Call it the revenge of the Rust Belt, a clear message from the little people of the industrial Midwest who now are impossible to ignore.
You could see it in the red states paving Donald Trump’s electoral college path through the heartland to the presidency. You could hear it in his promise to represent the “forgotten” men and women left behind by globalization and trade, in the sense that the economic rules animating the bipartisan governing consensus of the past generation are about to change.
That’s easier said than done, of course. Still, Trump’s economic nationalism and the kind of crossover appeal that won him a presidential election could have meaningful implications for manufacturers, for unions, for working stiffs who work hard and play by the rules, as Bill Clinton frequently said.
It could bolster the United Auto Workers’ case to hire more Americans to make cars and trucks in their own country. And it could put Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. on a collision course with a president-elect deeply critical of their plans to build more vehicles in Mexico because the rigors of global competition are said to require it.
Whether Trump can make good on his vow to punish Ford’s South-of-the-Border move with large tariffs remains to be seen. So does his excessive self-confidence that his jawboning could, by itself, reverse the trends of a global economy and repatriate the kind of jobs fit for workers without college educations.
Good luck with that. But his improbable victory — and Republican control of both houses of Congress — ensures he would possess the legislative leverage to reshape a trade consensus signed into law 22 years ago by Bill Clinton and pushed by President Barack Obama’s embrace of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Should he and Republican lawmakers deliver on the promise to improve trade deals and create jobs for Americans in the heart of U.S. industry, Trump could paint enough of the so-called “Blue Wall” red to loosen the traditional Democratic hold on the Midwest. Emphasis on the word “could.”
“That’s the most incredible political feat I have seen in my lifetime,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, said Wednesday. “Donald Trump heard a voice out in the country that no one else heard.”
Yes, he did. Folks in flyover country have been voicing nearly identical laments for years, only to see plants close, jobs lost, lives disrupted, whole communities with names like Flint and Pontiac slowly impoverished.
They were largely ignored, their predicament understood by few outside the heartland bubble — especially by the coastal elites dead certain that Hillary Clinton and her allies on Wall Street and in Hollywood would prevail easily over a blue-collar billionaire named Trump.
“We are feeling so great,” former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Clinton surrogate, told MSNBC on Election Day morning. “In fact, if I were feeling any more great about this election, they’d have to arrest me. The juju, the positive energy that we are feeling, is just terrific. I don’t know, we’re feeling pretty good — not overconfident, of course.”
Of course. Now does the heartland have your attention?
The stunned faces early Wednesday, the hushed tones on the MSNBC set, suggested the arrival of an electoral tsunami no one saw coming — not big media or big data, not the political pros or the true believers. But this smackdown had been telegraphed for at least six years, a culmination of frustration fueled by relentless condescension and dismissal.
In 2010, outrage over the Affordable Care Act passed by Congress without a single Republican vote unleashed an electoral red wave that turned the reliably blue industrial heartland Republican. In Michigan and Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Indiana and even the U.S. House of Representatives.
In 2014, voters delivered the U.S. Senate to Republicans with the assignment to slow the Obama agenda and confront the unintended consequences of Obamacare. Results were decidedly mixed, in part because Republicans did not command a veto-proof majority against a president willing to wield the veto.
In 2016, the message was delivered ... loud and clear. It’s a stunning rebuke of “The Establishment” in both parties, of the news media and their polling outfits, of the Obama legacy, and of the allegedly smart people who don’t know what they don’t know about life and work in the middle of the country.
Remember, the heartlanders who delivered the presidency to Trump witnessed the worst of the global financial meltdown — the foreclosures and disappearing 401(k)s, the plant closures and federal bailouts of two Detroit automakers, the cutbacks in people and products, the sanctimonious sermons from members of Congress.
They lived the dislocation, saw the decline and decampment of vital industries. They grew more angry as the political class appeared always ready to take care of themselves, not the people they’re elected to represent.
They think this guy Trump is different, more fighter than talker. Now they’re going to find out who’s right — them or the smart people who declared Trump’s candidacy a national joke. Who’s laughing now?
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.