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Trump’s Rust Belt Populism Sputters

Despite his 2016 promises to workers, president can't stop massive GM layoffs
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You heard that General Motors is idling five plants and laying off 14,000 workers, right? Excerpt:

Part of the retrenchment is a response to a slowdown in new-car sales that has prompted automakers to slim their operations and shed jobs. And earlier bets on smaller cars have had to be unwound as consumers have gravitated toward pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles in response to low gasoline prices.

In addition, automakers have paid a price for the trade battle that Mr. Trump set in motion. In June G.M. slashed its profit outlook for the year because tariffs were driving up production costs, raising prices even on domestic steel. Rising interest rates are also generating headwinds.

Ms. Barra said no single factor had prompted G.M.’s cutbacks, portraying them as a prudent trimming of sails. “We are taking these actions now while the company and the economy are strong to stay in front of a fast-changing market,” she said on a conference call with analysts.


But demand for small and midsize cars has plunged. Two-thirds of all new vehicles sold last year were trucks and S.U.V.s. That shift has hit G.M.’s Lordstown plant hard. Just a few years ago, the factory employed three shifts of workers to churn out Chevy Cruzes. Now it is down to one. In 2017 the plant made about 180,000 cars, down from 248,000 in 2013.

More broadly, the yearslong boom in car and truck sales in North America appears to be ending, said John Hoffecker, vice chairman at AlixPartners, a global consulting firm with a large automotive practice. “Sales have held up well this year, but we do see a downturn coming,” he said. AlixPartners forecast that domestic auto sales will fall to about 15 million cars and light trucks in 2020, from about 17 million this year.

Watching cable news tonight at the gym, I heard an Ohio Democratic Congressman blast the president over this. He ripped Trump for having made promises to industrial workers in his state in 2016, about how he would bring jobs back. He ripped Trump over the steel tariffs that have driven up costs of production. And he ripped Trump for not taking his job seriously, for caring more about Twitter than coming up with a strategy that might save jobs.

I’ll give the congressman all of that, especially on Trump being a lazy, golfing-and-tweeting buffoon who doesn’t care about his job. Trump can get away with that when the economy is booming, but now it looks like things might be turning downward. When the economy is bad, nobody wants a bullsh*t artist in the White House. From the Washington Post:

In Lordstown, workers planned to pray for a miraculous reversal of the company’s decision, according to David Green, president of United Auto Workers Local 1112.

“It’s like someone knocks the wind out of you,” he said of GM’s announcement. “You lose your breath for a minute.”

About 40 percent of the local’s members voted for Trump, Green said. Now workers want to see the president keep his promises, he said.

“He came to our community and said, ‘Don’t sell your house. These jobs are coming back,’ ” Green said. “We’ve seen nothing but job losses around here.”

Indeed, even before Monday’s announcement, Lordstown had been bleeding jobs. Since Trump took office, GM has eliminated two shifts and roughly 3,000 jobs at the plant, according to John Russo, a visiting scholar at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor.

But we have to face some facts. People aren’t buying what GM is making. Aside from the move away from small cars, an effect of lower gasoline prices, sedan sales have been declining across all manufacturers. This summer, I got a good deal on a 2018 Honda Accord, a car I really love, and that received rapturous praise from the automobile press when it came out. Honda struggled to sell the cars. It’s not because they’re lousy cars. They’re actually terrific cars. It’s that consumers are losing interest in sedans. What good does it do GM to manufacture cars that people will not buy?

You can’t blame Trump for that.

What you can blame Trump for is exploiting the hopes of Rust Belt people by telling them that he could bring those jobs back. The Rust Belt made the crucial difference for Trump in 2016. Unless the Democrats’ 2020 nominee is someone who is more or less a space alien, it’s going to be hard to win those voters’ support when you’ve improved your Twitter game and your golf score, but those plants are idle.



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