I spent the 11-hour flight back from China sitting next to a Trump supporter on the day after the election
As I drunkenly stumbled into the plane, I looked up at my seat, 15b, and saw 15a occupied by a man with an unkempt goatee wearing a Harley Davidson shirt and an oversized gold watch. I spent the next 11 hours sitting next to a trump supporter.
The minute I sat down, he started to chitchat. He was eager to discuss what had just happened in the States, having been isolated from Americans during his stay in China. This guy, Matt, if the media is right in its characterization (although clearly has been wrong about much else) is the archetype of a Trump supporter.
Matt worked for Ford Motors for ten years until he was laid off. The Ford factory he worked at was closed in his small Indiana town and relocated to Mexico. Four thousand out of the 15 thousand people in his town were put out of work. Matt was lucky enough to find another job, but others were not. He now works for a manufacturing advisory company that sets up and inspects factories operated by the Fords of the world in other countries.
Who does Matt blame? Bill Clinton’s NAFTA treaty and Obama’s automobile bail out. The man’s harrowing tale could have come straight from Trump’s mouth but in truth, the man was far more articulate than the President Elect.
Matt’s anger surged as railed against the Ford executives who made the final call to move the factory. Corporate greed, he said, was what fueled Ford’s decision to move, and he assured me that it had cost them more in the long run than it had gained in the short run. He had four Ford vehicles when he lost his job — one for himself, his wife, his daughter, and a hunting truck. He would never buy a Ford car again, nor would anyone in his town.
“They [the executives] don’t understand that we were the most loyal employees and customers in one.” Matt’s loyalty, as he saw it, was betrayed. Beyond that, further justifying his anger, it made no economic sense. “Do they really think the Mexicans they’re paying $30 a week are buying Fords? Hell no.” Obama swooping in to save the auto industry was perhaps the most egregious of all slights. “Everyone talks about the huge success in the rebound of the auto industry, but fuck, come-on, how is that fair? The guys who tanked the business were saved while people like me were left to fend for ourselves.”
Now Matt regularly travels to Mexico and China (he will be going to India next month for the first time to inspect a new factory, and he is not looking forward to it). He recounted what he had seen on his latest trip: a Chinese man wearing flips flops and no protection gear wheeling a cart of molten medal across a bumpy floor. “They don’t have the same understanding as us,” he said over and over again. “They have no concept of safety.”
And then Matt totally lost me. He switched from complaining about the manners and food of Chinese people to berating immigrants in the United States who came from Mexico. It was the kind of rhetoric taken straight out of Trump’s campaign playbook. They want to come to America and turn it into the kind of country from which they came, he believed.
In Mexico, he recalled, workers were picked up by a bus in the morning, fed in the afternoon and evening before the bus shuttled them back home — and they earned $30 a week. In America, “we would never do that. We expect people to find their own way, eat their own food, but we pay them a shit ton more.”
This man did have legitimate grievances. Globalization, although he did not use that word, offered the US two choices according to him. Choice # 1: lower our standard of living and safety regulations to decrease costs and stay competitive (and risk the revolution that would ensue). Choice # 2: tax the hell out of products made in such unsafe environments entering the United States. The tax would equalize the price of the products made in unsafe factories for US consumption. But such a tax policy would require monitoring factories abroad to determine what kind of safety and environmental protections they lacked, and then correlating the absence of regulations to a factory specific tax. In the absence of some shift of policy, Matt found the next best thing.
If it was not clear before, Matts xenophobia was unsheathed when he started talking not about his experience, which he has every right to analyze and draw lessons from, but his fundamental characterization of the “other.” The reality of a globalized economy catalyzed Matt’s predicament, but his anger was directed at the foreigners who had taken his job and livelihood.
There are a couple elements of Matt’s case that merit further attention. One is the economic atrophy of American manufacturing ushered in by the very reality of globalization but manifested in trade deals like NAFTA. The second is the unabashed racism that drove this man to support Trump either because of or in spite of his own demagogic xenophobic remarks. One is legitimate and one is indefensible. The inherent racism in Matt’s tone and understanding has to be denounced outright; call a spade a spade as they say, because to normalize and accept the logic would be buying into racism. His argument about globalization, though, must be dismantled logically and practically. And here is where I fault Hilary Clinton.
The moderate left needed to make a better case for globalization and for free trade. While no one is talking about Hilary’s reversal on TPP (Transpacific Partnership) as a root cause for her unsuccessful campaign, it was perhaps the most obvious example of her duplicity. She sided with the republicans and leftists democrats on a core issue that did not win over anyone who saw Trump with the stronger stance on trade. Matt certainly didn’t believe her, and rightly so. It was her husband who ushered in the age of free trade deals post cold war, a reality that she neither could nor wanted to distance herself from.
I still have hope for free trade, because the alternative is an isolationist America that forfeits the mantle of a superpower to try to attract jobs that it cannot win back. This is the uncomfortable fact that was missing from the public discourse during the election. Industrialized nations will not continue to be manufacturing hubs. Rising living standards, wages, and environmental protections — which are all good things! — preclude a nations economic output and makeup from remaining unchanged. So it’s not a matter of closing boarders; it’s a matter of managing a transition that is inevitable.
While I see many pleas to promote optimism — and hear just as many ‘not my president’ chants — I disagree with both quips. There is no reason to believe that Trump’s plans to attract or mandate factories to open and operate in the United States will be successful, but he also unfortunately is my president. The reality is that until someone can make a convincing case for globalization, and defend its success, Matt, America, and the world will be susceptible to the revisionist and propagandistic appeals of demagogues who promise to make things great again.