Editorial: Did layoffs in steel mills lead to President Trump?

Published on Monday, 18 September 2017 11:18 - Written by

The New York Post’s Salena Zito wrote an essay that everyone still arguing about the November presidential election should read. Her title, “The day that destroyed the working class and sowed the seeds of Trump,” is of course an overstatement, but the essay hit on some key points for understanding today’s political climate.

Forty years ago, on Sept. 19, thousands of men walked into the Campbell Works of Youngstown Sheet and Tube along the Mahoning River before the early shift,” Zito wrote. “In the next hour, their lives would change forever.”

It was the first of the layoffs that would come to define the Rust Belt.

“From then on, this date in 1977 would be known as Black Monday in the Steel Valley, which stretches from Mahoning and Trumbull counties in Ohio eastward toward Pittsburgh,” Zito wrote. “It is the date when Youngstown Sheet and Tube abruptly furloughed 5,000 workers in one day.”

Most never returned to work at the Youngstown steel mill.

“Within the next 18 months, US Steel announced that the nation’s largest steel producer was also shutting down 16 plants across the nation, including their Ohio Works in Youngstown, a move that eliminated an additional 4,000 workers here,” Zito wrote. “That announcement came one day before Jones and Laughlin Steel Corp. said they were cutting thousands of jobs at their facilities in the Mahoning Valley, too. Within a decade, 40,000 jobs were gone. Within that same decade, 50,000 people had left the region, and by the next decade, that number was up to 100,000.”

Zito contends the White House and business groups weren’t ready for the disruption. No one ever is; that’s why it’s disruptive.

Washington’s prescription for the malady was protectionism. That backfired. Tariffs on Chinese and other foreign steel put into place after Black Monday inadvertently hurt the middle class.

“In 2002, industry pressure led President George W. Bush to impose tariffs of up to 30 percent on many steel imports,” the Heritage Foundation reports. “A study by the Consuming Industries Trade Action Coalition (CITAC) found that 200,000 individuals in steel-consuming industries lost their jobs in 2002 because of higher steel prices, amounting to about $4 billion in lost wages.”

But let’s look at the larger claim. Did those layoffs cause the Trump phenomenon? Yes, but only partially.

What’s really behind the rise of Donald Trump is the simple fact - the demonstrable fact - that Washington hasn’t been listening to average, everyday Americans for a long, long time.

And let’s add economic anxiety to the mix. After years of health care upheaval via the Affordable Care Act and industry-crushing regulations from the Obama administration, many voters were simply weary and yearning for some stability (there’s still a question as to whether that stability will ever be delivered).

Of course, for another view of what brought about the rise of Trump, we can read Hillary Clinton’s new book, “What Happened.” Apparently, though, what hasn’t happened yet is Clinton taking responsibility for being an awful candidate.

Still, Zito’s essay is important, because it imparts this one truth: the middle class feels left behind.