Rust Belt

Travels through Trump country in 2015

Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.

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.

Skylines of the Midwest, Cleveland and Detroit

Detroit and Cleveland, once proud Midwest cities that defined America’s economic might, now symbolize what has become of America’s industrial economy. Both cities have lost residents by the tens of thousands (in Detroit’s case by more than 1 million residents in five decades). They have seen industrial production shift overseas, and now are struggling to define themselves in the new American economy. Wonks label cities such as these as part of the “rust belt,” in part to diminish what industrial production meant and means to America’s overall economic health.

The jobs that once accompanied heavy manufacturing are not coming back. There is still a lot of heavy industry in both cities, including steel plants and in Detroit’s case, automobile assembly and manufacturing, among many others. But the future is likely more tied to firms like Quicken Loans, owned by billionaire Dan Gilbert, who has properties in both cities and sees declining Detroit as a bargain for real-estate acquisition. (He recently raised hundreds of millions in junk bonds for his Detroit property schemes.)

I also have ties to both cities through my adoptive and biological families. I was born in the Motor City. I spent a fair bit of time in Cleveland over the years because of my adoptive father’s family ties.

Here is how the two former majestic American metropolises look today, in a way they would like the country to perceive them: strong, modern and proud. But behind that facade, there is a lot of struggle, felt by the people trying to re-invent their lives in the “new economy.”