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Did Donald Trump Kill the ‘Rust Belt’?

Trump’s doom and gloom is out of step with the times. Folks are ready to move on from the chronic pessimism associated with the moniker.

By Jim Russell


Pamphlets on the chairs of the state delegates on the floor of the Republican National Convention the morning of the first day at the Quicken Loans Arena on July 18, 2016, in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

Cleveland, Ohio, is the capital of Rust Belt shame. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the 1980s epitomized the birth of the moniker. In the midst of the 1984 presidential campaign, Walter Mondale blamed Ronald Reagan for “the vast Rust Bowl with tragic unemployment and broken dreams all through the great industrial Midwest.” At the time, Pittsburgh was the biggest slag heap of broken dreams. But Cleveland, among large cities, remained under that dark cloud the longest.

This summer, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers broke that spell. The championship drought was over. Instead of lamenting the past, the region looked forward. It hosted, successfully, the Republican National Convention. The world and residents of Northeast Ohio discovered a new Cleveland, a post-Rust Belt reality:

If John Brabender (“Trump’s Best Path to Victory,” op-ed, July 19) thinks he has a better idea for his nominee to win “the Rust Belt,” he might start by labeling my vibrant, innovative and progressive part of our country with a different description. That just may be why Republican strategists based in Washington keep losing elections.

Senator Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio)

U.S. Senator Brown sparked a strong backlash against the term “Rust Belt.” Re-branding campaigns have come and gone. I’ve been a party to a tongue-in-cheek movement to turn the pejorative on its head, coining “Rust Belt chic.” But if a presidential campaign giveth, it can taketh away.

Donald Trump, the GOP nominee, invokes the same 1984 economic nightmare Mondale did. In most places, such as Pittsburgh, the rhetoric seemed divorced from reality. In a surreal turn at a campaign rally in the wealthiest county in America, Trump told his audience: “You’re doing lousy over here, by the way, I hate to tell you.”

Much of Ohio, including Cleveland, would have nodded in agreement with Trump’s Rust Belt depiction. Brown himself champions the struggling working class and its blue-collar values. “Vibrant” comes out of one side of Brown’s mouth while the other criticizes China for undermining the prosperity of his constituency. His anti-Trump rhetoric doesn’t match his preferred policies.

For the many parts of Cleveland that remain Rust Belt, the overall psychology has changed. The glass is half full instead of broken. Folks are ready to move on from the chronic pessimism. The days of “Rust Belt” are numbered.

Trump’s anachronistic doom and gloom, however, is out of step with what the term has come to mean. In the Rust Belt, manufacturing used to dominate employment. That’s still the case, ever more true with each passing month. The implosion of Mondale’s Rust Bowl sparked an exodus of people that still haunts Pittsburgh’s demographics today:

No longer is our region’s biggest challenge creating enough jobs to put everybody back to work, the challenge for the next generation is preparing enough people to fill the jobs that are available today and that will be opening up in the years to come.

Maybe that’s what bugs me the most about the term, “Rust Belt.” It was a synonym for despair. I moved here at a time when that term rang true, when a region with a broken economy seemed to have few options. But the 1980s never broke our spirit. People came together, picked up the pieces, and created a diverse, 21st [century] economy with plenty of potential.

Yes, Rust Belt was a synonym for despair. Now the pejorative is a synonym for an indomitable spirit and a diverse, 21st-century economy. While the population continues to shrink, the labor force is at an all-time high with retirement looming for many. That’s the legacy of the 1980s, for Pittsburgh as well as Cleveland. The latter needed James and Trump in order to see it.