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In September 2015, I travelled through the heart of the country that swung the Electoral College vote to Republican Donald Trump, giving him the presidency without a 50 percent majority and even behind Democrat Hillary Clinton. My trip had nothing to do with politics. It was about my past and my history, not the future of the country. But the trip was illuminating. I drove through some cities that once formed the bedrock of our industrial economy: Detroit, Toledo, the Ohio River petrochemical corridor, Canton, Akron, Cleveland, and Sandusky.
Even though I didn’t spend time to explore all of those communities, it was easy to spot the remnants of the industrial past that has dramatically downsized in the last 30 years from globalization, mechanization, and trade policies. These have lead 4.5 million manufacturing jobs to leave the United States since the implementation of NAFTA in 1994. Detroit, of course, stood out, as the nation’s great symbol of industrial dislocation, which began long before NAFTA was signed by the United States, Canada, and Mexico. I could not believe how far this area had fallen, and all without any meaningful attention from our two major parties and the nation. The new economy means these were the losers, and nobody in power likes losers.
So when the Trump tornado rolled onto the national stage in 2015, and promised to make them winners, I knew that he would find fertile ground in Ohio and Michigan. I knew that instinctively, simply because I had done a drive by. Why was I, as an outsider, able to see this and those in power and leading a national campaign not aware of what would happen on election day. (See my essay on that topic.)
Where I live in Portland, the Multnomah County Library twice rejected my proposal to host a presentation I offered on these issues through the prism of Detroit. I think the Library failed to do its job as the place for civic discourse because my show would make Detroit look bad (news flash, it is in crisis and has been for decades) and because economic dislocation in the Midwest means little to the nation and especially to those on the West Coast. There is a progressive bubble out on the West Coast that is completely disconnected from the gritty, nasty world that exists in the rest of the country, and even in rural counties in the Northwest.
One of the most chilling takeaways from me was the poverty I saw everywhere in Appalachia in southern Ohio, from Chilicothe, to Waverly, to New Boston –areas that are both economically distressed and hard hit by opioid addiction. On the Ohio side of the river, I saw more than a handful of Confederate flags hanging in windows of homes and on the back of vehicles. This was an area ready and ripe for a messenger, who claimed he would make America great again and bring back jobs. On election day, when I saw the results come in, I already knew how Ohio and Michigan would fall in the Trump column for electoral votes. I had seen the vote outcome with my own eyes a year earlier.