Wchicken Donald Trump won office in 2016, it was not clear from the start who would take credit or blame for the election of a reality TV star to the US presidency.
While Democrats including Hillary Clinton initially focused its fire on Russian disinformation and the role of conspiracies on social media, others pointed to a different phenomenon: the blushing of The rust beltthe heart of America’s manufacturing power.
It was here that progressives and Maga Republicans diagnosed the same problem: an entire region, scorned once too often by the closing of massive plants and the resulting regional economic collapses that followed, had turned against the one politician unwilling to dismiss them as “overflight country” – Donald Trump. Even Democrats find themselves acknowledging that Trump successfully painted himself as a hero of America’s working class, and particularly a hero of the kind of union workers whose families had voted Democrat for years, perhaps even decades.
It was the embarrassed anger that was evident when progressives and even some centrist Democrats noted that the Clinton campaign had failed to reach out and campaign with unions in Michigan, or worse, didn’t even show up at all in Wisconsin. After 2016, the question for the left was clear: Had the Democratic Party sacrificed its connection to the working class, and especially to the unions, in favor of chasing the suburban Republicans and independents they were banking on being turned off by Donald Trump’s caustic rhetoric?
For progressives, the answer continues to be yes. Late Bernie Sanderswrites the progressive insurgency that gave Clinton a run for her money in the 2016 primaries, in her new book It’s OK to be angry at capitalismpublished this week, that Trump was able to capture these voters from Clinton without pushing policies that actually benefited them.
“Look, you can’t just go around to rich people’s homes to raise money and expect to win elections,” he said in a scathing 2017 interview about Clinton’s strategy. “You have to go out and mix it up and be with regular people.”
It was the attempt to “mix it up with regular people” that turned the odds back Joe Bidens favor in 2020. There were still clear problems reconstructing the so-called “blue wall” that had long existed for Democrats in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, but some signs pointed to at least a rebound in that area.
Joe Biden won 57 percent of union households in 2020, nearly double the margin by which Hillary Clinton won them over Trump in 2016. That’s a clear advantage going into these states, but not enough to assert the kind of dominance his party relied on in the past.
He still failed to capture Ohio, once a solid purple state but now turning deeper red as the state’s blue-collar areas fume over the continued decline of America’s manufacturing while suburban GOPers chafe over other issues like Covid guidelines and culture war issues. Nevertheless, he recaptured Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin; all three states delivered victories for Mr. Biden thanks to back-to-back successes in turning some union households back blue while voter turnout increased in urban areas in a way it simply didn’t in 2016.
This week, the president faces another test in the Rust Belt: growing anger over a shocking freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, that has sent a plume of black smoke billowing into the sky for days. Hazardous chemicals aboard the train, which the EPA said Tuesday would require train operator Norfolk Southern to cover the cleanup, have led to fears from residents about contaminated groundwater and other serious environmental and public health problems.
Reports of dead pets and health problems arising from the crash abound on social media as residents question whether state and federal officials are acting quickly enough. EPA chief Michael Regan went to the region this week, but now Biden faces the same accusation of forgetting the “flyover country” after he made a surprise visit to Kiev, Ukraine this week before he or Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg had visited the affected region of the crash.
Those frustrations were summed up by East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway, who delivered a message that echoed the frustrations many residents have directed at Washington for years.
“It was the biggest slap in the face,” he said on Fox News. “That tells you right now he doesn’t care about us.”
Residents of the Lordstown, Ohio area spoke to The independent 2022 in the middle of the crucial Senate race between a man handpicked by Donald Trump as his running mate and Tim Ryan, a Democrat who tried to paint himself as a lone wolf in his own party who bucked the directives of party leaders from coastal regions — at the time, most notably, then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Interviews revealed respect for Mr. Ryan’s efforts to separate himself from his own party but a clear sense from voters on both sides that the Democratic Party had abandoned the state and, more importantly, the American union worker.
“(Democratic Sen.) Sherrod Brown knew for nine months that (the Lordstown plant) was going to close, and he chose to remain silent,” said one Republican constituent, John Pleva The independent in September. “We don’t need any more help like that.”
He and others spoke of the devastation that followed GM’s withdrawal. The end of well-paying union jobs for even a few thousand of the city’s residents, as the largest employer, devastated businesses in a wide range of sectors.
“These people had mortgages. They had IRAs,” Mr. Pleva said, frustration evident as he spoke of downtown Youngstown. “They had a lot of stuff … a lot of them lost their homes … it was like a torpedo went off.”
“The buildings are still there, but they are shells.”