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Before Covid-19 hit, Trisha Amato spent her weekdays behind a modest, ebony-colored desk, running the “transition center” that helps laid-off General Motors workers pick up the shards of their lives. GM announced it was closing its mammoth plant in Lordstown, Ohio, in November 2018 and ever since Amato has been ladling out advice to the 1,700 laid-off workers on such matters as how to obtain jobless benefits and how to qualify for government assistance to pay for college courses.
The GM plant, the size of more than 100 football fields, had long been the heart of Lordstown – as recently as 2016, it employed 4,500 workers, and in its 53-year history, it produced 16m vehicles. Built alongside I-80, the hulking plant has long been a monument to America’s industrial might, or perhaps one should say its fading industrial might.
Deep-voiced, with long, auburn hair and broad shoulders – she, too, had worked at the plant – Amato has problems of her own, saying that she can no longer afford health insurance for herself and her two daughters on her transition center salary. Amato, who is divorced, felt betrayed when GM said it would shut the plant – the company had received $60m in state subsidies, and had promised in return to keep the plant open through 2027.
Many of the GM workers were also angry at Donald Trump. During the 2016 campaign, he repeatedly proclaimed that he would make American manufacturing great again and would bring back jobs that had gone overseas. That message resonated in Lordstown and nearby Youngstown, part of the Mahoning Valley area that has been dragged down for decades by one factory and steel mill closing after another. Trump’s repeated promise to bring back factory jobs played well not only in Ohio, but also in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, helping win over many blue-collar voters, who were key to his narrow victories in those states. Blue-collar workers in those states could again play a decisive role in this year’s election, with many still supporting Trump, but some souring on him – perhaps enough to flip those states to Joe Biden.
In July 2017, Trump spoke in Youngstown and told the crowd that on his way in from the airport, he had seen the carcasses of too many factories and mills. He bemoaned Ohio’s loss of manufacturing jobs, but then boldly assured the crowd: “They’re all coming back!” He next told his audience, many of them workers worried about plant closings: “Don’t move! Don’t sell your house!”
Laid-off GM Lordstown workers still rail about that speech. Many moved to other cities to find work; many lost money selling their homes. “Some of my hardest days of the last few years came when everybody left,” Amato told me. “They had to sell their houses.” Hundreds of longtime Lordstown workers moved to take jobs at GM plants in Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas – all so that they could continue receiving good United Auto Workers (UAW) wages (around $30 an hour) and accrue additional years toward their pensions. Many in this diaspora make the four- to 10-hour drive back to the Mahoning Valley once or twice each month to visit their families.
“It’s all just a mess,” said Amato. “The ones who left, they’re angry.” GM offered to transfer Amato to its plant in Wentzville, Missouri, but she turned it down because her 19-year-old daughter was in high school and her 79-year-old father was ailing.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump had considerable support in the Lordstown plant even though surrounding Trumbull County is traditionally a Democratic stronghold and even though UAW members, stretching back to Franklin Roosevelt’s time, have tilted heavily Democratic. Union officials estimate that 30 to 40% of Lordstown’s workers voted for Trump. “They felt he was the lesser of two evils,” Amato said. The sentiment was, “Let’s not have a lifetime politician in there. Let’s get some change.”
“Since so many of the steel mills closed, there isn’t much here economically,” Amato added. “They were hoping or praying that Trump would bring something here.” The workers were wowed, she said, by his promises to bring back jobs and his being a seemingly successful businessman.
Asked whom she supported in 2016, Amato told me: “I backed Trump,” but she followed that with a quick, nervous laugh. “I thought he stood for more of what I stood for.”
She, too, felt that Trump was the lesser of two evils. Hillary Clinton was an excellent first lady, she said, but to her mind, Clinton, by 2016, had become yet another career politician. “She just changed,” Amato said. “It comes down to character, and I wanted to believe Trump has a better character.”
Amato admits that she woefully misjudged Trump. “After he was elected, he really opened his mouth. He started tweeting and saying things that I feel are crazy. He doesn’t know when to stop.”
Upset at herself for backing Trump, she said: “I feel like I’m living in a reality TV show.” She added: “Trump, he’s a clown.”
She had thought it would be good to have a businessman as president. “But maybe he’s not such a good businessman,” she acknowledged, pointing to his numerous bankruptcies. “He doesn’t understand where the blue-collar workers are coming from. I don’t think any of the big politicians understand that. Trump, especially, doesn’t understand what it is to struggle.”
Trump, especially, doesn’t understand what it is to struggle
Amato’s union, UAW Local 1112, asked her to work at the transition center and ultimately to run it because she is a good listener and because, they told her, “you’re so well-spoken you ought to talk to these people”. In 2008, Amato quit her job as a counselor at a community home for the disabled to work for GM because it paid $5 more an hour and because it would pay for her college courses. During her years at the plant, installing brake parts, she studied at Youngstown State University, getting a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s in special education. Amato did schoolwork during factory breaks and during her daughters’ soccer practices and taekwondo classes.
While running the transition center inside Local 1112’s union hall – and then from home once the coronavirus hit – Amato avoids discussing politics because people are so polarized and on edge. She was appalled when Ohio’s health director, Dr Amy Acton, widely respected for her efforts to combat Covid-19, resigned in June after conservative lawmakers called her a tyrant and after protesters, some of them armed, held demonstrations outside her home. “Trump has done a really crappy job [on Covid-19],” Amato said. “I wish he had backed his authoritative people on the subject, such as Fauci.”
Amato says she won’t vote for Trump this year, but isn’t sure whether she’ll back Biden. “I’m leaning in that direction,” she said. Her main reservation: Biden’s age. “These guys who are in their 70s are just so out of touch with a whole different generation,” she said. “I’d back Mayor Pete [Buttigieg] in a heartbeat.” She feels he’s much more in touch with her generation – she’s in her 40s.
It was a single Trump tweet that caused Amato to definitively reject Trump: on 17 March 2019, nine days after the plant produced its last car, he tweeted out an attack against the president of Lordstown’s UAW local. Trump tweeted: “Democrat UAW Local 1112 President David Green ought to get his act together and produce … I want action on Lordstown fast. Stop complaining and get the job done.”
With her transition office next to Green’s, Amato had heard him talk hour after hour with Ohio’s senators and House members as well as mayors and town council members, strategizing on how to pressure GM to keep the plant open. Green helped get parents, teachers and community leaders to write letters to GM – in his office was a 3ft-tall letter, perched on an easel, that kindergarten teachers had written to the company’s CEO, Mary Barra: “Dear Mary. Please consider keeping our local jobs local … GM Lordstown is a main source of income for many families.”
To Amato, it was unconscionable for Trump to blame the plant closing on a local union official rather GM. “When he called out Dave Green, that was huge. Did he not understand the fact that Dave Green had no control over this?” Amato said. “That was what I mean – someone should take his Twitter away.”
Dave Green is a brawny 50-year-old with salt-and-pepper hair who has reluctantly moved to Bedford, Indiana, to work at the GM Powertrain plant there. He puts in 12-hour shifts, often six or seven days a week, pouring molten metal to help make engine blocks. With 25 years at GM under his belt, he left Local 1112’s presidency to put in five more years to get his full 30-year pension. Once a month, Green, who is divorced, drives the six and a half hours back to north-east Ohio to visit his parents and 23-year-old daughter.
He feels betrayed by GM’s decision to shutter the plant; he says the Lordstown workers were doing a “bang-up job”. He also said Trump did the Lordstown workers no favors. Soon after taking office, Trump relaxed fuel-efficiency standards for cars, and that, Green realized, could doom the plant, which made compact, fuel-efficient Chevy Cruzes. “He wasn’t in office long before he announced he would do away with the Cafe [Corporate Average Fuel Economy] standards,” Green said. “Auto manufacturers here had to build so many small cars to balance for all the SUV’s. When Cafe went away, Trump did the workers of Lordstown a huge disservice.” He doesn’t blame Trump for the plant closing, but says Trump accelerated GM’s decision, noting that GM much preferred building SUV’s and trucks to lower-profit small cars.
Green says he wrote twice to Trump after GM announced the closing. “I never even got a generic got-your-letter,” he said. “And then the guy blasts me out on Twitter. He’s not spreading good cheer. He’s always attacking people.
[Trump] came after me, and that hurt my kids
“He came after me, and that hurt my kids. My youngest daughter was saying how people in her high school said your dad is one of the reasons the plant is closing. She was upset by that. I’m a man. I can handle it. But when you come after me, it can hurt my family. That’s what really bothered me.”
Green is definitely not a Trump fan, but he said: “Hillary was a hard person for a lot of people to get behind, for whatever reason. I don’t know exactly why. Maybe because she was another Clinton. Maybe because she’s a woman.” He castigated the Clinton campaign for obtuseness: “They send in some kids with college degrees [to the Mahoning Valley] to tell all these working people how we’re going to” rally blue-collar support for Clinton.
“Donald Trump,” Green continued, “says a lot of things that people want to hear, about buying American, bringing back American jobs, building a wall. We’re going to make America great again. But people don’t realize he’s a liar and a con man.”
Like many labor leaders, Green can hold forth at length about how Trump has failed to deliver to workers. Despite Trump’s boast that he would be “the greatest jobs president that God ever created”, the US added 1.5m fewer jobs in his first three years in office than during Barack Obama’s last three years (8.1m versus 6.6m). And that’s all before the pandemic. Including the jobs lost since Covid-19 hit, the US actually has 3.9m fewer jobs than when Trump took office. Moreover, during Trump’s first three years, Ohio added only 36% as many jobs as during Obama’s last three years. Ohio has actually lost 329,000 jobs since Trump became president, including a decline of 26,000 manufacturing jobs.
Like many Ohioans eager to preserve manufacturing jobs, Green was irate that Trump called for boycotting Goodyear, which is based in Akron. He also didn’t like that Trump once said GM’s Lordstown shutdown “doesn’t really matter” because “Ohio’s going to replace those jobs, like, in two minutes”. Green is also unhappy that Trump failed to deliver on an ambitious promise that excited many blue-collar workers: to create a $1tn infrastructure program to fix the nation’s roads, bridges and airports, a move that would create hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs.
Trump seems to be more understanding of what we as Americans want instead of just on this politician’s level
Green is mystified about why so many blue-collar workers think Trump has done a good job on the economy. “I don’t understand it, but they love their guns,” he said. “I thought some people had moved away from him [Trump], but they have all of a sudden gravitated back to him. I don’t know what’s happened. Maybe they have amnesia, or they only watch Fox News.”
Mickie Harris doesn’t have amnesia or watch Fox News much, but she remains an ardent Trump supporter. Harris, who worked at the Lordstown plant from 2008 to 2019, voted for Trump in 2016 and says she will do so again this year. “He is somebody who is more on our side,” she told me. “Trump seems to be more understanding of what we as Americans want instead of just on this politician’s level.” She says the village where she lives, West Farmington, 15 miles north of Lordstown, is dotted with Trump signs. “A lot of people like how Trump is trying to do things, but I think they feel he’s got to stop with some of the lying and some of the things he says.” At the same time, she praises Trump’s outspokenness. “He says things that some politicians say shouldn’t be said.”
Harris, 47, remembers when the Mahoning Valley, with iconic companies like Youngstown Sheet and Tube, was teeming with blast furnaces, rolling mills and coke batteries. “Most of the steel buildings have been torn down,” she said. “I go past the old steel mills – I like to do wildlife and nature photography. There are some bald eagles there I try to catch.”
Harris turned down GM’s offer to transfer because she wanted to stay close to her ageing parents, grandparents and in-laws. She is pursuing an associate degree in health information management technology, with her tuition paid by federal trade adjustment assistance. That program aids workers who lose their jobs to imports or offshoring.
To her mind, one of Trump’s best policies is his push to keep jobs in America. “He’s trying to establish that we’re not so reliant on other countries, and we can keep more jobs here in the US,” she said. “If we can get more jobs, then more people would have more money and then we can push to raise wages.”
Harris is from a family of Republicans and has an intense dislike of Nancy Pelosi. “I told my husband one day, ‘I think that lady is the devil,’” she said. “She’s trying to keep everybody divided and a lot of the things from getting done.”
As for Biden, Harris said: “He’s a career politician. “I just don’t feel he’s going to actually listen to the American people. He’s just going to follow the politician’s route and not listen to the public.”
Even though the economy has faltered and Covid-19 continues to rage across much of the nation, Harris doesn’t fault Trump. On he economy, she said, “It’s a give and take. There are some things he seems to improve, and some things he needs to improve.” She regrets that Trump has made some uninformed statements on Covid, but defends his policies fighting the virus. “What else can you do?” she said. “It’s something new. We’ve never experienced before. We have no easy way of killing it. They’re trying to get a vaccine.”
She is convinced that Trump is battling for people like her. “If Trump is re-elected, I hope that he will keep fighting for what is considered the lower-class people and keep fighting to try to keep jobs.”
Mike Yakim, who worked as a team leader in Lordstown’s paint department, also backed Trump in 2016 and remains a big fan. “I had my reservations about him. I know he’s not a saint,” Yakim said. “But I had a good feeling about him. Trump seemed to be for the little guy.
After the Lordstown plant closed, Yakim, sturdily built with straight brown hair and a piercing gaze, transferred to the GM plant in Lansing, Michigan, driving four hours back to Ohio each weekend to visit his wife. He blames GM, not Trump for the shutdown. “You can’t dump on the guy. GM had this plan all along.”
Before hiring on at Lordstown, Yakim, 52, had worked for more than 15 years at GM’s plants in Baltimore and Wilmington, Delaware, both of which have closed. So it should be no surprise that he was keen on Trump’s talk of saving factory jobs. “He’s promoted America first and America and its manufacturing base,” Yakim said. “That was neglected for a long time under the past three presidents: Clinton, Bush and Obama. Some of them took it for granted that manufacturing would be here forever.” He said that they and their trade deals helped spur an exodus of factory jobs and a race to the bottom “where they dragged down all the wages”. He voiced dismay that some temp workers at GM now make $16.67 an hour, far lower, after factoring inflation, than the $17 an hour he made when he was beginning at GM’s Baltimore plant 26 years ago.
Yakim seems to hold Hillary Clinton guilty by association for her husband’s pushing through ratification of Nafta. “She’s abrasive,” he said. “She used terms like basket of deplorables. These are your constituents … You can’t do that. These are people you need to vote for you.” He similarly has little enthusiasm for Biden. “I saw what Biden has done to the economy, what he’s done in 47 years in office: his support of Nafta, that pretty much gutted the auto industry, and his rallying for the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership].” He asks why Biden didn’t do more to stop GM from closing its Wilmington plant in 2009 or stop Chrysler from shutting its plant there in 2008.
Yakim gives Trump high marks on the economy. “My 401(k) loves him,” he said. “It’s the greatest thing in the world.” He is okay with how Trump has handled Covid-19, and he’s confident that Trump, if re-elected, will continue battling to bring back jobs. “He’s brought the shakeup of DC which needed to be done,” Yakim said.
During the Lordstown plant’s final years, Danny Adams was a self-appointed scourge against Trump. When he heard workers lauding Trump, he would often get in their face, asking how could they back such a liar, how could they back someone who was trying to kill Obamacare and take away health coverage millions of Americans?
“He’s a bully who speaks out the side of his mouth and probably has the mentality of a 12-year-old,” Adams said. To his mind, the promise Trump made in Youngstown to bring back all the jobs was demagogic and absurd. “People believe this false prophet,” he said. “I call him the orange orangutan.” Adams often reminds Trump backers that Trump’s decision to roll back fuel efficiency standards hastened their plant’s demise. “I told them voting has consequences.”
After working at the Lordstown plant for 24 years, Adams also transferred to GM’s plant in Lansing, sharing an apartment there with a friend. Most weekends he drove back home to visit his wife, son, daughter and parents.
Trump is a guy who was born on third base, but he acts like he hit a triple
But in January, Adams slipped on the ice in the Lansing plant’s parking lot and tore his ACL. He had surgery and has moved back home to Ohio while recovering. In recent months, Adams – who said he didn’t go to college because his family couldn’t afford it – has read John Bolton, Michael Cohen and Mary Trump’s new books. “You got to read these books because this guy is a childish, spoiled rotten person,” Adams said. “Trump is a guy who was born on third base, but he acts like he hit a triple.”
Adams said many of the Lordstown workers who supported Trump in 2016 had been in the military and “worried about Hillary taking their guns”. He describes many Trump fans he knows as “one-shot: God, guns or abortion. There’s the gun person. There’s the abortion person. There’s the immigration person. You’re never going to change them.”
But Jason Markovich did change his mind on Trump – he’s not a one-issue or one-shot guy. “We thought that with Trump and his policies, he was going to protect us,” said Markovich, who spent 20 of his 43 years working at the Lordstown plant. “I voted for him [the first time he ever voted for a Republican for president]. I watched The Apprentice. I loved that show. That’s kind of person I wanted. I thought that’s the guy who’s going to keep my job another four to eight years. I just felt Trump was more business qualified … I thought he would support blue-collar people.”
But Markovich has turned against Trump, especially after the Lordstown plant closed – he thought Trump did little to save it, despite the reassuring words in his Youngstown speech. “He talked a lot about the auto industry – that was a big deal. He was going to keep it here. That he was going to cut back on imports. That never happened.”
GM offered Markovich a job at its Corvette plant in Bowling Green, Kentucky, but he rejected the transfer because he wanted to stay near his ageing father and because his 17-year-old son, who has Asperger’s, was doing well at his current school. Markovich took a $67,500 buyout, complaining that it was equal to only about one-year’s pay. After being unemployed for more than a year, he was offered a unionized job at a large bakery, but he never started there because of the Covid-related slowdown.
“I don’t like where our country is right now,” Markovich said. “I don’t like where our valley is. The rich are getting richer, and the middle class is getting squeezed. I don’t think our country can handle another four years of Donald Trump.” He added that Trump “has dropped the ball big time” in how he has handled Covid-19. He likes Biden – he once shook Biden’s hand when Biden was visiting the Mahoning Valley. But he said: “I’d vote for anyone who was running against Trump.”
Tammy Vennetti voted for Trump in 2016, largely because her older sister, a retired GM worker, kept urging her to. “I listened to my sister and her husband even though they’re Democrats. They said he was going to make things different. I said I never voted for a Republican before and then I did. I really thought in my later years, let me see how a Republican would work.”
Vennetti, 57, had racked up 25 years with GM when the Lordstown plant closed. She wanted to transfer to another plant to obtain a 30-year pension, but around the time Lordstown closed, she was suffering from stomach problems and needed a gall bladder operation. Then she had a knee replacement, and that led a severe infection and more surgery. She’s still on medical leave, uncertain if or when she’ll be able to transfer.
“I regret in a way voting for Trump. I really do.” She is still fuming about his do-not-sell-your home remarks in Youngstown” “He promised that nobody was going to have to sell their homes. He said they [GM] were going to stay. That’s why I can’t vote for him this year.”
Her sister still strongly supports Trump. “She says she’s going to put a Trump sign in my yard, and I told her, no she’s not.”
“My sister says, ‘You should be watching Fox News. You need to be watching Fox News.’ I really don’t have time. If I’m not at the doctor’s, I’m watching my grandkid.”
Vennetti is ambivalent about Biden. “I don’t really want to vote for him either,” she said.