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Trump’s dark take on Detroit, Michigan is wrong

Sep 3, 2016

Donald Trump says Michigan manufacturing is “a disaster.” He predicts Mexico soon will replace the United States as the heart of the North American auto industry.

He’s wrong.

You’d think a guy described as a quick study would do a little of it before opening his mouth. But no.

That’s why Governor Rick Snyder is correcting Trump’s dark take on Detroit and manufacturing. 

The decline and revival that defines both over the past eight years is a story of American redemption — not another riff on Loserville.

Wanna be president and need Michigan’s 16 electoral votes to do it? Start by acknowledging what’s actually happened here. Understand that Michigan voters appreciate candidates who can differentiate the “disasters” of the 1980s from the implosion of 2008.

This place has come too far since the days of bankruptcy and ridicule to let stand ignorance and cheap shots from either party. Does the Trump camp think it can turn skepticism into support by distorting the facts?

He’s welcome to try. Sweeping mischaracterizations of manufacturing, the auto industry and the conditions of African-Americans are building a steep metaphoric hill for Trump to climb in Detroit. His style is not the middle-of-the-road Republicanism of Snyder and former Gov. Bill Milliken that’s more likely to generate crossover appeal among the black community or union members.

Michigan has led the nation in creating manufacturing jobs since the global financial meltdown closed the state's “lost decade.” The auto industry has reinvested billions in its core U.S. business. And General Motors and Ford Motor are booking record U.S. profits and operating margins.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says manufacturers created more than 165,000 jobs in Michigan since 2009. And the auto industry added 63,000 jobs in the state.

If that’s failure, we’ll take more.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton tell the industrial heartland they will reopen the North American Free Trade Agreement. But reviving the good ol’ days will do no such thing in a global market where capital flows globally. Without sufficient capital, the industry will not function – a lesson this town learned the hard way.

It’s true that Detroit lost jobs after passage of NAFTA in 1993. It’s also true that Detroit’s auto industry, between then and 2008, consistently lost U.S. market share to foreign rivals … fielded mediocre car lines as it bet the entire business on trucks … paid for excess plant capacity and people it didn’t need. Is that NAFTA’s fault, or an epic failure of management and labor?

The Detroit that Trump is scheduled to visit today is less the place of lazy caricature and more a place of reinvention. It’s where a Democratic mayor is more willing to work with Republicans in Lansing than any time in the past 40 years. It’s where a Republican governor has assembled a record of advocacy not seen since the early days of Milliken and Mayor Coleman Young.

Snyder says he hopes Trump has “a chance to see Michigan’s … made a huge economic comeback after the lost decade.” The Republican nominee should take a look because the facts support the governor.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.