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A desperate gamble

“It’s a joke as far as I’m concerned.” George Carney paused to sip his beer. It was early in the afternoon on 3 August, 2016, at the Rock Island Boat Club, a little tavern behind a levee on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. The election was still three months away and the displaced factory worker, a two-time Obama voter, was mulling his options. “Hillary is a compulsive liar and Trump thinks this is a game show.”

The next day I spoke with Tracy Warner, whom I’ve known since 2002, the year when she and Carney learned that Maytag would shift refrigerator production, and their jobs, from Galesburg, Illinois, to Reynosa, Mexico. The final shuttering of the Illinois plant in 2004 marked the end of what was once a prosperous era; nearly 5,000 workers tinkered, brazed, and assembled in the factory in the 1970s, when the factory itself was known as “Appliance City.”

That August day Warner was putting up signs and balloons for a yard sale in nearby Monmouth, Illinois. As for the election, Warner was undecided. A straight-ticket Democrat until 2012, Warner was intrigued by Bernie Sanders, but questioned ideas like free college tuition. And she was turned off by Black Lives Matter and other groups on the Left that she saw as too radical and anti-American.

George Carney stands in the front of his house in Illinois. Photo by Chad Broughton. Used with permission.

Like Carney, Warner was flirting with the idea of voting for libertarian candidate Gary Johnson. Also like Carney, she had serious doubts about Trump. “He’s always making an ass of himself and doesn’t have the savvy to be president,” Warner said. “And he says weird stuff about his daughter.” She liked his bravado and the tough talk on trade, but, with a high-school-aged son, Warner worried that Trump would get the country entangled in another senseless war.

On election day, Warner settled on Trump while Carney voted for Johnson. Clinton simply was never an option for either of them. Even a mention of her name would set them off.

Carney, Warner, and others from that Maytag factory have endured a steady erosion of their standard of living since their layoffs. Consider what a decade of downward mobility would be like for a middle-aged parent. You’re unable to take your kids to Disney World. You cut back on Christmas gifts. You might feel like less of a role model. Incomes, for many, were cut in half. A dignified and secure retirement vanished. They had followed the American work-hard-and-play-by-the-rules blueprint and yet lost out. They were going in the wrong direction; therefore the country was going in the wrong direction. They felt forsaken by their union and by their party. “I got fooled by Obama twice,” Carney said. In 2016, they were willing to vote for someone they knew was unready and potentially dangerous.

The election results, as illustrated by this “Change from 2012” map, were striking: western Illinois, along with much of the rural Rust Belt, switched dramatically to red. Election postmortems (like this one) have attempted to explain why the white working class voted for Trump. Some claim that we are witnessing a massive long-term adjustment, a political realignment. Certainly, the election returns, and the ubiquitous coverage of his rowdy rallies since June 2015, suggest a working-class embrace of Trump.

In hindsight, Trump’s strategy to attract the working class seems brilliant. He hammered away constantly on trade and jobs, and still does. When he said “I am your voice” at the RNC convention last July, some heard Orwellian demagoguery. I heard a message that would resonate with voters in western Illinois who feel, as Trump said in that same speech, “ignored, neglected, and abandoned.”

A resonant message, however, should not be mistaken for enthusiasm at the polls. As this analysis of the Rust Belt indicates (here, the “Rust Belt” is Michigan, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ohio), exit-poll data reveal that Democrats lost many more white voters and low-income voters than Trump gained, and that over half a million sat out the election compared to 2012. Voters like Carney who left the Democrats were more than twice as likely either to vote third party or to stay at home than to vote for Trump in these states.

This was generally true of Knox County, where the longtime appliance factory once stood. Clinton earned 3,512 fewer votes than Obama (9,939 compared to 13,451, a decline of 26%) while Trump earned only 1,250 more than Romney (10,658 compared to 9,408, an increase of only 13%).

The critical question, then, is why Clinton was never an option for so many in the white working class. From what I’ve observed in western Illinois, there’s a simple answer, and George Carney said it best. “Clinton is big money. Democrats used to be more for working people. I don’t think that’s true anymore.”

Tracy Warner in front of her home in Illinois. Photo by Chad Broughton. Used with permission.

They spurned the party because it had spurned them.

Nearly two-thirds of American workers do not have a college degree. Their prospects are bleak, and they know it, but mainly they’re worried about their children and their retirements and they want a fix. Obama came to Galesburg time and time again. He used the 2004 Maytag closing to demonstrate that he felt folks’ pain and that he was on their side. By the end of Obama’s presidency, though, not much had changed in western Illinois, and his rock star sheen had faded. But at least he had shown up. Clinton was anchored to her husband, and he to NAFTA, a fact that is lost on no one in western Illinois. “They pushed NAFTA and made it sound so good,” Carney said. “NAFTA destroyed half the country.”

Most economists dismiss this kind of talk and point to their incontestable supply and demand curves. Some, like Harvard economist and New York Times columnist N. Gregory Mankiw, turn up their nose to any dissent on the benefits of free trade, blaming ignorance and ethnocentrism.

Dani Rodrik of the Harvard Kennedy School is a rare defector among economists. NAFTA produced, he writes, only tiny efficiency gains for the United States, but incurred devastating costs for workers (e.g., job losses, wage depression) and their communities. Economists ought not to stop there: “it’s a mistake to judge real-word trade agreements strictly on economic terms, rather than social or political ones.” Trade agreements can change the rules of the game through the back door and “undercut the social bargains struck within a nation.” In providing intellectual support for these agreements, Rodrik concludes, “the trade technocracy has opened the door to populists and demagogues on trade.”

The point here is that NAFTA is about much more than the tariffs, quotas, and the theoretical benefits of free trade of Econ 101. As this report shows, NAFTA was a policy hammer wielded by corporate America against Rust Belt workers and their unions. In the free trade era that began in the 1980s, Carney and Warner not only had to compete on wages and productivity with Mexican workers—they had to compete with workers who were and are oppressed. In my field research, I’ve seen firsthand how maquiladora workers in Mexico still lack freedom of association, health and safety protections, and other basic labor standards that workers fought for and won in places like Galesburg. That’s not free competition and it’s not fair trade.

Sure, rising productivity and automation are part of the deindustrialization story, but voters in western Illinois know it’s only one component of their economic and political disenfranchisement. They see it happening all around them. Nearby, in Hanover, Illinois, a profitable factory was closed and production sent to Mexico by private equity investors looking for a quick buck. It’s no wonder free-trade-as-practiced looks un-American in western Illinois.

Admittedly, it’s difficult to draw a straight causal arrow between a declining standard of living in western Illinois and international economic policy and trade deals—and their specific effects can be dramatically overstated by political opportunists like Trump. But workers in western Illinois see that something is desperately wrong, and has been for a long time. As such, NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership have unexpectedly become potent symbols, proxies for whose side you’re on in the increasingly lopsided fight between capital and labor.

Carney and Warner remain skeptical about the Republicans. “They’ve always been the party that was bought off,” Carney said. But they are especially embittered by the party that they feel has scorned them and went with the trade technocracy. Their support for Trump may be cynical and thin, but a renegade candidate with his middle finger waving in the air has its appeal.

Having lost so much, voters in western Illinois had little more to lose.

Featured image credit: California Zephyr at Galesburg Illinois by Loco Steve. CC-BY- 2.0 via Flickr.

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