There is little question that when President Trump holds a rally in Moon Township, Pa., on Saturday night, he will tout the tariffs he imposed on imported steel and aluminum this week.
Western Pennsylvania is steel country, after all, so his message should play well there. But it will likely resonate with millions of other Americans, well beyond steel plants.
That is because, on top of all the economic implications of new tariffs, trade is also an identity issue. That doesn't mean it's overtly a race or gender issue, as the phrase "identity politics" tends to evoke — rather, it taps into a specific idea of what it means to be American. That identity is loaded with nostalgia and emotion, which together have been at the core of Trump's message since Day 1 and appealed to millions of white, working-class voters who supported his campaign.
Trade taps into America's identity as a country that makes things. Political discourse surrounding trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership has a tendency to focus heavily on manufacturing, even though TPP also dealt in large ways with intellectual property, environmental regulations and labor standards.
And that means that messages surrounding these tariffs may resonate deeply with some voters.
"People — especially when you go to Trump voters — they have this view of manufacturing that's really emotionally packed," said Jeremy Rosner, executive vice president at Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner.
"There's definitely a huge, nostalgic '50s, '60s, heyday-of-America, Rosie-the-Riveter-laden kind of thing around manufacturing. So people in those communities who hear Trump or whoever it is talking about protecting those jobs, there's a lot of emotional overtones."
To be clear, trade packs far more than nostalgic resonance for some voters. Those who work in manufacturing and manufacturing-adjacent industries and fear that their jobs or cities will be hurt by offshoring have much more concrete fears and hopes surrounding these types of policy proposals.
But for many other Americans, championing manufacturing evokes an America that — at least, in the rearview mirror — looks rosier.
"Manufacturing is who we thought we were not all that long ago. Think of World War II, right? 'The arsenal of democracy,' " said Thomas Frank, political analyst and author, referencing President Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1940 speech encouraging the United States to ramp up manufacturing.
"That's who we thought we were not all that long ago. That's what the prosperity of lots of places depended on."
Manufacturing is strong ... but not manufacturing jobs
Note the past tense Frank uses there — depended. When Trump (or any other politician) laments the decline in manufacturing, he is talking about a decline in manufacturing employment, which has dropped precipitously since its height in the 1970s.
But importantly, manufacturing output has grown in recent decades.
This is in large part about automation. America has been able to crank out a wealth of manufactured goods with fewer and fewer workers, meaning trade won't bring many of those jobs back.
And that means, strictly by the employment numbers, America is far from being the manufacturing country it once was. Rather, it has become an office-worker country, a health care country, a retail country and a government worker country. Those industries that have surpassed manufacturing employment since its heyday.
But regardless of all that, the industry has maintained a hold on the American psyche, says one GOP strategist.
"It wasn't that long ago that you couldn't find a politician who [would] drive a foreign car. Every car had to be made in America," said Republican strategist Alex Conant. "That sent an important signal to voters that they respected the American manufacturing."
"And then I think culturally, certainly the blue-collar jobs where you punch in and punch out and wear a hard hat or work on the factory floor, those are core parts of the American identity, as opposed to sitting in the office," Conant said.
America's businesses know this, too.
In 2013, AdAge declared it "cool again to be 'Made in America.' " The CEO of a metal stamping company wrote in 2015 at Industry Week that one reason Americans want to buy American-made products goes beyond patriotism — rather, it's that they "evoke our nation's rugged individualism or imply an artisanal mystique."
And these businesses are happy to advertise their potential to boost American manufacturing. When ExxonMobil in 2017 made an ad burnishing the company's image — touting emissions reductions and supporting jobs — it led with a message that it was "powering a manufacturing revival."
Companies further removed from goods production know this, as well. Walmart, which has long championed "made in America" products, singled out its hopes to boost manufacturing in a 2013 campaign. Economists disagree on whether there is something inherently beneficial to manufacturing jobs, as opposed to well-paying jobs in other industries. But in the American mind, Frank said, that is beside the point.
"I can totally understand why people from a completely nuts-and-bolts, strictly numbers-based, reality-based point of view understand why people like manufacturing," he said. He points to the fact that these jobs were both plentiful and well-paying at a time when economic inequality also wasn't so stark.
"People are right to be nostalgic for that, to want that back," he said. "Whether they can get it back is another question."
Trump's politics of nostalgia
For Trump, with his "Make America Great Again" campaign tagline, championing manufacturing fits in perfectly with his message.
"He has an impressively integrated narrative that is very nostalgic," Rosner said. "The phrase 'Make America Great Again' is backwards-looking, It's evoking a time when a certain kind of people felt on top of the world, and it was kind of a white manufacturing, more rural and suburban population on top of the world."
Likewise, Trump's pledge to be the president of "forgotten" Americans is an inherently nostalgic idea, implying that there was a time when these people were front and center.
But trade isn't the only issue on which Trump has painted a rosier past. Many such comments are about broader cultural debates.
"In the good old days, they'd rip him out of that seat so fast," Trump said of a protester at a 2016 rally. "But today, everyone is so politically correct. Our country is going to hell — we're being politically correct."
He has brought gender into his nostalgic politics as well. "All of the men, we're petrified to speak to women anymore, we may raise our voice — you know what, the women get it better than we do, folks, they get it better than we do," he said at another campaign rally.
"Globalization, civil rights, empowerment of women, LGBTQ, the decline of manufacturing, the rise of information technologies, the world becoming less unipolar, all those things are threatening potentially to those who thrill to that era," Rosner said. "A lot of what explains global politics right now is a backlash to those forces, and Trump tapped into it, Brexit tapped into it."
Of course, it's not just economics or national mythos that keep manufacturing front and center on the campaign trail. Straight-up politics plays a big role as well, since battleground states like Iowa, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin happen to be among the states whose economies are most heavily reliant upon manufacturing.
Not only that, but it's also one area where opinions aren't strictly along party lines, meaning there's the potential to appeal to voters on either side of the aisle with trade policy.
Meanwhile, the love of manufacturing will remain embedded in Americans' brains.
"What is the wavelength on national narrative change — national mythology change?" said Rosner. "I think it's long. We still revere the family farmer, and it's more than a century since we've had any share of our population involved in family farming."
So will political ads someday glorify the home health aide, the computer programmer or the grocery cashier the same way they do manufacturing workers? Not soon, Rosner added.
"I think these things change real gradually," he said. "These things are pretty hardwired. They're pretty deep in our DNA."
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Trade issues were a big part of Trump's appeal in America's industrial areas, where he brought out a big surge of working-class, white voters. Danielle Kurtzleben writes for NPR Politics on our website. And she writes that it is his own form of identity politics. She's with us now. Good morning.
DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Hey, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Democrats have been criticized for relying too heavily on identity politics - so, you know, appealing to voters based on their race or their gender or their sexual orientation. How does the president turn trade into an identity issue?
KURTZLEBEN: Right. So it's really easy to think of identity politics, you know, the way that it's often talked about in political discourse these days, which is that it's just about race or gender. But American voters, on both sides of the aisle, identify in all sorts of ways. You can identify as a gun owner. You can identify by your religion. So when politicians talk about trade, manufacturing really is the key. And these new Trump tariffs - by the way, they're about steel and aluminum. So they're about manufacturing. And Americans have a very emotional connection to manufacturing. Political strategists on both sides of the aisle have told me that. There's the sense among Americans that manufacturing jobs are special, that there is a certain kind of dignity about them, that they provide a decent wage - even for Americans who have no connection to that factory floor.
MONTAGNE: But how does trade, as a part of the American identity, compare with trade as part of the U.S. economy?
KURTZLEBEN: There's a lot more to trade than manufacturing. But we are talking about political speak. So manufacturing is what we're going to zoom in on here. Now, manufacturing is still a sizable part of the U.S. economy. During the 1990s, manufacturing employment was on the downswing. But manufacturing output was on the upswing. A big part of that is automation. We just got way more efficient at it. So even while factories were shedding workers, we were doing much better at manufacturing. So, you know, to get back to the identity once again, back in the '40s, '50s, around one-third of American workers were involved in manufacturing. Today, that's much smaller. Instead of being a manufacturing country by employment now, we're a health care country. We are a country of teachers, of clerks at grocery stores, of government workers, office workers. That's really more what we are now.
MONTAGNE: Well, then when we talk about identity politics - and we often talk about it in relation to race or gender - here, with this more occupational form of identity, what still makes it so effective for political campaigns?
KURTZLEBEN: Well, so identity politics writ large is very effective politically because it invokes a feeling of belonging. I mean, the answer is right there - right? - in the word identity. People are emotionally tied to the ideas - these stories they have of who they are. You can make the case pretty easily that they're more tied to that than they're tied to particular, you know, taxes or tariffs or what have you. Now, manufacturing isn't overtly about race or gender. But, you know, Donald Trump's whole political persona is about nostalgia, right? Make America Great Again. America's forgotten people.
He's a very backward-looking guy. And he likes to harken back to this era - the '40s, the '50s, the '60s, the '70s - when manufacturing employment was on the upswing. So that is how he brings that into it. And as one Democratic strategist, Jeremy Rosner, explained to me, harkening back to the era of the 1950s isn't just about harkening back to manufacturing. It's about harkening back to this time when a particular group of Americans - particularly white Americans and white men - were really on top.
MONTAGNE: That's NPR political reporter Danielle Kurtzleben. Thanks very much.
KURTZLEBEN: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.