There’s little question that when President Trump holds a rally in Moon Township, Penn., Saturday night he will tout the tariffs he imposed on imported steel and aluminum this week.
Western Pennsylvania is steel country, after all, so his message should play well there. But it will likely resonate with millions of other Americans, well beyond steel plants.
That’s because, on top of all the economic implications of new tariffs, trade is also an identity issue. That doesn’t mean it’s overtly a race or gender issue, as the phrase “identity politics” tends to evoke — rather, it taps into a specific idea of what it means to be American. That identity is loaded with nostalgia and emotion, which together have been at the core of Trump’s message since day one and appealed to millions of white, working-class voters who supported his campaign.
Trade taps into America’s identity as a country that makes things. Political discourse surrounding trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership has a tendency to focus heavily on manufacturing, even though TPP also dealt in large ways with intellectual property, environmental regulations and labor standards.
And that means that messages surrounding these tariffs may resonate deeply with some voters.
“People — especially when you go to Trump voters — they have this view of manufacturing that’s really emotionally packed,” said Jeremy Rosner, executive vice president at Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner.
“There’s definitely a huge, nostalgic ’50s, ’60s, heyday-of-America, Rosie-the-Riveter-laden kind of thing around manufacturing. So people in those communities who hear Trump or whoever it is talking about protecting those jobs, there’s a lot of emotional overtones.”
To be clear, trade packs far more than nostalgic resonance for some voters. Those who work in manufacturing and manufacturing-adjacent industries who fear that their jobs or cities will be hurt by offshoring have much more concrete fears and hopes surrounding these types of policy proposals.
But for many other Americans, championing manufacturing evokes an America that — at least, in the rearview mirror — looks rosier.
“Manufacturing is who we thought we were not all that long ago. Think of World War II, right? ‘The arsenal of democracy,'” said Thomas Frank, political analyst and author, referencing President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1940 speech encouraging the United States to ramp up manufacturing production.
“That’s who we thought we were not all that long ago. That’s what the prosperity of lots of places depended on.”
Manufacturing is strong… but not manufacturing jobs
Note the past tense Frank uses there — depended. When President Trump (or any other politician) laments the decline in manufacturing, he’s talking about a decline in manufacturing employment, which has dropped precipitously since its height in the 1970s.
But importantly, manufacturing output has grown in recent decades, even while employment has fallen.
This is in large part about automation. America has been able to crank out a wealth of manufactured goods with fewer and fewer workers, meaning trade won’t bring many of those jobs back.
And that means, strictly by the employment numbers, America is far from being the manufacturing country it once was. Rather, it has become an office-worker country, a health care country, a retail country, and a government worker country. Here’s a look at those industries that have surpassed manufacturing employment (shown by the red line) since its heyday.
But regardless of all that, the industry has maintained a hold on the American psyche, says one GOP strategist, meaning politicians have continually reflected that back.
“It wasn’t that long ago that you couldn’t find a politician who wouldn’t drive a foreign car. Every car had to be made in America,” said Republican strategist Alex Conant. “That sent an important signal to voters that they respected the American manufacturing.”
“And then I think culturally, certainly the blue collar jobs where you punch in and punch out and wear a hard hat or work on the factory floor, those are core parts of the American identity, as opposed to sitting in the office,” Conant said.
America’s businesses know this, too.
In 2013, AdAge declared it “cool again to be ‘Made in America.'” The CEO of a metal stamping company wrote in 2015 at Industry Week that one reason Americans want to buy American-made products goes beyond patriotism — rather, it’s that they “evoke our nation’s rugged individualism or imply an artisanal mystique.”
And these businesses are happy to advertise their potential to boost American manufacturing. When ExxonMobil in 2017 made an ad burnishing the company’s image — touting emissions reductions and supporting jobs — it led with a message that it was “powering a manufacturing revival.”
Companies further removed from goods-production know this, as well. Walmart, which has long championed made-in-America products, singled out its hopes to boost manufacturing in a 2013 campaign. Economists disagree as to whether there’s something inherently beneficial to manufacturing jobs, as opposed to well-paying jobs in other industries. But in the American mind, Frank said, that’s beside the point.
“I can totally understand why people from a completely nuts-and-bolts, strictly numbers-based, reality-based point of view understand why people like manufacturing,” he said. He points to the fact that these jobs were both plentiful and well-paying, at a time when economic inequality also wasn’t so stark.
“People are right to be nostalgic for that, to want that back,” he said. “Whether they can get it back is another question.”
Trump’s politics of nostalgia
For Trump, with his “Make America Great Again” tagline, championing manufacturing fits in perfectly with his message.
“He has an impressively integrated narrative that is very nostalgic,” Rosner said. “The phrase ‘Make America Great Again’ is backwards-looking, It’s evoking a time when a certain kind of people felt on top of the world, and it was kind of a white manufacturing, more rural and suburban population on top of the world.”
Likewise, Trump’s pledge to be the president of “forgotten” Americans is an inherently nostalgic idea, implying that there was a time when these people were front and center.
But trade isn’t the only issue on which Trump has painted a rosier past. Many such comments are about broader cultural debates.
“In the good old days, they’d rip him out of that seat so fast,” Trump said of a protester at a 2016 rally. “But today, everyone is so politically correct. Our country is going to hell — we’re being politically correct.”
He has brought gender into his nostalgic politics as well. “All of the men, we’re petrified to speak to women anymore, we may raise our voice — you know what, the women get it better than we do, folks, they get it better than we do,” he said at another campaign rally.
“Globalization, civil rights, empowerment of women, LGBTQ, the decline of manufacturing, the rise of information technologies, the world becoming less unipolar, all those things are threatening potentially to those who thrill to that era,” Rosner said. “A lot of what explains global politics right now is a backlash to those forces, and Trump tapped into it, Brexit tapped into it.”
Of course, it’s not just economics or national mythos that keep manufacturing front and center on the campaign trail. Straight-up politics plays a big role as well, since battleground states like Iowa, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin happen to be among the states whose economies are most heavily reliant upon manufacturing.
Not only that, but it’s one area where opinions aren’t strictly along party lines, meaning there’s the potential to appeal to voters on either side of the aisle with trade policy.
Meanwhile, the love of manufacturing will remain embedded in Americans’ brains.
“What is the wavelength on national narrative change — national mythology change?” said Rosner. “I think it’s long. We still revere the family farmer. and it’s more than a century since we’ve had any share of our population involved in family farming.”
So will political ads someday glorify the home health aide, the computer programmer or the grocery cashier, the same way they do manufacturing workers? Not soon, Rosner added.
“I think these things change real gradually,” he said. “These things are pretty hardwired. They’re pretty deep in our DNA.”