The Rust Belt Made Trump President. The Bet Hasn’t Paid Off.
Four years ago, Donald Trump’s final pitch to voters came during a near-midnight rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on the eve of the election.
“If we win Michigan, we will win this historic election, and then we truly will be able to do all of the things we want to do,” Trump said. “They won’t be taking our jobs any longer.”
He did win Michigan—and Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. A Rust Belt sweep carried Trump to his unlikely victory in 2016. Those same four states will probably play an outsized role tomorrow in determining whether Trump gets another four years in the White House. There will be many ways to read the outcome of this week’s presidential election, but on some level it is undoubtedly a referendum on the promises Trump made to voters in the industrial (and post-industrial) parts of the country.
Within days of the 2016 election, Trump and his top economic advisor, Peter Navarro, were talking about helping those Rust Belt voters by slapping tariffs on goods from Canada and Mexico. It took until March 2018 for Trump’s long-sought trade war to get going, and until July of that year for it to become focused on China. Now, more than two years later, the tariffs Trump imposed on steel, aluminum, washing machines, solar panels, and loads of goods made in China have cost American consumers and businesses more than $57 billion annually.
Trump has always claimed that China is paying the cost of the tariffs, and that has always been a lie. More articulate proponents of the president’s trade policy claim that the cost of the tariffs is worth their benefits: There’s no gain without some pain, they argue.
But as the president faces re-election, the gains are hard to find. And that’s especially true in the Rust Belt. Manufacturing job growth in those four key 2016 swing states slowed almost to a standstill even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, as Trump’s tariffs hiked costs for imported goods and materials used by American manufacturers. Those higher import taxes, in turn, blunted business owners’ ability to make the investments that create new jobs.
The economic data tell the most obvious part of the story. When Trump was inaugurated in January 2017, those four crucial states were home to 2.33 million manufacturing jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By July 2018, a few months after Trump launched its tariffs on steel and aluminum and th
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