In one of his interminable soliloquies of the past few days, billionaire Republican Donald Trump voiced a recurring sentiment of the traveling presidential horde:
“I’ll get Michigan because we’re going to get the car industry back.”
He got Michigan, despite thin understanding of the core industry that shaped the state’s past and arguably is reshaping its future. Now he’s training his celebrity-driven campaign on Ohio, another automotive hotbed whose common-sense people should ask what he means by “get the car industry back.”
Has The Donald been paying attention the past seven years? (Don’t answer that.) Have Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, his would-be Democratic rivals caught in a generation-old time warp? Has the national media, quick to recycle during coverage of the Michigan primary old tropes about Detroit more current in, say, the darkest days of 2009 (or 1979) than today?
Short answer: no, because the reality of a recovering Michigan — with a 4.9 percent unemployment rate, the lowest since 2001, and a robust auto industry — confounds a narrative straining to assume Detroit will be forever on its back, Michigan will be forever on its knees and its auto industry will forever be lagging the competition.
Facts can be stubborn things, to paraphrase John Adams. That can be especially true in the drive-by world of partisan politicking and the media mirror reflecting it. Who needs understanding when caricature suffices in the presidential echo chamber?
“These guys don’t seem to understand where the industry really is right now,” a United Auto Workers official rightly groused Wednesday. “We’ve got record profits, the companies are lean, they’re building great products.”
The frustration is hardly unique. The strongest North American earnings in 15 years, coupled with dramatically lower break-even points ensuring profitability in all but the most savage recessions, are not buoying the share prices of General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co., either.
Nor are efforts to engage mighty Silicon Valley in a pitched battle for advantage in the advanced infotainment and mobility spaces being pursued as much by Apple and Google as Detroit’s automakers. Potential believers remain doubters.
The industry apparently in need of rescuing, circa 2016, posted an all-time sales record in the United States last year, created tens of thousands of jobs since the global financial meltdown-turned-bankruptcy embarrassment, and cut record profit-sharing checks to hourly workers.
“Back” to what, exactly? Yes, let’s go back to the days of mediocre products, especially cars, that essentially invited foreign rivals like Toyota Motor Corp. into Kentucky, Honda Motor Co. into Ohio, and Nissan Motor Corp. into Tennessee.
Or back to too many people staffing too many plants consuming way too much capital, models of inefficient labor and inefficient investment since rectified by the crucibles of ignominy and restructuring. Or back to clueless senior executives and strident labor leaders who acted in, say, the early 2000s as if Detroit’s Golden Age still reigned — when it clearly did not.
This patch of the country can’t win. Collapse into the desperation of bailout and bankruptcy and you invite serial vivisection of your business, your culture and your mistakes by Congress and the White House; sweeping condemnation from investors and customers; back-channel griping from competitors who “didn’t take the money” injected by the U.S. Treasury at the behest of the Obama administration.
Or seize your second chance with gusto by revising your product line, tightening financial decision-making, winnowing brands, sharpening their perception and exiting unprofitable foreign markets. The result: more sad-sack pity, leavened with condescension, from the presidential circus.
The truth is that however much the likes of GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV are redoubling investments in Mexico, they’re investing far more in the United States and creating far more jobs. They’re allocating product where they can most maximize — gasp! — profit, arguably benefiting employees as much as shareholders.
Last August, when Trump’s candidacy seemed more novelty than front-runner, he criticized Ford’s plans to finance a $2.5 billion expansion of its Mexican operations and threatened to impose a 35-percent tariff on Ford-brand cars built south of the border and imported into the States.
He also, in a yuge misunderstanding of the industry, suggested the best way to make American automakers competitive again would be to move Michigan’s union auto jobs to lower cost, non-union plants in the South. Some way to “get the car industry back.”
Here’s a suggestion: instead of trading cheap shots about who supported the auto bailout and who didn’t; instead of second-guessing plant investments and product allocations, the people passing through Michigan on the way to the presidency, and the media following them, should stop and learn.
This is not the auto industry of Walter Reuther and Henry Ford II, and it never will be again. Get over it. Nor is it the industrial hulk slumping toward collapse seven years ago, or a city forever mired in its own dysfunction, genetically incapable of governing itself.
It’s a story of American redemption with lessons, good and bad, that the country and its would-be leaders should try to understand — if they could summon the humility to bother.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.