In late November, General Motors (GM) announced that it had no plans to allocate any new products to its Lordstown, Ohio, plant after it discontinues production on the Chevrolet Cruze this March. The move essentially ends the plant’s last 1,600 jobs, and represents only the latest dispatch from the heartland of what President Trump has called “American carnage.”
For 52 years, the Lordstown plant, nestled in Trumbull County in the state’s Mahoning Valley, served as one of the nerve centers of the Youngstown-Warren area. Youngstown produced steel: Miles of blast furnaces perpetually lit up the night skies, and locals referred to the accompanying pollution as “pay dirt,” since the steel mills meant prosperity. Today, however, Youngstown is now one of the poorest cities in the country. From 1977 to 1984, all of the major steel producers in the Youngstown area closed, costing 50,000 jobs and igniting Great Depression-levels of unemployment. Since then, the city has become a poster child for the crumbling towns of the Rust Belt.
The city of Warren, the second-largest in the region, also had steel, but beginning in 1966, when GM opened the Lordstown plant on the city’s outskirts, automotive production increasingly became a crucial part of the area’s industrial backbone. At its height, GM operated its Packard Electric Division plants in Warren, along with its Assembly Division and Fisher Body stamping plants in Lordstown. The largest employer in Mahoning Valley, GM had 25,000 workers on its payroll in the early 1980s. Today, those jobs are virtually gone.
One day before Trump’s stunning election in 2016, GM announced it would eliminate the third shift at Lordstown, a decision that ultimately cost more than 1,200 workers their jobs. Then, in July 2017, Trump held a rally in Youngstown, paying lip service to the city’s industrial past. “Tonight I’m back in the center of the American heartland,” Trump told the denizens of the Youngstown-Warren area, “far away from the Washington swamp to spend time with thousands of true American patriots.”
Despite the fact that Mahoning Valley never recovered from the Great Recession, he implored his audience to stay put:
I’ll tell you what, I rode through your beautiful roads coming up from the airport, and I was looking at some of those big, once incredible job-producing factories, and my wife, Melania, said, “What happened?” I said, “Those jobs have left Ohio.” They’re all coming back. They’re all coming back. Don’t move. Don’t sell your house. Don’t sell your house.
Less than a year later, GM announced the end of the second shift at Lordstown. Within no time, 1,500 more autoworkers were laid off. Now, it seems, the plant will close for good after March.
The Rust Belt Bellwether
In 2016, as candidate Trump barnstormed across the U.S., Trumbull County became a key battleground in the race to win the bellwether state of Ohio. Before Trump, a Republican hadn’t won there since Nixon in 1972. Despite Obama having won the county by 23 percent in 2012, Trump carried Trumbull by 6 percent in 2016. He became the first non-incumbent Republican to win the county since Herbert Hoover triumphed over Democrat Alfred Smith in 1928.
In January 2017, newly sworn-in President Trump gave a remarkably grim inaugural address (penned by Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller) to a still-stunned nation. He predictably bloviated about his election, driven by what he called “a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before.” However, Trump also potently described ugly truths that Washington politicos dutifully avoid — truths that have been often left unspoken since the “triumph” of neoliberalism and unfettered globalization.
Trump conjured visions of “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation,” as Washington’s old guard placidly looked on. “One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores,” he said, “with not even a thought about the millions upon millions of American workers left behind.” He called it “American carnage.”
Those words are made visible as you drive through Warren today. The empty, pockmarked buildings and sprawling, abandoned factories could serve as ready-made sets for “The Walking Dead” or just about any post-apocalyptic show or film. In 2012, RG Steel, the last fully integrated steel mill in the region, closed — taking more than 1,100 jobs with it. The mill’s old blast furnace, once the biggest in the country, unceremoniously came down in 2017. Most of the houses — and even entire streets — in the abutting neighborhood were abandoned or demolished years before.
Since 2000, Trumbull County, where Warren is situated, has lost 40 percent of its total payroll, or the equivalent of $1.7 billion. About 20,000 manufacturing jobs (two-thirds of the total) vanished in the county during that same time period.
Not surprisingly, the opioid crisis has hit the area with an equivalent force. Trumbull witnessed 215 non-lethal overdoses just in September 2017. The Ohio Department of Health recorded 135 unintentional overdose deaths for the county during the same year. All of this happened with only a population of a little more than 200,000.
More than 225,000 people called Trumbull home in 2000, and the population has only plummeted since then. The county lost about 5 percent of its population between 2010 and 2017 alone, and the Youngstown-Warren-Boardman metro area has consistently been at the bottom for population growth since the 1980s.
Things haven’t been much better for the state more broadly, which proved key in Trump’s 2016 victory and continues to symbolize his idea of “American carnage” today. In 1970, median household income in Ohio led the national rate by 9 percent. Today, the state lags the national rate by almost 11 percent. According to Policy Matters Ohio, by the time of the 2016 election, Ohio had lost 50 percent of its peak manufacturing jobs.
During the 1950s, the Buckeye State was known for its cities, often called “The eight that make Ohio great”: Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Toledo, Akron, Dayton, Canton and Youngstown. With the exception of Cincinnati and Columbus, the state capital, these are shrinking cities. “Few, if any, other states have as many cities that have lost population and jobs as Ohio, or as many cities in need of finding new economic engines,” urban policy experts Alan Mallach and Lavea Brachman write in a 2010 report for the Brookings Institution.
However, Trump does not fully acknowledge either the history of Ohio or its current unfortunate economic reality.
Lordstown and the Future of the Post-Industrial U.S.
When GM decided to discontinue production of the Chevrolet Cruze at Lordstown in November, many expected Trump to respond forcefully. After making vague threats to cancel the company’s subsidies, Trump ultimately told Fox News in a December interview that, “It doesn’t really matter because Ohio is under my leadership from a national standpoint; Ohio’s going to replace those jobs like in two minutes.”
Workers and the local community are attempting to save the Lordstown plant. United Autoworkers members hope that GM might allocate another product to Lordstown after their 2019 labor contract negotiations. But even if they’re successful, it’s quite possible the union will have to make painful wage and benefit concessions, including the introduction of another tier of wages, according to Dr. John Russo, retired director of Youngstown State University’s Center for Working Class Studies. “They’ll use the money to set up operations offshore, that means Mexico and China, where they’ve already made significant investments,” Russo told Truthout.
But, ultimately, what’s happened to Lordstown, the state of Ohio and many other towns and cities across the Midwest are beyond Trump’s ability to control. Historian and futurist Yuval Noah Harari writes that the stories we tell about ourselves — stories about religions, human rights and yes, nations — are part of the “mysterious glue that enables millions of humans to cooperatively effectively.” These are the types of myths (the free market, democracy, the “American Dream,” etc.) that allow large numbers of strangers to work together to make a nation.
The myths that we’ve constructed about the U.S. are increasingly being revealed as hollow. Trump’s election, ironically, is one result of the bankrupt cultural and economic narratives that once guided many Americans. Before he vowed to “make America great again,” Trump also declared that, “Sadly, the American Dream is dead.” It’s impossible to imagine any politician uttering such words, but the moment passed without much comment. In the land of American carnage, it was old news. The free market doesn’t take prisoners; it has no use for sentimental notions of community or place.
What, if any, new myths will guide the broken and forgotten towns that lie scattered across the country? What will become of a U.S. that consigns its old industrial heartland to the dustbin of history? The “forgotten men and women” of the U.S. await an answer.