Rust Belt States: the key to Trump’s victory

Photo credits: The Wall Street Journal.

Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin. Four states that together accounted for 64 of Donald Trump’s 304 Electoral College votes (306 if it weren’t for two faithless electors in Texas). Without these states, all four of which voted for Obama in 2012, Trump would not have secured the presidency. So why did these states swing from blue to red?

The answer is that blue-collar workers in Rust Belt states – who make up 28% of the country’s private blue-collar workforce – feel left behind by the establishment and in particular by the Democrats.

I do not agree with Noam Chomsky on just about anything,  but I do agree with his assessment that the Democratic party has completely forgotten its base.

Whilst they claim to be committed to the working and middle classes, ‘forgotten’ citizens in many states, including the Rust Belt states, have seen the increased focus by the party on issues pertaining to the rights of both legal, and illegal immigrants.  Many citizens, particularly those who are struggling with unemployment, healthcare or other issues, resent that the Democrats are, in their eyes, more concerned with helping immigrants who aren’t  even US citizens than helping them. Furthermore, many of these immigrants are Mexican: In 2014, 11.7 million of the 42.4 million immigrants (28%) living in America were Mexican. Because many citizens of Rust Belt States have suffered from severe deindustrialisation and unemployment, often due to outsourcing to Mexico as a result of NAFTA, the apparent focus on Mexican immigrants has generated anger which has not been adequately addressed by the Washington establishment. Donald Trump becomes an appealing alternative: an outsider who challenges the norm, promising to build a wall. Go figure.

rust states red map 1
Above: breakdown of the vote in Ohio and Michigan in 2016 by county. The darker counties represent greater support for a candidate (Source: Neelay Trivedi)










Feeling forgotten is the overarching holistic problem, but a much more specific and volatile issue in the Rust Belt states is that of unemployment. Unemployment is a major issue from all perspectives, including that of dignity and pride: people in Rust Belt states don’t want to rely on government benefits unless they absolutely have to, and those who claim unemployment benefits in these states are often labelled ‘panhandlers’ or ‘scroungers.’Democrats and many of their supporters around the country use the term ‘welfare’ to describe government benefits; in Rust Belt states, the far more commonly used phrase is that used by the Republicans: ‘entitlement,’ which carries strongly negative connotations. The American Dream culture is built upon hard work and not benefiting off the backs of others. An article on The Washington Post followed a specific family living in a Rust Belt town who was ostracised by the entire town for accepting handouts from the government due to an injury that did not allow the father to work.

rust states blue map 2
Above: unemployment rates in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania (from left-to-right) in 2015 (Source: Neelay Trivedi)









Democrats and many of their supporters around the country use the term ‘welfare’ to describe government benefits; in Rust Belt states, the far more commonly used phrase is the Republican expression: ‘entitlement,’ which sounds slightly more negative, don’t you think? In these states unemployment is considered shameful and embarrassing, and Trump’s economic protectionism and promise to bring back blue-collar jobs was inevitably welcomed and applauded. He promised to bring back specifically blue-collar jobs that had been lost to outsourcing, as opposed to creating new jobs in new fields. The unemployed in the Rust Belt want their factory jobs back, and are not trained to work in technology or retail. Coupled with his divisive rhetoric that pretty much blamed deindustrialisation and on immigrants and the establishment, Trump had the winning edge in these four states.

This is all well and good, but Republicans promising to bring back jobs to Rust Belt States is nothing new. Yet except for in 1988, when George H. W. Bush won over Ohio (a swing state), Michigan an Pennsylania, the Rust Belt states have consistently voted Democrat.  So why the sudden shift to red?

One possible explanation is that Trump’s extreme politics provided a distinctive ideological choice that voters could easily back. Economic hardship continuously creates a platform for radical politics, and Rust Belt States are, in some areas, among the most economically impoverished in the country. In comparison to Donald Trump, the two previous Republican presidential nominees were John McCain and Mitt Romney. Both were centrist candidates – McCain is a member of the Main Street Partnership, the most centrist caucus within the Congressional Republican party, and Romney was the Governor of Massachusetts, one of the most electorally liberal states in the country- and neither won any of the aforementioned Rust Belt states. In contrast, Trump’s radical campaign mobilised the ‘forgotten’ voters who finally had an ideologically clear message to identify with.

Just as Obama espoused his message of hope in 2008, Trump gave these voters a message of both hope and, to an extent, revenge – telling them what they wanted to hear.

Dear Democrats, to win in 2020 you need Pennsylvania and Ohio to swing back to blue. It may require the nomination of a more charismatic candidate, (Hillary didn’t go down so well), or a more substantial change of message. What is clear nonetheless is that the Democrats have, to echo Chomsky, forgotten their base, a scenarion which Trump exploited very successfully. In three of the Rust Belt states he overturned nearly 30 years of support for the Democrats, without which he would not have won the election. All three will undoubtedly be key targets for the Democrats in 2020. Yet with potential impeachment looming (although admittedly unlikely), who knows what 3 years can bring? All I know is the Democrats need to step up their game, and they need to do it fast.


By Jonathan Green

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