The stoppage of the United States due to the covid makes a dent in one of the president’s great electoral assets
Small and scattered towns, powerful trucks and station wagons burning gasoline along endless endless highways, flashes of lost grandeur in the form of hypertrophied public libraries and swanky parks that no one frequents. There are many towns built around a factory in the Midwest, but few represent the ups and downs of American industry as well as Lordstown, Ohio, the proud home of one of the largest General Motors plants in the country, which was the largest employer in this valley of the Mahoning after the collapse of the steel industry in the early 1980s. The fate of the factory is reflected in that of the small Nese café, at the gates of the village, opposite the cemetery. His hours were reduced as shifts were eliminated on the assembly line. Two years ago, the waitress told this correspondent that, as long as the plant did not close, customers would continue to arrive, but that she did not have them all with her. Today, a “for sale” and another “for rent” sign adorn the ruins of the small cafe, which accumulates dust and cobwebs.
The same fate befell the factory. And the 4,500 jobs he had. In the huge parking lot where hundreds of gleaming cars rested years ago, grass grows through cracks in the aged asphalt. A small red sign that says “Trump in the trash” stands out under the imposing black sign with the logo of Lordstown Motors, the brand new plant where a prototype of an electric station wagon has been produced, whose virtues the president praised this Monday at the White House . The new factory occupies a small portion of the concrete mastodon that housed the old one. “Welcome to the valley of voltage,” says one of the posters at the immaculate reception. “The future of work is electric, and in this corner of America we know a thing or two about work,” says another.
“Four years ago Trump told us not to sell our houses, that General Motors was not going to leave,” recalls Ethan Kistler, 30, who lives just two miles from the factory. And look now. My brother-in-law worked in a component factory for the plant, and he had to go to Wyoming. My neighbor across the street has also had to leave. The president says Lordstown is flourishing. What do you think?”.
In this very state of Ohio, now 40 years ago, the then Republican candidate Ronald Reagan coined a simple phrase that has become a classic of American politics. He faced Democratic President Jimmy Carter in a debate in the city of Cleveland. In the final minutes, he asked the citizens: “Are you doing better than four years ago?” The answer, of course, was no. The polls until then were tight, but Reagan swept the election a week later.
Much has changed since 1980 so that, as the no less hackneyed Lampedusian aphorism says, everything remains the same. Four years of Donald Trump have transformed the style of doing politics in this country, they have polarized society to insane limits, they have broken the global geostrategic balances. But in a month, when citizens vote in an election that both parties call existential, in states like Ohio, away from the noise of Washington, many will go to the polls calibrating the weight of their pockets.
In these Midwestern states, where 77,744 ballots gave Trump the key to the White House four years ago, the first concern of voters heading into the Nov.3 election, according to a recent study, is the economy. Are you doing better than four years ago? The short answer, as clear now as it was in 1980, is no.
America is today in the midst of the worst economic slowdown since the Great Depression. In the second quarter of the year, GDP fell 9.5%. In August, there were 11.5 million fewer Americans in employment than in February. The unemployment rate, although it has dropped since it reached a peak of 14.7% in April, was 7.9% in September, more than double that of February (3.5%). Donald Trump, according to the progressive Center for American Progress, is on track to become the only president to serve his term with negative job growth since the Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps monthly records.
Photography, obviously, has a trick. In the first quarter of the year, a pandemic suddenly struck – “the China plague”, in the words used by an angry Trump in the presidential debate last Tuesday – that forced a halt to activity in a halt in much of the world, and that snatched to the president the argument with which he hoped to keep moving trucks away from the White House for up to four years. No president in modern American history has lost re-election with a strong economy, and as of February the United States was riding an unusual wave of uninterrupted growth for 11 years. Trump wanted to extend the inherited hot streak by introducing, in December 2017, the largest tax cut in three decades, which rewarded especially the wealthiest and companies. But the truth is that the wave, as critics of the president were adamant, was already breaking.
In the second half of Trump’s term, as the effect of the fiscal stimulus was neutralized and trade wars weighed down on corporate investment, growth slowed from 2.9% in 2018 to 2.3% in 2019. The braking was most evident in states like Ohio, the industrial belt of the Midwest, called to be decisive again in the elections.
“The data shows that the industrial sector in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the four Midwestern states that gave Trump the victory, was already in recession even before the pandemic,” explains Michael Shields of the think tank Policy Matters Ohio, co-author of a study published last week looking at trends in employment and wages over the past 20 years. “There has not been a recovery in the industrial sector and the main reasons are the destructive trade war with China, the defects in the trade agreements reached with other countries and a fiscal policy that benefits large multinationals that produce outside the country,” adds Shields .
But not the entire American economy was as bad as the industry. The photo finish of Trump’s term, before the pandemic, it was more or less like this: Industry and some adjacent sectors, more vulnerable to the global economic slowdown and trade wars, were cutting jobs. The service sector, encouraged by consumers, remained buoyant.
It happens that the industrial sector is oversized in the political debate, precisely because a few tens of thousands of votes in these Midwestern states can decide the elections. But in December 2019, the industry accounted for just 8.4% of the country’s employment, a percentage that has followed a declining pace since World War II. Even in these Midwestern states, according to William Adams, an economist at PNC Bank in Ohio, the trend is changing. “Industry is part of the identity of the Great Lakes region, but its importance in employment is on a downward trend,” he explains. “Young people go to university and are working more and more in the service sector. With a labor market as tight as the one we have been experiencing, it is difficult to find qualified workers. The population of these states is aging. In 2019 there were 822,000 jobs in the healthcare sector in Ohio, 100,000 more than in 2009. There were 717,000 jobs in the industrial sector in 2019, almost 100,000 fewer than in 2009. Industry continues and will continue to be an important part of our economy, but the work is going to be more technical and automated, it is not going to be an engine of employment as it was 20 or 40 years ago ”.