Michael Luongo: 'Springsteen paradox' is why Trump won Rust Belt states like Michigan
Coastal elites love his music but don't understand the figures who populate the Boss' ballads, he writes
Editor’s Note: Michael Luongo is a lecturer at the University of Michigan, teaching in the English Department Writing Program and a 2016 UM Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow. He is the author of 15 books, primarily on travel topics. The opinions expressed here are his own.
My first clue that something was up was the Bernie Sanders rally I attended at the University of Michigan.
Several thousand people (compared to the much smaller number who showed up for Hillary Clinton’s rally in nearby Detroit around the same time) filled the Crisler Center. Not all of them were students; in fact, many of the students hadn’t even been born in 1994 when NAFTA, one of Sanders’ immediate targets for criticism, was passed. But many of the people I saw that day had driven hours from the conservative western side of the state to hear Sanders’ populist message. They had lived with economic devastation (much of it caused by NAFTA and the Great Recession) and for many of them, the memory of the first pink-slip remains vivid. So it wasn’t a surprise to me that Sanders won the Democratic primary and despite fivethirtyeight.com’s predictions, I wasn’t shocked that Donald Trump won Michigan.
I could see it coming. I knew this would happen, because the Boss told me so.
Call it the “Springsteen paradox”: Coastal elites (and their Midwestern contemporaries) who might pay hundreds of dollars to see the famous singer perform his songs of working-class life have lost touch with the very people whose lives populate his ballads. In fact, the disconnect cuts both ways. Many of the very people Springsteen immortalized have now tuned out the Boss, who campaigned hard for Clinton, because of his politics. For decades, Springsteen has rallied for Democratic candidates, railing against Republicans, including Donald Trump, who insist on playing his songs at their events. Yet the men and women in Springsteen songs, decades after the “Born in the USA” album’s debut during the Reagan Democrats era, continue to flip parties.
I have a unique perspective on this paradox. The empty shell of a long-closed plant loomed large in the town I grew up in. The mill was on the edge of railroad tracks, the signs above its doorways and walkways peeling paint, the rebar in its docks rusting through flaked concrete. The factory was the Karagheusian Rug Mill, which at its peak in the 1930s employed 1,700 people. I didn’t grow up in the Rust Belt, but in Freehold, New Jersey, in the suburbs of the New York metropolitan region, within 50 miles of Times Square. Freehold also happens to be Bruce Springsteen’s hometown. (Though New Jersey went for Clinton, voters in Monmouth County, where Freehold is, chose Trump by a very comfortable 53% to 42% for Clinton.)
He memorialized the mill in his 1984 song “My Hometown.” with the famous lines: “They’re closing down the textile mill ‘cross the railroad tracks. Foreman says these jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back.” I was in high school when the song came out, sitting in class with the children of families who had devoted their working lives to making carpets that graced Radio City Music Hall, the United States Supreme Court and many other landmark buildings. I might have been middle class myself, the child of Harvard-educated parents, but the working class was not an abstraction to me; they were my friends and their families who were hit hard by the bad times that never seemed to end.
Now 30 years after high school, I’m based in Ann Arbor, one of the Midwest’s most elite academic bubbles. Living down the road from Detroit, it’s hard not to think of Bruce when listening to Rust Belt stories of economic struggle. Yet the students and wealthy locals I encounter in this liberal enclave seem entirely disconnected from the experience of the American worker so prevalent on the Sanders or Trump campaign trails.
I see the Springsteen paradox here in Ann Arbor, which, according to a 2015 study published in the Atlantic’s CityLab, is America’s eighth most economically segregated city. And it shows. In an undergraduate entrepreneur class I audited at the Ross Business School, I was struck that many students’ imaginary business plans spoke of manufacturing in China. In their defense, they are surrounded by industrial ruin, so maybe they see no hope for America’s manufacturing future. And though there are some University of Michigan programs looking at Detroit, still, I found myself asking, don’t they feel any sense of desire to put their fellow Americans back to work?
I get a different view traveling around this blue bubble. I’m living here without a car, which forces me to rely on buses and taxis, where I interact with people who have little or no access to Ann Arbor’s academic economy. Waiting for the Greyhound bus, for example, I chat with the chain-smoking window clerk, who, while grateful for her job, listed for me her resume of well-paying industrial jobs that no longer exist. At station stops throughout the Midwest, the same conversations would happen with other underemployed rural white workers, urban blacks and even young liberal first-generation university students who are not as well off as their wealthier classmates. Taxi drivers in Ann Abor and Detroit tell me about how apps popular with students — in fact with anyone with a smartphone — have decimated their work, which though never entirely secure did come with some protections.
In the Internet age, it’s easy for those of us who never interact with blue-collar workers to ignore how seemingly simple things we do harm them in ways invisible to us. Journalists are as culpable as anyone. Despite our own industry’s instability, we celebrate the disruptions of Uber, Airbnb and other apps that can lead to the loss of thousands of jobs, replacing them with precarious piecemeal work and leapfrogging over decades of progressive worker-protection legislation hard won by unions and community planning regulations meant to keep neighborhoods affordable for the working class.
And that’s what the Boss’ songs do so flawlessly. They take the plight of invisible Americans and make it impossible to turn away.
It’s easy now for journalists to engage in well-deserved self-flagellation for not having a better understanding of what happened in Michigan. But I wasn’t the only one predicting Trump’s strong performance here. The London Review of Books wrote on how Michigan’s Democratic US Rep. Debbie Dingell had been warning Clinton she was bound to lose the state unless she did more to solidify her position. (She didn’t, as we know now, declining to campaign in a “safe” state once she had won the nomination.) But this isn’t just about failing to predict an election outcome. The Springsteen paradox speaks to an empathy gap that needs to be closed.
We need to understand how the things we celebrate, or simply accept as economically inevitable— from apps to cheap clothes, imported food and toiletries — hurt American workers by shipping once seemingly untouchable jobs to Canada and Mexico. If you doubt me, take a look at the label of your Colgate toothpaste and your Oreo cookies the next time you’re at the grocery store. Living on the coasts, far from the center of American manufacturing, we might be blissfully unaware of these things, but the laid-off workers in the Midwest certainly are not.
So I come back to the Boss. How can we have so completely absorbed his lyrics into the cultural fabric of modern America but still not be ready to understand and do something about the plight of American workers? It might not be particularly romantic, but how many of us choose to visit a restaurant instead of using Seamless or choose the checkout line with an actual person to ring up our drugstore purchase instead of the automated scanners?
After the 2004 election, where despite the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and pending economic doom, George W. Bush won re-election, we said to ourselves we would listen more to the middle of the country. But instead both parties, with the leadership of President Barack Obama, pushed for job-damaging trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Clinton was for it as well, until she was forced to disavow it when Sanders and Trump bashed it successfully on the trail. We grew complacent, secure in our own echo-chamber, convinced that global trade is a modern inevitability and not reckoning the human cost.
The good news is that since the election, journalists are going to be more important than ever, and news consumers seem to be putting their money where their reading concerns are. Harvard’s Nieman Lab reported that since the election, digital subscriptions increased at The New York Times and elsewhere, and donations are on the rise to ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative media site.
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Journalism remains precarious, but perhaps re-engaging with the people we should be writing about can be the way we as journalists reassert our necessity to the democratic process. Otherwise, Springsteen, who recently received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, might be singing about us one day, except by then we won’t be able to afford to hear the show.