Column: Empty Promises and the Art of the Con

For Tribune News Service
Thursday, November 29, 2018

You made President Donald Trump what he is today. And because you love America (as I do, too!) I’m sure you’ve been proud of what you accomplished. Ever since that October day in 2016 when then-candidate Trump came to Warren, Mich., where you work on the assembly line at the General Motors transmission plant.

You’ll never forget the day. Everyone was nervous because the rumor mill had it that your plant was targeted for cutbacks — maybe worse. But then Trump said the words you desperately wanted to hear: “If I’m elected, you won’t lose one plant! You’ll have plants coming into this country! You’re going to have jobs again! You won’t lose one plant — I promise you that!”

And you and everybody erupted in loud and long cheers. You waved your red “Make America Great Again” hat. And you decided right there that Trump had your vote — the hell with your United Auto Workers union bosses and their endorsement of Hillary. She didn’t even bother to come by once to ask for your vote. She probably thought she was too special to have to ask working folks like you. But not Trump; he’s a billionaire who talks like the guy next to you who is also working on the clock. Trump said he’d be the president who would always put “America First.”

So on Election Day, you and what experts estimate was maybe 40 percent of your UAW pals voted for Trump. You helped him win Michigan by a whisker. And Michigan helped him win the Electoral College by maybe three more of Uncle Sam’s whiskers. So yes, you made Trump America’s 45th president. (Even though Hillary Clinton received 2.9 million more votes nationwide than Trump — more votes than any losing presidential candidate.) At least now you can be sure your job is safe!

Fast-forward to July 2017: President Trump was in Youngstown, Ohio, just 22 minutes down Highway 680 from the General Motors plant where they manufacture the Chevy Cruze. It seemed like a lot of the GM plant workers were there in the bright red sea of “MAGA” hats at yet another of the president’s perpetual campaign rallies. And everybody cheered when Trump proclaimed he was reversing Ohio’s jobs drain:

“They’re all coming back. They’re all coming back. Don’t move, don’t sell your house. We’re going to fill up those factories — or rip them down and build new ones!”

Fast-forward to this past Monday: A seismic earthquake hit America’s auto-manufacturing Rust Belt, in the form of an announcement from General Motors that it is closing five plants and laying off nearly 15,000 workers.

The GM plants that are closing include the transmission plant at Warren, Mich., and the Chevy Cruze assembly plant at Lordstown, Ohio. Other factories that are closing include car assembly plants in Detroit-Hamtramck, Mich., and Oshawa, Ontario, Canada, that make the Chevrolet Impala and Volt, Buick Lacrosse and Cadillac CT6, and a transmission plant in White Marsh, Md.

The problem, GM says, is Americans are buying fewer sedans and more crossovers, sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks.

General Motors had more politically unacceptable news that it didn’t really spotlight: While GM is cutting U.S. jobs and closing U.S. plants, GM is increasing plant investments in China and Mexico.

And Trump got more bad news that he didn’t want to spotlight: General Motors and Ford have warned that Trump’s trade war policies led to sharp tariff increases in steel and aluminum that are primarily responsible for costing each company about $1 billion more than they’d expected.

The quick result of all that was that Trump typically personalized his outrage — blasting GM’s chair and CEO Mary Barra. And as his high-tariff trade policy has exploded in ways predicted by everyone but the president, Trump may well wind up going to his next summit with China’s Xi Jinping with his red “MAGA” hat in his hand. Hopefully Trump may seek some sort of face-saving ceasefire in the trade war he once confidently launched.

But the long-term and less fixable outcome of all this is what all of you who once had high hopes and higher frustrations just discovered this week. You gave your hopes, your votes and, most sadly, your family’s futures to a fast-talking, tabloidy New York huckster.

You are among the millions who fell for the art of the con by a con artist who always talks huge but, as you just discovered, doesn’t know what he’s talking about — let alone how to make his empty promises happen.

Sadly, you probably can’t undo the damage you caused your family and friends until 2020.

Martin Schram is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at martin.schram@gmail.com.