senior figures in both parties and their economic advisors agreed that free trade was in the country’s best interest. Of course, everyone understood that this was true overall, not necessarily for every individual involved. Governments, in theory, should be looking out for the greatest good for the greatest number. There would always be some who would not benefit, who would get left behind.

And there are. Most are poorly educated people with relatively few skills...and they are angry. Their parents and grandparents were steel workers, auto workers, textile workers, coal miners, shoemakers and furniture makers. And all the people who worked in the neighborhood banks, shops, laundries, diners, bowling alleys and movie theaters that served those who worked in the mills and mines. They stepped into their parents’ shoes, expecting to earn at least what their parents earned, to take their place as the wage earners in their families, to have the respect of their spouse and kids and community. They had not gone to college, but they wanted their kids to go.

But it didn’t work out that way. The textile jobs went from Maine to South Carolina on their way to Mexico. So did the shoemaking. The furniture jobs went from North Carolina to China. Detroit and Flint became ghost towns as the cars went south and then offshore. Consumer electronics and appliances went first to Japan and South Korea and then to Taiwan and China. Towns, villages, entire counties and states became shells of their former selves, wiped out by low-cost competition from East Asia, South Asia, Eastern Europe, South America and even Africa. The jobs that did not go offshore went to automated machines, machines that were making other people wealthy, but not them.

The people who used to make our cars, pants, shirts, tables, chairs, shoes, beds, TVs, radios, home video recorders, towels, electric lights, toilets, dishwashers, stoves, clothes washers, stereos, outboard motors and children’s toys made them no longer. They lost their homes and their jobs, had their cars repossessed, had to move in with relatives, could not afford to send their kids to college or get decent medical care for their family or even feed them three square meals a day. Some started taking drugs or overdosed on alcohol. The most depressed committed suicide.

If I were running for President, I would make it clear that changing this picture is one of my top priorities. It is about the economy but not about an economy that works for the country as a whole, while leaving many Americans out; it is about good jobs for all Americans. It is not about continuing a culture of dependence; it is about making sure that everyone who wants work can get it. It is not about fighting over who gets the jobs that are left; it is about creating a lot of great jobs in a high-skill economy. Making America great again ought...to mean earning our place in the world the old-fashioned way, by being damned good at what we do.

And I said:

If I were running for President, I would offer the American people a deal: If you are willing to do everything in your power to get the best education and training you can get to do the high-skill jobs that need to be done, then I will turn over heaven and earth to make sure you get the education and training you need at a price you can afford to do the kind of work you want to do.

But neither candidate did that. Would Hillary Clinton have won the election if she had said something like that? We’ll never know. In the clutch, in the last couple of weeks in the campaign, when Donald Trump, sensing his opportunity, was barnstorming the Rust Belt, Clinton opted to run advertisements in those states that focused on what Trump had said about women in his now-famous unguarded moments and on his plans for deporting Hispanic immigrants. As we have seen from the election’s results, these were not the issues that most concerned the former steelworkers and autoworkers of the Rust Belt. They want jobs. And they thought voting for change was the way to do that.

Most commentators see this country turning inward now, and abandoning the inclusive, communitarian spirit that has made this nation of immigrants so vital and productive in the past. And some worry that those who have been hurt the most by the economic policies both parties have pursued might now be willing to embrace an authoritarian, even despotic government if that is what it takes to restore to them what they have lost. They appear to have lost their faith in the American people.

But I, for one, have not lost my faith in either the American people or the power of a good education to propel a people to greatness. As I wrote last week, the fate of the Trump administration now hinges on its ability to deliver for the core constituency who elected him to office, and I believe that the only way he can do that is to radically improve our education, job training and continuing education systems. It is not possible to roll the dynamics of the global economy back to the 1970s, before the development of global labor markets. The number of people with only the skills needed to do routine work is vastly greater than the demand for people with those skills and that gap is increasing every day. Jobs paying much more are going begging, because the people looking for work don’t have the skills to do them. That will only get worse as the process of automation proceeds at an ever-greater pace.

It is certainly not too late for President-elect Trump to take the advice I gave last April. As I see it, that is the only way for him to become a two-term President. But the Democrats, as they try to understand what happened to them, need to ask themselves what they offered to the Rust Belt workers who they counted on to be their Blue Wall, but to whom they actually offered very little.

I am often criticized for portraying education as nothing more than preparation for work. In response, I have said that, while I value education for far more than its contribution to the economy, a nation with many citizens who are not able to participate in the economic life of their country or hold their head up high in their community due to lack of work is a nation that will come apart at the seams politically. That is exactly what I saw happening on the evening of November 8.

Thomas Jefferson said that no nation can be both free and uneducated. These days, more than ever before, economic well-being in the high-wage countries depends on being well educated and highly trained. We now can see—or ought to be able to see—that no high-wage nation with large numbers of uneducated and unemployed will be free for long.

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