On Election Night, voters in northeastern Ohio’s Trumbull and Ashtabula counties made Sean O’Brien—a three-term Democratic state representative—their state senator. They also helped make Donald Trump president. In 2012, 60 percent of Trumbull’s largely white, working class electorate voted for Barack Obama. In 2016, they flipped their support to the populist GOP candidate who offered his own promises for change.
The partisan shift surprised O’Brien, but he realized it shouldn’t have. Days before the election, O’Brien’s cousin snapped a photo of his own front yard and sent it to the soon-to-be state senator. A Trump sign stood right next to one supporting O’Brien.
“He didn’t expect a lot of what Trump promised, and yet he still voted for him,” O’Brien said. “Maybe he won’t bring jobs back, but at least it’s somebody new, it’s somebody outside. It’s somebody who’s talking his talk, their talk, our constituents’ talk.”
In the Rust Belt, that talk is all about the factories that left and the jobs that went with them. Trump succeeded in places like Trumbull and Ashtabula by convincing voters he’d truly fight to bring back their factory work. He promised to rip up trade deals, punish currency manipulators, and make it harder to outsource jobs. This was change Rust Belt voters at least wanted to believe in.
But Trump will enter office with the nearly impossible challenge of rebuilding a sector of the economy that technology has altered at least as much as globalization has. To help the constituents who were instrumental in electing him, he’ll need to get a GOP Congress to back policies at stark odds with conservative orthodoxy. Even then, the implacable forces of automation guarantee that whatever jobs may return to the Rust Belt won’t look like those of days gone by.
“The traditional kinds of factory work are not coming back,” says Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy.
A False Promise
Factory employment in the US peaked in 1979 before starting to fade in the 1980s as a result of both automation and offshoring. As the factory-dependent working class shrank, so too did its power in Washington. “When the machinists and the autoworkers and the steel workers go from say a million strong to 500,000, they have much less political clout,” says Chad Broughton, a public policy lecturer at the University of Chicago.
During the campaign, Trump spoke like a politician who wanted to give some of that clout back. He laid out a seven-step plan to bring factory work back to the US, promising Rust Belt workers that he’d withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, label China a currency manipulator, and threaten Chinese goods with trade tariffs.
Broughton shares Trump’s wariness of NAFTA and other trade deals. His book, Boom, Bust, Exodus: The Rust Belt, the Maquilas, and a Tale of Two Cities, tells the story of what happened to Galesburg, Illinois, when the Maytag factory left town in 2004. For Broughton, the flaws of NAFTA stem from its failings to raise the wages and labor standards for the international worker, which incentivizes manufacturing to move to foreign markets and creates what he calls “a race to the bottom.” He believes the uneven recovery from the 2008 financial crisis and deindustrialization led many Rust Belt voters to select a “change candidate,” just as they had in 2008. Only it turned out that this year, that candidate came from the opposing party.
But Brynjolfsson says focusing on trade deals rather than the implementation of robotics in factories is a disservice to Rust Belt voters. “It would be misleading to give people the impression that something like tariffs on China or Mexico, or trade barriers would bring any significant number of those jobs back,” he says. “The trends are much more fundamental, and they’re worldwide.” Promises to bring steel back to Pennsylvania or cars to Michigan are romantic but disregard the fact that current factories employ a fraction of employees of their 1970s counterparts, he says.
O’Brien remembers those days when factory jobs in his region were plentiful. But he believes Trump’s promises of a manufacturing revival are based on a faulty premise.
“A steel mill like we have here in Vallourec, 20 years ago, it would have to be run by five or six thousand people—now it’s 800 people when we had it at full capacity because of automation,” he says. “What we need to do is train our workforce to change with these developments—learn to work on robots, learn to work on how to program them, how to fix them, how to compete in the 21st century.”
A New Deal?
In the meantime, Trump and his team may seek to appeal to Rust Belt constituents in other ways that will make the Republican majorities in the House and Senate queasy.
The promises of infrastructure spending and trade reform Trump has floated align much closer with union leadership than mainstream conservative thinkers, says to Jennifer Burns, a historian at Stanford who studies American conservatism. “It may just be that because he was a Republican, he was able to do things that would have been called socialist had a Democrat tried,” she says.
But Trump will still have to pass these spending bills through a Republican-controlled House and Senate. Stimulus spending and tougher trade deals run directly counter to the last 30 years of GOP policy, Burns says. While Trump needed working-class Rust Belt voters to win the election, that doesn’t mean as president he’ll be able to serve their interests.
‘The traditional kinds of factory work are not coming back.’ Erik Brynjolfsson
“If he tries to push through policies that do not align with the traditional conservative values or conservative policy consensus, are they going to let him, or is he going to face a revolt from within?” Burns says.
If he does manage to overcome the political hurdles, infrastructure programs may be the most likely to bring real economic change to regions in decline. “There’s evidence that in the long run, infrastructure helps boost productivity and growth,” Brynjolfsson says. “And a lot of those infrastructure jobs are exactly the kinds of things that the people who previously did manufacturing can contribute to.”
But O’Brien isn’t expecting much from an administration and Congress both run by Republicans. He has watched Ohio Republican Governor John Kasich and a GOP-controlled state House and Senate pass anti-union bills like Senate Bill 5—a 2011 law that significantly limited workers’ rights to organize. He hopes the Republicans will start to understand that they need to be better on unions and other issues facing his constituents to stay in their favor. But he’s doubtful it will happen, or that a Trump presidency will be the spark for change in Trumbull and Ashtabula.
“Do I believe Trump’s going to make true on his promises?” O’Brien says. “No, I don’t.”
The president-elect hasn’t helped his case by selecting career politicians and Goldman Sachs executives to his cabinet. Toward the end of his campaign, Trump promised to “drain the swamp,” to rid Washington of the career politicians seeking their own gain at the expense of working people. Now that he’s about to become the country’s most powerful politician himself, Trump isn’t likely to bring much change at all to workers without acknowledging how the work itself has changed.