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Despite Trump's 'Jobs, Jobs, Jobs' Bluster, the Rust Belt Is Still Reeling from Plant Closures

Chuckie Denison fought the closure of a GM factory in Lordstown, Ohio—now, he’s devoted himself to challenging the President’s lies about America’s economic recovery.

A Trump 2020 sign displayed in front of an abandoned supply business along a highway in Allentown, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Amy Lutz, courtesy of Shutterstock)

A Trump 2020 sign displayed in front of an abandoned supply business along a highway in Allentown, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Amy Lutz, courtesy of Shutterstock)

n 2016, Donald Trump’s campaign made much of the industrial decline in the Midwest. Central to his promise to “Make America Great Again” were his calls to keep factories churning in the United States, stop jobs from going overseas, and bring back a vision of the United States from the 1950s: dad in the factory, mom at home, 2.5 kids in the suburbs, and everyone else presumably left behind, locked out or locked up. 

In places like Lordstown, Ohio, where the famed General Motors plant closed down last year, the gap between Trump’s campaign-trail bluster and reality seems to widen each day. 

Four years on, that promise doesn’t look like much, and the 2020 campaign is notably shorter on such promises. In places like Lordstown, Ohio, where the famed General Motors plant closed down last year, the gap between Trump’s campaign-trail bluster and reality seems to widen each day. 

Chuckie Denison was one of those Lordstown workers. We met when I was covering the plant’s closing, and since then he’s taken early retirement from GM and devoted himself to activism. This fall, that means hitting the campaign trail to challenge Trump’s narrative of greatness. 

In Zanesville (also in Ohio), where Vice President Mike Pence touted the “saving” of the Lordstown plant, Denison attended with a group. “They wouldn’t let us inside,” he recounts, but from the outside he heard Pence talking up the Lordstown Motors company, which intends to one day bring production back to the factory. “I was like, ‘No he just didn’t! There are no cars in the parking lot there. I live ten minutes away.’ ” 

The much-hyped reopening of the plant, to build electric trucks, only promises an eventual 1,100 jobs in a plant that once employed 10,000. Lordstown Motors, a startup, has promised it will provide union jobs paying competitive wages, but so far, Denison says, the work has yet to materialize

For Denison, it’s “really disheartening” to hear stories of a comeback when the reality he sees every day is different. “Families like mine are still in the community of the Mahoning Valley, are still battling the aftermath of the plant closing.”

After Zanesville, Denison headed to Cleveland to attend the first presidential debate, where he was frustrated that Joe Biden didn’t immediately challenge Trump on the Lordstown narrative. “That is the first thing that should have come out of Biden’s mouth. “If they truly want to defeat Trump, they need to stop playing his game.” 

“If they truly want to defeat Trump,” Denison says, “they need to stop playing his game.” 

Denison was outside with Our Revolution (the organization spun off from the Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign), Black Lives Matter, and several other activist groups making some noise and marching around the campus at Case Western University, where the debate was held. He was struck by the amount of security policing the peaceful protests. 

“They had tanks brought in. Hummers. Helicopters flying everywhere. Cleveland did a really good job of not taking the bait,” Denison tells me, “because they definitely had the resources there to brutalize a lot of people.” 

Inside, Trump was refusing to denounce white supremacists, while, outside, protesters marching for Black lives were confronted with the full force of the state. 

Such a show of force is also why Denison joined a group that blockaded teargas and weapons manufacturer Combined Systems Incorporated (CSI) back in August. “People who are in our communities battling this police brutality and coming together for peaceful vigils and get incited by the militarized police breaking out rubber bullets and tear gas—it has long-term effects on your health,” he says. “They produce that tear gas here in America.” 

Mercer County, Pennsylvania, is just over the state line from Denison’s home outside Youngstown, Ohio, and he questions why such factories continue to make so-called “less lethal” weaponry (CSI touts itself as the premier supplier of such weapons to military, correction officers, and police) when there are other essential kinds of work to be done.

“That place should be shut down and they should be building hospital equipment or something,” he says, “not chemical weapons. It’s time to get rid of these places and put in good paying jobs that make things that we really need.” 

The protest at the CSI plant underlined the fact that workers like Denison don’t simply want jobs at any cost. 

Like the General Electric workers who picketed to be allowed to make ventilators rather than military equipment in the early days of the COVID-19 lockdown, many would prefer to be making something socially useful. This story, too, gets lost in the “jobs, jobs, jobs” rhetoric. 

Yet, everywhere Denison goes, he hears about jobs disappearing, and, despite Trump’s rhetoric, not returning. “Companies are just closing down all over,” he says. 

Yet, everywhere Denison goes, he hears about jobs disappearing, and, despite Trump’s rhetoric, not returning. “Companies are just closing down all over,” he says. 

Meanwhile, elected officials, he adds, are unwilling to challenge corporations. Good Jobs Nation and others have called for an executive order denying federal contracts to companies that close down in the United States to move production overseas. 

“They need to be held accountable,” Denison says. “What they’re doing to the tax base of those communities . . . Do they have the guts to look teachers in the eyes and tell them why they are dismantling their schools? Do they have the courage to look the students in the eyes and tell them why they’re ruining their education? Nurses, doctors, the working class, the poor, the elderly, the disabled: We are not being represented and these corporations that are making these decisions, they do not have the courage to do this.” 

“When you go to these places that are facing these really, really traumatic times you get a better understanding of the people and how badly it is affecting the communities,” Denison continues. 

And while Trump could sell himself as an outsider in 2016, promising to stand up for communities like the Mahoning Valley, this time around, Denison notes, “With the pandemic, with the fires out west, with the violence by police in the streets . . . all of this is happening under his watch, this is what he has been doing for four years.” 

In 2016, some workers thought that Trump might shake things up. “We—I shouldn’t say we because I didn’t vote for him, but—elected a fake populist, and he doesn’t have our backs,” Denison says. “People can only take a beating for so long, and the working class and the working poor have been taking a beating for a long time.” 

Right now, Denison is fired up to get Trump out of office, but, he warns, “the real fight starts November 4, to ensure that everybody has a right to see a doctor, everybody has a right to a good paying job, everybody has a right to clean air, clean water, clean soil, and we have justice in our streets. It’s going to be us that has to make it happen.”

Sarah Jaffe

Sarah Jaffe

Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at the Type Media Center, covering labor, economic justice, social movements, politics, gender, and pop culture. She is the author of the book, Necessary Trouble: America's New Radicals (Nation Books/2016). Follow her on Twitter: @sarahljaffe.

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