New York Magazine


Ford employees from the Dearborn, Michigan, area in their cars.

THE 10,000 residents of Flat Rock, Michigan, are cheerful lately—you might even say optimistic. Fifteen new businesses have opened in the past year, including Blue Heron Trading Company, a candle-scented gift shop selling local jams and jellies, and a Burger King franchise directly across the street from the Ford Motor Company assembly plant, which the town mayor, a baby-faced 43-year-old man named Jonathan Dropiewski, enthusiastically calls “a license to print money!” There’s a spanking-new Meijer big-box store, which last summer hired more than 300 people, and dozens of new homes have been built, mostly in subdivisions, some selling for north of $350,000. All this blooming industry and prosperity was a matter of fact even before Donald Trump took up the cause of Flat Rock, and other industrial towns like it, relentlessly targeting and humiliating Ford for shipping jobs overseas—ultimately shaming the company into adding 700 jobs to the Flat Rock plant. Which, politics aside, was the culmination of a very good year.

The small towns encircling Detroit resemble nothing so much as feudal villages: grids of neat, one-story workers’ homes growing up around a great manufacturing plant. Ford operates 14 factories in Michigan; Chrysler and General Motors, a dozen each. Auto-industry economists calculate that one new automaking job has a multiplier effect of between five and seven, meaning that one new worker at Flat Rock begets five to seven additional jobs: glass workers, steel workers, and truck drivers to service car production; fast-food workers and auto mechanics and hotel clerks to service the workers themselves; robotics and AI engineers who consult at HQ. “Is Flat Rock dependent on that plant?” asks Dropiewski. “Absolutely it is.”

Ford employees from the Dearborn, Michigan, area in their cars.

So when, as Trump launched his presidential campaign, Ford announced it was moving the assembly of its Focus, a fuel-efficient economy car, to a plant the bosses would build in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, it tapped into a latent dread—especially 22 miles north, in Wayne, home to the Michigan Assembly Plant, where the Focus is made. Trump seized the moment, making Ford a villain on the stump and relentlessly harassing the company on Twitter. During a visit to Flint in September, the would-be president excoriated the company: “They’ll employ thousands and thousands of people not from this country, and they’ll sell the cars right through our border.” In the first presidential debate, Trump called NAFTA “one of the worst things that ever happened to the manufacturing industry,” and when Hillary Clinton responded to Trump dismissively—“Well, that’s your opinion”—“our hearts went through our chest,” says Brad Markell, executive director of the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Council. In the industrial Midwest, NAFTA is shorthand for everything bad that has happened to manufacturing over the past 25 years. The United Auto Workers endorsed Clinton, but in Flat Rock, the residents went for Trump.

Ford executives were thin-skinned about the critique, and who could blame them? This was a great American company, an iconic brand, the only one of the Big Three auto manufacturers that did not declare bankruptcy in 2009 (though it survived thanks to a government loan). By 2016, Ford was posting record profits—$4.6 billion that year—and hiring new people, so initially it held the line. “Ford has more hourly employees and produces more vehicles in the U.S. than any other automaker,” it tweeted in its own defense. But last summer, Bill Ford Jr., Henry’s great-grandson, paid a call to Trump Tower, and in January, the company seemed to cave, announcing it was ceasing construction on the San Luis Potosí plant, even though cement had already been poured. Over the next several months, the details—many of which Ford and the union said were long planned—became clearer. Ford would still move the Focus to Mexico, but the car would be

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