Donald Trump campaigned in 2016 on remaking Michigan manufacturing. Did he deliver?

Todd Spangler, Detroit Free Press
·12 min read

President Donald Trump ran for election in 2016 on a promise to restore and protect manufacturing jobs across the U.S. and nowhere did he make that guarantee more fervently than in Michigan, where he said he'd take bold action if necessary to remake the state's predominant auto industry.

Four years later, however, there is not much doubt that he and his administration have failed to take significant steps to make Michigan — as he said at a rally in Sterling Heights the weekend before the 2016 election — "the manufacturing hub of the world once again."

Even before a recession spurred by COVID-19 took hold this year, it was clear that earlier job and wage gains seen in Michigan were slowing, despite the president's continued claims that he had helped create "the best economy ever seen."

Since then, it's gotten far, far worse, with some 272,000 fewer people working in the state in September compared with a year ago and the unemployment rate 5.4 percentage points higher despite the recovery being well underway.

A vehicle is shown supporting Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich. on Sept. 13, 2016.
A vehicle is shown supporting Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich. on Sept. 13, 2016.

The administration's handling – or mishandling, as many of the president's critics believe – of the pandemic may be the most important challenge he faces in his reelection bid. But his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, and the Democrats are already trying to use the slowdown in manufacturing against him, while Trump is hitting Biden for his vote as a senator more than a quarter century ago for the North American Free Trade Agreement, which many believe caused the state to lose jobs, though Biden had supported reworking the deal.

There's nothing unusual about inflamed political rhetoric. But Trump's 2016 argument for winning in the industrial Midwest was almost entirely about reversing what he described as decades of bad trade agreements overnight and his ability to force new deals on trading partners that would revitalize manufacturing, a broad sector of the economy that covers making everything from cars and trucks to boats, chemicals, paper products, furniture, aerospace equipment and more.

Now, with Trump running for reelection, that record is on the line, especially with Biden running on a labor-friendly message and a claim he can help create 1 million new auto or auto-related jobs by hastening already emerging growth in electric and electric-hybrid vehicles.

Trump can certainly point to a strong, if volatile, stock market that had gained 43% as of Friday. But that's no better than on par with the gains seen during President Barack Obama's second term in office. Meanwhile:

  • Manufacturing in Michigan has been down sharply since the pandemic hit in March but even before that, it had only grown slightly, by about 1%, compared with a much larger growth of nearly 15% during Obama's second term.

  • Auto and auto parts manufacturers in Michigan employed about 2,400 fewer people as of February of this year, before the pandemic, compared with when Trump took office in January 2017.

  • While overall wages in Michigan since 2016 were up by about 9% as of May 2019 — the most recent date wage estimates were reported by federal analysts — compared with to about 2% under Obama's last three years, growth among production workers' wages has actually slowed from 6% under Obama to 3% during Trump's term. And it's not yet known how far that has fallen in the recent recession.

Sean Crawford.
Sean Crawford.

"(With Trump) it's pretty much just been a continuation of the same economic atmosphere we had under the Obama administration," said Sean Crawford, a 38-year-old materials driver at Flint Truck Assembly who has worked for General Motors since 2008 and who discounts Trump's talk of helping workers as "symbolic window-dressing." In recent years, he has seen GM's Lordstown, Ohio, plant shuttered, final production of the Blazer moved to Mexico and some functions at other plants outsourced to third-party vendors. "I'm not saying Trump specifically is responsible but his policies haven't been friendly toward labor."

Gains uneven despite some successes

That's not to say Trump hasn't had some victories.

As promised, his administration renegotiated NAFTA, though Democrats in Congress had a strong hand in the final product, and it is far from clear just how large an effect the changes made in requiring more auto content produced by workers making above $16 an hour — which should shift some work away from Mexico and back into the U.S. — will have for U.S. autoworkers in the years to come.

Meanwhile, two new major assembly facilities have been announced since Trump took office in January 2017, a Jeep plant on Detroit's east side and, last month, Ford said it would build a $700 million plant at its Rouge complex to make the all-electric F-150 truck. General Motors has announced it's investing $150 million in its existing Michigan plants.

But Trump on the campaign trail repeatedly misrepresents the magnitude of new facilities and ignores setbacks such as a 40-day strike that rocked GM last year and the idling of several plants nationwide, including Warren transmission.

And a large percentage of vehicles sold in the U.S. still clearly come from, or have content originating from, outside the country. A look at statistics compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration each year indicates that among the Detroit-based automakers, General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler (or FCA), the average percentage of U.S.-Canadian content in their product lineups went down — not up — since Trump took office in 2017.

There are varied reasons for that, as automakers shift product lineups in a globally connected supply chain and react to a long-predicted slowdown. But that doesn't change the promises Trump has made and continues to make. In a speech accepting his reelection nomination on Aug. 27, he said, "Over the next four years, we will make America into the manufacturing superpower of the world," reiterating the message from the last campaign.

And while Trump can legitimately claim that the Dow Jones Industrial Average — a list of stocks that has come to represent the strength of American investments — has continued to rise, that doesn't benefit everyone. Not all Americans have stocks, with some surveys showing the figure without them approaching almost half of families — with the greatest number of those without in the lowest income brackets.

Neither Michigan nor the U.S. has seen any economy-changing resurgence in manufacturing jobs, despite gains in some other parts of the country prior to COVID.

General Motors announced the closing of GM Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant on Nov. 26, 2018. GM also announced the closing of two other assembly plants, one in Lordstown, Ohio and one in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada.
General Motors announced the closing of GM Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant on Nov. 26, 2018. GM also announced the closing of two other assembly plants, one in Lordstown, Ohio and one in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada.

Domestic automakers General Motors, Ford and FCA saw slowdowns in 2019 that, in several cases, led plants to be closed. Even before the pandemic, Michigan saw trade-related job losses more than double from 2017-19 compared with 2014-16. The 40-day national strike by the UAW of GM went ahead in 2019 with Trump saying little more than that he was "sad" about it, despite having touted himself as an expert deal-maker and ally of autoworkers.

Meanwhile, the trade deficit between U.S. imports versus exports in autos and auto parts grew from about $196.5 billion in 2016, the last full year of Obama's term, to about $209 billion in 2019. A long-threatened 25% tariff on imported autos and auto parts — sparked by dubious claim that imports threaten national security — has been shelved for more than a year with questions about whether it would do more harm than good and whether the president even has the legal authority to resurrect it.

Some Michigan autoworkers say the problem isn't with Trump, but with opponents in the Democratic Party or even among other Republicans.

"He has tried to get things done and there are forces ... blatantly trying to undermine his efforts," said John McIntosh, 58, who works on the design staff at GM's Technical Center Warren. "That's why some people might believe he hasn't gotten through with everything he's promised. I assure you it's not because of a lack of effort on his part."

John McIntosh.
John McIntosh.

The president's party, however, controlled both chambers of Congress for the first two years of his term, suggesting it should have been an easier lift to get things done, as it was in the case of a 2017 tax cut that reduced rates for corporations and wage-earners, especially those in higher income brackets. But in many areas, such as infrastructure, little has changed, and there are arguments to be made that several of his actions — from sparking a trade war with China to overselling his ability to make deals that would guarantee more jobs for manufacturers — have had little effect, if not a negative one, to date. Late last year, the New York Times reported that job growth had slowed in Michigan and some other states most directly linked with Trump's election amid Trump's trade wars.

Here's a look at some of Trump's promises and what the economic data shows for Michigan:

No major upswing in manufacturing jobs

There's no question that Trump went into the 2016 campaign with Michigan and manufacturing — specifically automaking — on his mind. Early on, he chastised Ford for moving production to Mexico and in the weeks leading up to the election he said he had plans to return the U.S. to its former manufacturing might.

"My plan includes a pledge to restore manufacturing in the United States. We are going to start making things again," he said at a Halloween rally in Grand Rapids that year. A few days later, on Nov. 6, he told a packed audience at Freedom Hill Amphitheater in Sterling Heights he would make Michigan "the manufacturing hub of the world once again," repeating it several times.

He went on to win Michigan by just two-tenths of 1%, beating Hillary Clinton by less than 11,000 votes. And Trump has said again and again that it was his promises to workers that turned the trick.

President-elect Donald Trump waves to the crowd as he arrives onstage at the DeltaPlex Arena, December 9, 2016, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. President-elect Donald Trump is continuing his victory tour across the country.
President-elect Donald Trump waves to the crowd as he arrives onstage at the DeltaPlex Arena, December 9, 2016, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. President-elect Donald Trump is continuing his victory tour across the country.

The U.S. has — or had, prior to the onslaught of COVID-19 — created manufacturing jobs, without question: In February, national manufacturing employment was 12.85 million, up about 3.9%, or 483,000 jobs from the 12.37 million figure when Trump took office in January 2017.

But that February figure was still down slightly from where it had been, at 12.87 million, near the end of 2019. And while that overall increase by February 2020 was better than the 3.2% increase, or about 386,000 manufacturing jobs, Obama saw created over his second term, the difference wouldn't suggest a massive resurgence.

Meanwhile, in the last eight months, manufacturing has dropped precipitously. As of last month, it was at 12.2 million nationally, a loss of 164,000 jobs — or about 1.3% — compared with towhen Trump took office.

Michigan did better under Obama's second term

When Trump took office, there were about 617,100 Michigan workers in the manufacturing sector, including autos and auto parts, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which tracks employment data. That number would grow to 634,200 by December 2018, before falling by February of this year to 623,700. That amounts to growth over the president's first term of 6,600 jobs, or about 1%.

Compare that with Obama's second term, however, when Michigan manufacturing grew by nearly 78,600 jobs, or nearly 14.6%.

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Not that either can compare their numbers to what they used to be: Twenty years ago, about 890,000 Michiganders worked in manufacturing and various forces — global supply chains, competition, technological advances and productivity gains — have all had a role in reducing that number.

"The unhappy fact is that it wasn't like we were having this great big comeback," said John Austin, director of the Ann Arbor-based Michigan Economic Center, which researches the state's economic future and coordinates with policy leaders on potential changes and outcomes. "Certainly during Trump's tenure, Michigan hasn't been helped."

Austin has also written that Michigan's reliance on manufacturing and the global forces that have buffeted that industry in recent decades make it potentially even more susceptible to "deeper and extended economic impacts" from any long-term economic slowdown caused by coronavirus.

Auto jobs in Michigan have stalled too

What's true for manufacturing overall generally holds for auto manufacturing jobs in Michigan as well. As of February, motor vehicle manufacturers' employed 40,300, down from the 42,300 when Trump took office. Auto parts employment, a larger sector, was at 131,500, down slightly from 131,900 in January 2017. Both, however, rose dramatically during Obama's second term.

Kristin Dziczek, vice president of industry, labor & economics at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor said Michigan's auto industry "had a strong recovery through about 2017 and then it kind of started to level off." During the strike, she said employment fell, then recovered. But because of global forces, trade issues, cyclical slowdowns and the pace of investment — which tends to ramp up in years when workers contracts are being negotiated then drop until the next one — "It didn't recover all the way."

Then, the pandemic hit, and although plants are largely reopened — or were fitted to make ventilators or other equipment — employment is still well down on lagging demand. Auto and auto parts manufacturing together employed 156,000 in the state in August, the most recent figure put out by BLS. That's down from 169,100 in March but up from the nadir of 89,400 jobs in April.

Any additional shocks caused by COVID-19 in Michigan or anywhere else could send that number falling again, however. "You need healthy workers, healthy demand and healthy supply chains," Dziczek said, rattling off the lessons taught by COVID-19. "(They) are all connected."

Contact Todd Spangler: tspangler@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @tsspangler.

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION IMAGES: Getty Images; AFP

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Donald Trump failed to remake Michigan economy as promised in 2016