We have failed American workers — that is why Trump won
March 12, 2017 12:00 AM
Susan Walsh/Associated Press
People wait for the arrival of President Donald Trump at his "Make America Great Again Rally" at Orlando-Melbourne International Airport in Melbourne, Fla., Saturday, Feb. 18, 2017.
By Larry E. Davis
Following the election of Donald Trump, I was a bit angry with the white working people who voted for him. I took the bait and felt them to be all racist and people who simply did not like people of color or anyone who was different. But I no longer believe that to be the case. For sure, some of the people who voted for Trump are bigots, but I have come to the conclusion that most were not. Most were simply people who wanted change. Unfortunately, Mr. Trump wrapped his campaign for change in racist rhetoric.
I am a university professor who has had some modest increase in my salary almost every year for the past 30 years. But if I had not had a raise in the past 20-30 years I would likely vote for whoever promised to give me one. This is, I believe, the foremost factor for Mr. Trump’s appeal to white blue-collar workers, not his being a racist. What he did by wrapping his message in racism and xenophobia was to give those who were having economic difficulties specific groups to blame.
Mr. Trump has promised to make America great again or essentially the industrial behemoth that it was in the 1950s. He promised to bring the blue-collar jobs back that were plentiful at that time. But those who believe he will bring back those jobs don’t really understand why those jobs disappeared in the first place. Moreover, even if we could somehow take American manufacturing back to the 1950s, the rest of the world’s manufacturers are certain not to go along with us.
We have failed the American workers; we never made sufficient efforts to educate them as to what has been happening in America and the world in the last 30 years. For fear of sounding unpatriotic and losing votes, neither party — Republicans nor Democrats — was willing to have a heart-to-heart with the American workers about economic changes taking place in the world. A democracy depends on an informed populace. But we never took sufficient steps to inform our workers about how much manufacturing in particular has changed since the 1950s and 1960s. Of course some minority of jobs may come back, but the vast majority will not, many simply no longer exist, others are done by robots, and still others now need fewer workers.
I’ve often thought that our country would have benefited greatly from a something akin to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fireside chats from our leaders. Instead, each political party wanted to out-promise the other on things they knew they could not deliver. I am from a small manufacturing town in Michigan that at one time had the largest iron foundry in the world. My mother worked there for 37 years. It, along with a host of other automotive plants, is now gone — there is just a grass field there now. Those plants are not coming back, nor are the jobs they provided.
What we’ve never had in this country is a really candid discussion of where those jobs went. When our country came out of World War II, we were, so to speak, the only game in town. We made virtually all the cars sold to Americans and to much of the world. This is far from the case today; the Germans, Japanese and Koreans all now have a significant share of the American and global car market. Many of us who complain about the loss of our manufacturing jobs drive cars made out of the United States.
As a country we have had 30 years to educate our workers about work force changes in the both America and the world, but we have largely failed to do so. I understand nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news. But the end result is that many are now looking within the country for someone to blame for our loss of manufacturing jobs.
Of course educational fireside chats would not by themselves have restored the jobs, but neither will telling our workers to hate others.
The overwhelming number of jobs that left the country did not occur because company owners wanted to “take American jobs,” but instead they were trying to increase their profits. We need not fault Mr. Trump and others like him for having virtually all of their manufacturing done out of the country. Their goal was not to punish American workers, but instead to increase their economic returns.
What we are seeing is capitalism at work. We might ask ourselves if we owned a company and our goal was to make a profit, why would we pay someone $20 an hour to make a garment when we can have it made in some poor country for $2 an hour. Too many American workers are insufficiently aware of this simple fact. The American slave trade, as egregious as it was, was in some respects an example of this phenomenon; in this instance the work force was brought to the job (plantations). Today, the job (machinery) is taken to the work force. But the motive for moving people or jobs is the same in both instances — to make a profit. If we make a concerted effort of explaining to our work force what is actually taking place, we would have less racial animosity and inter-group hostility in the country.
In short, turning us against ourselves won’t improve the economy. We instead need to get busy retooling and educating our work force so as to perform the new jobs that are being created. We need to be honest with U.S. workers about how both America and the world have changed. Hate won’t create jobs.
Larry E. Davis is dean of the School of Social Work, Donald M. Henderson Professor and director of the Center on Race and Social Problems at the University of Pittsburgh (firstname.lastname@example.org). His most recent book is “Why Are They Angry with Us? Essays on Race.”
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
email@example.com and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.