FLINT, Mich. — A few hours before Donald Trump’s plane landed, 20 minutes south of where he would speak, people gathered outside the Flint Assembly Plant to take a peek into the past. Some of them were retired, reuniting with friends. All of them remembered how there used to be more to the place.
“I worked at Plant 36,” said Jerry Hubbard, who retired in 2001, after outlasting his part of the vast “Buick City” complex that was dismantled as the auto jobs left. “It’s all gone. It’s all limestone. You can’t rape a place like that. General Motors jobs made this place.”
Only one presidential candidate seemed to care: Donald Trump. “A lot of what he says hits a chord with me,” said Hubbard. “Immigration and jobs going to China — this area’s really suffered from that. I just like somebody that stands up for what he speaks about.”
Trump’s rise and persistence as a presidential candidate has been credited to name recognition, to voter anger and to a specific contempt for the Republican Party establishment. But he is also the candidate talking most directly about the loss of manufacturing jobs to foreign countries.
In the Democratic race, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has adopted a similar theme, but Trump’s appeal here captured something that went beyond policy: a brew of impossible nostalgia coupled with a pledge to destroy other countries, most notably China, in negotiations. On Twitter, “Make America Great Again” is a goofy, meme-ready slogan, best displayed on ironic hats. There are places, such as Michigan, where it makes real sense.
That was on full display at a rollicking news conference and campaign rally where Trump again and again attacked “stupid” American leaders who were buffaloed by “cunning” Mexican and Chinese politicians.
Flint and Saginaw, the cities south and north of Trump’s speech on Tuesday, had voted for Democrats — Democrats who were trying to bring new businesses and infrastructure on the brownfields abandoned by big employers. And then came Trump, promising the moon and stars.
“Obviously, he’s saying things that are popular,” said Rep. Dan Kildee, the Democrat who represents Flint and a swath of cities and small towns north around Lake Huron. “We need to be able to fight against currency manipulation with all the tools against us.”
Gerald Woodruff, 65, had come to the open house with two missions. One: To see how the factory that had made vans and sedans had been downsized and repurposed to build trucks. Two: To see the Walter P. Reuther award, named for the iconic president of the United Auto Workers, that had been installed in honor of Woodruff’s father. He walked up to the UAW Local 598 office, which was closed for the celebration, although a sign was planted outside:
“Foreign made automobiles are not welcome here and may be towed away at the owners expense. Buy Union Buy American”
Woodruff, a sometimes Republican, was impressed by Trump. “I watched the debate,” he said. “Fox singled him out in that opening question. They said they asked hard questions of all the candidates, but they went after him because he’s touching a nerve. If Republicans can capitalize on that, they’ll do pretty good.”
What nerve was he touching, exactly?
“I think it’s wrong for an American business to move their business out of the United States to keep from paying taxes, but keep us as a marketplace,” Woodruff answered.
Nearly 3,000 people came to see Trump in Birch Run. Some of them had been there for the worst times. “I remember my dad in the late 1970s,” said Holly Gaul, 58. “He was a journeyman electrician. With the things at the time that were going on with GM, he knew his profession was going to be gone. And it was.”
There were jobs, sure, but not the kind people could live on. “Women my age are taking the McDonald’s jobs that the high school kids used to get,” Gaul said. “I’ve been waiting for a stronger president, somebody that I could look up to and respect again. He could stand up to those other countries. It’s wrong when they can build furniture in China and ship it here cheaper than it costs us to build it here.”
“Back when our economy took a dump, I had to go to Afghanistan,” said Bob Parsons, 51. “I had to work there as a product relations manager, just to build our retirement back up. There were no jobs in Michigan to be had. They’re not fair to what’s coming over, as far as the trade goes. For example, 100,000 cars come over here; 5,000 go over there. I like what he says: If they don’t let us send them there, we don’t take their stuff.”
Parsons’s wife, Brenda, who’d been nodding her head, interjected to explain why she trusted Trump.
“He’s a businessman,” she said. “Being a businessman, he knows the ways around. I don’t think he’d go to Congress and ask. I think he’d just do it.”
Bob Parsons explained that Trump could ignore lobbyists. It was lobbyists, hungry to sell out America for a buck, who weakened the trade deals, he said.
“You wouldn’t believe how many young kids I met in Afghanistan who have their degrees but can’t find jobs at home,” he said. “I compare Donald Trump to Ronald Reagan. He lets people know what he’s going to do, not what to ask for.”
When he hit the stage, Trump delivered. He went after China. He played out one of his favorite scenarios, in which he works the Oval Office phones, ignoring the president of Ford – and his lobbyists – and wages tax war on his company for shipping jobs to Mexico.
“Ford is building a $2.5 billion plant in Mexico,” he said.
The crowd responded: “Booooo!”
“I’ll actually give them a good idea. Why don’t we just let the illegals drive the cars and trucks right into our country?”
And the crowd responded: “Yaaaaaay!”
“I would say, the deal is not going to be approved, I won’t allow it. I want that plant in the United States, preferably here. So then I only have one question: Do they move the plant to the United States the same day or a day later?”
The crowd burst into fresh applause.
One woman could be heard shouting: “Detroit!”
The next morning, like most every morning, students and job seekers filled the parking lot shared by Mott Community College and the Michigan Works job service center. A group of GED students stood near a gazebo, killing time. Calvin Munerlyn, 39, laid out his résumé.
“Four-time father,” he said. “School by day, bouncer at night. Kick ass and get paid for it. Can’t ask for more.”
DeAndre Cummings, 28, described how he had set up a job at Head Start and evaded “one of the fast-food jobs” that were too easy to settle for. Lisa Hammel, a 34-year-old who was trying to become a nurse after escaping an obsessive husband, explained matter-of-factly that China’s unfair practices had shifted away good jobs.
“They’ve got lower safety standards,” she said. “You know, the toys with lead paint.”
Hammel was the trio’s lone Trump enthusiast. The mention of the Republican’s name caused howls and heckles even from people standing nearby who were pretending not to listen. “He’s got good business skills,” she said. “I think he can fix the economy.”
“He’s a Republican!” laughed Cummings.
Republicans seemed to run everything outside of Flint. They were the handy reason why President Barack Obama had disappointed people; they were the people elected in 2010 to restructure Michigan’s economy. Gov. Rick Snyder, who became wealthy as a computer company executive, had never sought office before that year. In an interview, he tried to be polite about Trump.
“We have a broken political culture,” he said. “I’m upfront about that.” And despite it, Michigan was marching out of the recession with new manufacturing jobs. The one-industry towns like Flint were diversifying. People understood that they could no longer walk out of high school and start a career, so they were getting trained, he said.
“That could happen in high school, through career training,” Snyder said. “We need to redefine skilled trades as being much broader than what they’ve been. If you’re a welder, you can get a job in any corner of this state.”
Snyder’s calm, optimistic theory of the case is shared by some of the GOP presidential candidates. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, like Snyder, signed a right-to-work bill, which was, among other things, a declaration that organized labor would not build the new economy. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has framed the election as a lunge toward the future, away from longing for jobs that no longer make sense. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s “right to rise” concept assumes more legal immigrants sharing a country with native-born Americans, as does Snyder.
“On average,” Snyder said of immigrants, “they create 2 1/2 jobs for every position they hold.”
That’s what people say. At lunchtime on Wednesday, there was only a small crowd at the Wooden Kettle, a bar and restaurant near Flint Assembly. It was dollar beer day – domestics only – and the clientele was divided between people getting a burger in before the next shift and the people who started coming when the bar opened 47 years back. The TVs were tuned to a Detroit Tigers game and a Ronda Rousey UFC match that some of the retirees critiqued in great detail.
Jim Coffman, 65, sipped a beer and said that Trump had “jumped off the deep end on a lot of things.”
Still, he was curious. There were things Trump said that made sense.
“I do like the idea of not worrying about being politically correct,” Coffman said. “We need to tariff the people that import and take advantage of us. We need to say so.”
“When are you gonna get rid of the bricks?” someone asked the mayor.
Dayne Walling, 41, laughed. No one was going to get rid of the bricks that make up the downtown stretch of Flint’s Saginaw Street. By Wednesday afternoon, the town was rerouting traffic for the friendly annual “Back to the Bricks” celebration. Vintage cars are invited to cruise downtown (before the 10 p.m. curfew) and to park where people could see them.
Walling cut the ribbon for the party and then walked downtown. He had grown up in Flint, moved back in 2006 with an armful of degrees, lost a race for mayor in 2007, run again and won the nonpartisan office in 2009.
“When I was a kid, Flint was already in crisis with the closure of General Motors,” he said over coffee. “My early memories of the community are of one struggling to revive and define itself. Those were the years that really shaped me.”
Chryslers and Pontiacs and T-Birds rolled by as Walling, a Democrat, described how fallacious Trump’s pitch was. Emotional, sure – but pointless.
“There’s a very strong ‘Made in the USA’ movement still in this area,” he said. “You’ll see bumper stickers that say: ‘Want to lose your job? Keep buying foreign.’ People understand that if there aren’t middle-class manufacturing jobs from American manufacturing companies, you end up with cheap foreign imports and low-paying service jobs.”
When his cup was empty, Walling got into his 2006 Chevy Impala, with 145,242 miles on the odometer and a Hillary Clinton sticker on the bumper. He navigated around the nostalgia party, past one old factory site that had been turned into townhouses, and into Buick City. The concrete stretched into the deep horizon, broken up by trees struggling through the cracks. Every once in a while, a small factory with a few hundred, or few dozen, employees jutted out.
“Flint’s plan is to add smaller companies that can take care of our workforce,” Walling said.
Trump’s pitch – the super-president personally yanking jobs back into the United States, into Michigan – is more romantic than any of this. And it’s not completely wrong. Walling’s been waiting for the federal government to create some version of “enterprise zones,” the tax-free areas meant to stimulate business in blighted cities. But nobody’s been saying it. There’s a gap in the politics as people understand them.
In the summer of 2015, it was being filled by Donald Trump.