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US election campaign: The forgotten parts of America


The industrial heartland of the United States began to decline long ago. The citizens there elected Trump as president. Even if he is voted out, the frustration remains - and will occupy his successors.

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Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty Images

So said the now most powerful man in the world: "The forgotten men and women of our country will no longer be forgotten. Everyone is listening to you now."

It was a big passage in Donald Trump's inauguration speech in January 2017. Classic populism, sure, but it wasn't all wrong about it.

To the author


Institute for Journalism, TU Dortmund

Henrik Müller

is professor for economic journalism at the Technical University of Dortmund.

Before that, the graduate economist worked as deputy editor-in-chief of manager magazin.

In addition, Müller is the author of numerous books on economic and monetary issues.

Every week he gives a pointed outlook on the most important economic events of the week for SPIEGEL.

There are vast stretches of land in America that practically play no role in the perception of the nation.

In the major media they only appear marginally.

Popular culture largely ignores them.

Foreign correspondents rarely get lost there.

The image that America reveals of itself is determined by the predominantly affluent regions on the east and west coasts: from Boston to Miami on the Atlantic and from Seattle to San Diego on the Pacific.

In between lies a vast mass of land that is often overlooked, or perhaps "forgotten", as Trump put it.

Americans call these areas

fly-over country


After Trump's election, some reporters sought explanations for this egregious accident of democracy and went to the country - exotic excursions.

But this search has largely stopped.

In the meantime, reporting is again primarily about Trump as a person: the prepotent president as a fascination.

Disguised look

The focus on the metropolises on the coasts and their management staff obstructs the view of the true state of a country that has largely undergone considerable social upheavals.

The frustration and aggression that have gripped politics in recent years are the result of a long history.

The middle is thinned out

The epicenter of this development are the old industrial regions south of the Great Lakes.

The Midwest has been experiencing de-industrialization since the 1980s, which is now well advanced.

It is not that the economy is standing still in the "rust belt".

But the old structures have broken down faster than new ones have emerged over the years.

Many decently paid industrial jobs that offered reasonably secure employment prospects, with health insurance and pension rights, have disappeared.

New jobs were created for the highly qualified and for cheap jobbers.

The middle is thinned out.

Around 60 million people live in this area.

You are still sending a significant portion of Congressmen to Washington.

Presidential elections are decided not least in states like Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

In 2016, it was particularly the electors from the Midwest who elected Trump as the 45th US President.

In the current polls, challenger Joe Biden is ahead in many rustbelt states.

But in many places his leadership is extremely tight.

As expected, Trump with his protectionist course by no means initiated the announced reindustrialization, but prevented investments - and made many jobs less secure.

Whether Biden can actually benefit from Trump's mistakes on election night is uncertain.

Perhaps many of those who have been disappointed again simply do not cast any more votes.

Distorted picture from Europe

Outside of the Midwest, the symptoms of the crisis were barely noticed for a long time.

The European image of the American economy was shaped by the IT companies on the west coast in the 1990s, the financial giants of Wall Street in the 2000s, and the data giants of Silicon Valley in the millennia.

A game of ping pong between the east and west coasts.

What happened in the space in between was of little interest.

We Europeans in particular perceived the USA as a challenge - either as an opponent or as a role model - and we liked to overlook its contradicting complexity.

In the 2000s and early 2000s, I was often out and about as a reporter for manager magazin in the USA, especially in the Midwest.

I met with governors and mayors, with top managers and company founders, and with a lot of ordinary people.

I looked around in places like Canton, Ohio, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Lansing, Michigan, or Indianapolis, Indiana.

It was astonishing how much the picture on site differed from what was reported back then about the USA.

I vividly remember meeting Janet Creighton in the summer of 2006, when she was Mayor of Canton.

A study by the think tank Brookings had just calculated that no other metropolitan area in the US suffered greater losses in industrial jobs than their city.

But the mayor was a staunch Republican, a supporter of the then President George W. Bush and the firm belief that a recovery of her city - and the country in general - must come first and foremost from the citizens themselves.

"We have become a lazy society," said Creighton.

She stood at the window of her office and pointed down at her city.

This is where she grew up and where she had lived all her life.

"Many people still have not understood that the industrial age is over, that their employers no longer do everything for them, that they have to take care of their own training."

It is terrible.

She really couldn't hear the whining anymore.

And then a little sermon broke out from Creighton, who was raised a Republican Calvinist: "Of course the situation is not easy and it will be a long time before we are out of the woods, but people just want someone to be responsible for their situation Look at me: I don't have a college degree, I had my first child when I was 18. Then another, got divorced, had two jobs at the same time to support my children, I know exactly what kind of situation these people are in .

I walked in their shoes

. "

So pull yourself together!

That was their message.

The conversation took place in autumn 2006.

(You can read the article here.) The real estate bubble was already about to burst.

Then it happened in quick succession.

In 2007 the financial crisis began slowly.

In New York, I saw finance executives who thought America was "flushing itself down the drain".

A year later, for another story, I met then-Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, an aristocratic Democrat.

General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler, all based in their state, were already on the verge of bankruptcy.

We had a long talk about this deepest crisis in the nation for generations.

At the end she said this very American phrase: "I've had enough of all the talk about doom and gloom - it's time for something new to begin."

Times got tougher

Shortly thereafter, the Lehman Brothers investment bank collapsed.

The financial crisis took its course.

Times got tougher, especially in the industrial heartland of the USA.

But at the same time something new actually began: in the autumn of that year a majority elected the liberal pragmatist Barack Obama as president.

A democrat, not an old white man, and one who could preach so beautifully about "Hope" and "Change".

On the right, the tea party movement was gaining strength within the Republican Party.

The classic conservatives fell behind.

The Grand Old Party was starting to splinter.

The tea party movement gave a first impression of the vehemence with which right-wing populism can stir up the establishment - and how it can obscure common sense in the political debate.

In 2010, Mitch Daniels, then governor of Indiana, toyed with the idea of ​​running in the Republican primary.

He was a classic moderate Republican: sober, non-ideological, results-oriented, fiscally conservative, an honest worker for Indiana as a business location.

An anti-Trump.

We sat together in his office for two hours.

It was a hot September day.

more on the subject

Political structural change: Bullshit undermines democracyA column by Henrik Müller

Had Daniels started, the story might have taken a different course.

Who knows.

He finally decided against it, probably also because Obama was too popular and US politics were already so polarized back then that hardly anything was going on.

In Congress, Republicans and Democrats had largely stopped working together.

In 2012 Mitt Romney ran against Obama and lost - a defeat that ultimately paved the way for Donald Trump.

On one of these research trips more than a decade ago, I met Grant Aldonas, a traditional conservative economic politician, in Washington.

He had served as Secretary of State in George W. Bush's first term.

"What we are currently experiencing goes to the core of our identity," he said.

"And the strange thing is: none of the parties manages to absorb these fears and translate them into political programs."

Everything was prepared for Trump: the issues, the frustration, the aggression, the incipient polarization.

We could have been prepared for the populist president.

After Trump

Trump managed to win the 2016 election not only because he was and is a TV celebrity and nefarious populist, but also because he took up all the negative feelings and put them into simple, aggressive slogans.

As early as the two thousanders, China and Mexico were haunted by the debates as enemy images.

Defensive battles were thought to be a "war against the middle class".

A bill has been prepared in Congress to impose tariffs on Chinese imports to protect American industrial jobs.

George W. Bush's administration promised to build a 1000-kilometer fence along the Mexican border to ward off illegal immigrants.

more on the subject

The Crumble of Democracy: The Triumph of the Aluminum HatA column by Henrik Müller

All of these issues were already under discussion ten years before Trump took office.

We should have been warned.

All it took was one candidate who accepted them without any qualms.

A concept, a plan, a strategy seemed superfluous.

A few set pieces were enough, repeatedly and emotionally charged in speeches, interviews, tweets.

Not much has changed in that respect to this day.

Joe Biden could become a better US president: organized, well-advised, milder in tone, willing to cooperate internationally.

But we shouldn't be under any illusions: As things are in the heartland of the United States, which is rich in votes, he would hardly be able to take any other positions than Trump on many points.

Protectionist trade policy, reduced US military presence in Europe (including the debate about our defense contributions to NATO), restrictive immigration policy - all of these will remain.

No matter who wins the election on November 3rd.

We should be prepared.

The main economic events of the week ahead

Monday Up Arrow Down Arrow

Luxembourg / Beijing -

sweet and sour

- the statisticians of the EU and the PR China present new figures on economic development.

Reporting season I

- business figures from Philips, Investor, IBM.

Tuesday Up Arrow Down Arrow

Reporting season II

- business figures from Sartorius, Danone, Kuehne & Nagel, UBS, Volvo AB, Netflix, Procter & Gamble, Snap, Philip Morris.

Wednesday Up Arrow Down Arrow

Reporting Season III

- Akzo Nobel, Iberdrola, Nestle, Randstad, Ericsson, Tesla, Whirlpool, Verizon business figures.

Thursday Up Arrow Down Arrow

Nuremberg -

The mood in the re-shutdown

- GfK publishes its monthly study on the consumer climate in Germany.

Rising corona numbers and looming restrictions on public life should put the mood down.

Potsdam -

More money

- start of the third round of collective bargaining in the public service of the federal government and municipalities.

Washington -

Danger Zone

- New numbers on initial jobless claims in the US.

Reporting Season IV

- Financials from Michelin, L'Oréal, Dassault Systemes, Thales, Southwest Airlines, AT&T, Dow.

Friday Up Arrow Down Arrow

Nashville -

Donald vs.


- Last scheduled TV debate between US President Trump and his challenger Biden.

Reporting season V

- Business figures from Daimler, KWS Saat, Renault, Air Liquide, Electrolux, Faurecia, ABB, Barclays, American Express.

Source: spiegel

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