Since last November’s US presidential election there has been much media talk about the fact that the so-called Rustbelt, the name given to what’s left of America’s once-booming region of industry, delivered Donald Trump his historic victory.
Almost ten years ago Noam Chomsky published an essay – Rustbelt Rage – in which he warned that while it might be “easy to ridicule” the predominantly uneducated white men and women of the Rustbelt, it is far more important that we attempt to understand their grievances.
He said, back in 2010, that the inhabitants of the Rustbelt were “being mobilised in ways that pose no slight danger to themselves and to others.” He warned against underestimating “the depth of moral indignation that lies behind the furious, often self-destructive bitterness about government and business power” that exists in the downtrodden region.
He argued that “the Tea Party movement–and even more so the broader circles it reaches–reflect the spirit of disenchantment” that has affected “individuals who have been cast aside” in America’s Rustbelt.
More recently (though still prior to the election), filmmaker Michael Moore published his 5 Reasons Why Trump Will Win. The first of the five reasons he provided, he called “Our Rustbelt Brexit.”
He argued that the Rustbelt region “from Green Bay to Pittsburgh” is like the pro-Brexit “middle of England”. Both regions, he said, are “broken, depressed and struggling”. Both are populated by “angry, embittered working (and nonworking) people who were lied to.”
Moore explains that Trump won largely because he did things like stand “in the shadow of a Ford Motor factory during the Michigan primary, [and] threaten the corporation that if they did indeed go ahead with their planned closure of that factory and move it to Mexico, he would slap a 35% tariff on any Mexican-built cars shipped back to the United States”. That, Moore said, “was sweet, sweet music to the ears of the working class of Michigan.”
Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, was never going to be popular in the Rustbelt. Her husband, former US President Bill Clinton, signed the infamous NAFTA deal which meant that the region haemorrhaged manufacturing jobs to Mexico. She herself was a strident supporter of further free trade deals including the TPP and TTIP – both of which would have inflicted further misery on the inhabitants of the Rustbelt.
The Rustbelt was so important in this election because it formed a crucial part of Hillary Clinton’s so-called ‘Blue Wall’. Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Iowa are all traditionally (or at least frequently) Democratic states. Between them they have 70 Electoral College votes. Had Clinton taken them all, she would have won 302 Electoral College votes to Trump’s 236 – enough to win her the White House.
It is important to remember exactly how it was that the Rustbelt got so rusty. Firstly, major free trade agreements (similar in scope and purpose to the controversial TTIP agreement) resulted in the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs to regions of the world with lower wages.
The quality of any jobs that were left, meanwhile, declined severely. The same free trade deals meant that American workers were competing with those in the developing world for work, with the result that American wages were forced downwards. At the same time, wealth-producing jobs in the area of manufacturing were replaced by lower-quality and more precarious wealth-consuming jobs in the services sector.
Technology was as much to blame as trade. Automation of the industrial process significantly reduced the need for workers. As if all this wasn’t enough, recent years have seen successive and (somewhat) successful attempts in the Rustbelt to pass anti-union legislation such as ‘Right-to-Work’ laws.
Essentially these laws allow non-union members in an organisation to benefit from gains won by the union. The overall aim is to weaken the resolve of workers to organise, making it easier to drive down terms and conditions of employment.
The overall picture that emerges is one wherein people who have lost everything but their vote decide to use that vote – the only tool they have left at their disposal – to punish the establishment they see as responsible for so much of their hardship.
As he takes the oath of office today we should reflect on the exploitative work patterns that have helped him into office, and ensure they don’t take root.