The decline of the industrial heartland of the United States began long ago. The citizens there voted for Trump. Even if he’s voted out, the frustration remains and it will keep his successor busy.
Thus spoke the now most powerful man in the world: “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now.” It was a grand passage in Donald Trump’s inaugural speech in January 2017. Classic populism, sure, but he was not entirely wrong about this.
In America, there are wide stretches of land that play practically no role in how the nation is perceived. On major media platforms, they only appear in the background at best. Popular culture largely ignores them. Foreign correspondents rarely stray there. The image that America projects of itself is determined by the predominantly wealthy regions on the East and West Coasts—from Boston to Miami by the Atlantic, and from Seattle to San Diego by the Pacific. In between, lies a wide land mass that is often overlooked, perhaps even “forgotten” as Trump put it.
Americans call these regions “fly-over country.” After Trump’s election, some reporters sought an explanation for this outrageous accident of democracy and made their way across the country; they were exotic excursions. However, this coverage has largely ceased. In the meantime, the reporting is again mostly about Trump as a person: the prepotent president as a fascination.
A Distorted View
The focus on the coastal metropolises and their leadership distorts the view of the true state of a country that has experienced considerable social upheaval in many areas. The frustration and aggression that have gripped politics in recent years follows from a long history.
The Middle Has Thinned Out
The epicenter of this development are the old industrial regions south of the Great Lakes. The Midwest has experienced a deindustrialization since the 1980s that has progressed extensively since then. It is not that the economy has come to a stop in the “rust belt,” but over the years, the old structures have deteriorated faster than new ones can be built.
Many decent paying industry jobs that offered reasonably secure employment prospects, along with health insurance and pensions, have disappeared. New jobs have appeared for highly qualified workers and low-paid workers. The middle has thinned out.
Around 60 million people live in this region. They still send a substantial number of members of Congress to Washington. In the end, presidential elections are decided in states like Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
In 2016, it was the electors from the Midwest in particular who voted for Trump as the 45th president. In the current polls, challenger Joe Biden is leading in many rust belt states, but in many places, his lead is conceived as close. As expected, Trump has not introduced the proclaimed reindustrialization at all with his protectionist course, but rather prevented investment and made many jobs more insecure. Whether Biden can profit from Trump’s errors on election night is uncertain. Many people who have been disappointed once again may just not vote.
A Skewed Image from Europe
The symptoms of a crisis were barely noticed beyond the Midwest for a long time. Europe’s image of the American economy was characterized by the West Coast information technology companies in the 1990s, by the financial giants of Wall Street in the 2000s, and by the data giants of Silicon Valley in the 2010s. It was a ping-pong game between the East and West Coasts. What happened in the expanse between was hardly of interest.
We Europeans, in particular, perceived the United States as a challenge more than anything – as either an opponent or as a role model – and in this way, we were happy to overlook its contradictory complexity.
Time and time again in the 2000s and early 2010s, I made my way to the United States, especially to the Midwest, as a reporter for Manager Magazin. I met with governors and mayors, with top executives and company founders, as well as with many completely ordinary people. I looked around at places like Canton, Ohio; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Lansing, Michigan; and Indianapolis, Indiana. It was astonishing how starkly the image differed in person from what was reported over here about the United States.
I have a vivid memory of an encounter with Janet Creighton in the summer of 2006. Back then, she was the mayor of Canton, Ohio. A Brookings Institution study had just calculated that no other metropolitan region in the United States had faced a greater loss of industrial jobs than her city. However, the mayor was a stalwart Republican, a supporter of then President George W. Bush, and she had the firm conviction that her city’s recovery, and that of the country even, would first and foremost have to start with the citizens themselves.
“We have become a lazy society,” Creighton said.* She stood by her office window and pointed down at her city. She had grown up here; she had spent her entire life here. “Many people still haven’t realized that the industrial age is over, that their employers won’t take everything from them anymore, that they need to take care of their education themselves.”* It’s terrible, she said. She really could not listen to the whining anymore.
And then Creighton delivered a little sermon as someone who was raised as a Republican Calvinist. “The situation isn’t simple, of course, and it will take a long time until the worst is over, but people want to make someone responsible for their situation. Look at me: I don’t have a college degree, I had my first child at 18, then another, I’m divorced, I’ve had two jobs at the same time to support my children. I know exactly what situation these people are in. I walked in their shoes.”* So her message was, pull yourselves together!
That conversation took place in the fall of 2006. The collapse of the real estate bubble had already occurred. Then one thing happened after another. In 2007, the financial crisis began slowly at first. In New York, I witnessed finance managers who had come to the conclusion that America was flushing itself down the drain.
One year later, for another story, I met then Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, an aristocratic -looking Democrat. General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, all headquartered in her state, were already teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. We held a long conversation about the deepest crisis in the nation in generations. At the end she made this very American remark: “I’ve had enough of all this talk of doom and gloom, it’s time for something new to begin.”*
Times Became Tougher
Shortly afterward, the Lehman Brothers investment bank collapsed. The financial crisis ran its course. Times became even tougher, especially in the industrial heartland of the United States.
At the same time, however, something new actually did begin. In the fall of that year, a majority voted for the liberal pragmatist Barack Obama for president. A Democrat, not an old white man, and on top of that someone who could preach so beautifully about “hope” and “change.”
Back then on the right, the tea party movement was growing within the Republican Party. Classical conservatives fell into the background. The GOP began to splinter. The tea party movement conveyed a first impression of how vehemently right-leaning populism could stir up the establishment, and how it could cloud reason in political discourse.
In 2010, then Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels toyed with the idea of running in the Republican primaries He was a classical moderate Republican: matter-of-fact, nonideological, result-oriented, fiscally conservative, an honest worker for business in Indiana. He was anti-Trump. We sat together for two hours in his office on a hot September day.
Had Daniels run, history may have taken a different course. Who knows. In the end, he decided against it, probably because Obama was too popular and U.S. politics then were already polarized to such an extent that hardly anything moved forward. In Congress, Republicans and Democrats had largely stopped cooperating. Then, in 2012, Mitt Romney ran against Obama and lost, a loss that ultimately paved the way for Trump.
On one of these research trips more than a decade ago, I met Grant Aldonas, a traditional conservative economic politician, in Washington, D.C. During George W. Bush’s first term, he served as under secretary for international trade. “What we’re currently experiencing goes to the core of our identity,” he said. “And the strange thing is: No one in the parties has managed to take these fears and translate them into political programs.”*
Everything was in place for Trump’s election: the issues, the frustration, the aggression, the beginning of polarization. We could have been prepared for a populist president.
Trump succeeded in winning the election in 2016 not only because he was and is a TV star and a heinous populist, but because he took all the negative sentiment and packed it into simple, aggressive slogans.
In the 2000s, China and Mexico were already being tossed around as enemies during the debates. One imagined waging a defensive battle in a war against the middle class. Congress drafted a law intended to impose tariffs on Chinese imports in order to protect American industrial jobs. The Bush administration government promised to build a 1,000 kilometer (approximately 621 mile) fence along the Mexican border to fend off illegal immigrants.
All of these issues were already being debated 10 years before Trump took office. We should have been warned. All it took was a candidate who adopted these policies without any scruples. Any concept, plan or strategy seemed superfluous. A few set pieces were enough, repeated over and over again in speeches, interviews and tweets, all emotionally charged. Not much has changed to this day.
Joe Biden could be a better president. He is organized, well-advised, milder in tone, prepared to cooperate internationally. However, we should not operate under any illusions. As things are now in the vote-rich heartland of the United States, Biden would hardly be able to take substantially different positions from Trump on many issues.
Protectionist trade policy, decreased U.S. military presence in Europe (together with the debate over our defense contributions to NATO), restrictive immigration policy – all of this will remain no matter who wins the election on Nov. 3.
We should be prepared.
*Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, this quoted remark could not be independently verified.