in Muncie, Indiana. After years of eroding prosperity and dwindling
power, they think they’ve found their champion.)
MUNCIE, Indiana – One night a month, retired auto workers shuffle
into a former elementary school classroom here to discuss their legal
fight against the company that cancelled their health care benefits
seven years ago.
But the conversation often turns quickly to presidential politics.
can get pretty heated,” says Gerald Poor, the group’s 77-year-old
president, of their political discussions. “I call it to order if it
gets out of hand.”
Their anger is understandable. The group is a
remnant of a once-powerful United Auto Workers union local, which at its
peak in the 1960s represented over 5,000 workers who made transmissions
in Muncie for BorgWarner Inc, the global auto parts maker. An American
flag drapes the wall at one end of the room, portraits of former labor
bosses line the other, salvaged from a union hall that had its own
For this group of mostly white, working-class men,
the last two decades have brought much loss. In this election – with
the victory of the populist Donald Trump as the Republican Party nominee
and the strong run by the populist Bernie Sanders for the Democratic
Party crown – many say they feel they’re finally being heard again.
Working-class white men were once a force to be reckoned with in
American politics. Many here speak wistfully of how John F. Kennedy
stopped at BorgWarner to talk to workers when he campaigned in 1960. For
these men, this year’s election is a rare taste of the clout they once
took for granted.
In the primary, Trump received the most votes of
any candidate in either party in Delaware County, which encompasses
Muncie. Just over 52 percent of Republican voters went for Trump.
Democrats picked Sanders over Hillary Clinton by an even wider margin.
in the past made a lot of promises to the working class in this country
and failed to follow through with it,” says 66-year-old Bruce Reynolds,
who followed his father and grandfather into a career at BorgWarner.
through the rusted chain link fence that encircles the sprawling,
abandoned factory, where he notes with precision that he worked for “32
and a half years,” he says he’s still skeptical of both side’s promises.
Trump nor Clinton was his first choice. Reynolds and his wife voted for
Sanders in the primary, he says. Among other things, they couldn’t
support Clinton: She’s the wife of former President Bill Clinton, who
signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which many here blame
for Muncie’s economic decline. They were uneasy with the often fiery
rhetoric of Trump, the other side’s top candidate.
Yet both plan to vote for Trump in November, and Reynolds says they’ve grown comfortable with the choice.
“I know, it sounds like we’re confused,” he says. But they’re not.
many Trump supporters, he glides over the unappealing aspects of the
candidate’s message to lock onto those that he likes. For Reynolds, it’s
the hope of bringing back jobs for his children, some of whom still
struggle to find decent work.
Trump’s gloomy world view is often
dismissed as hyperbole, such as when he described crime and collapsed
economies in America’s cities at the Republican National Convention. But
for someone in Muncie, that’s not far off reality.
An analysis by
Reuters found Delaware County is an extreme example of the declining
fortunes of America’s white working-class men.
In 2000, white men with less than a college degree accounted for
about three-quarters of all white men living in the county. By 2014,
their proportion had dropped by about 5 percentage points, according to
the U.S. Census Bureau. But while this group’s share of the population
held relatively steady, the earnings of white men with full-time jobs
had fallen dramatically.
In 2000, 47 percent of white men working
full time were in the bottom third of earners, with incomes of $50,000
or less based on 2015 dollars. By 2014, 60 percent of them were in the
Meanwhile, the percentage of white men in full-time
jobs making between $50,000 and $100,000 dropped from 43 percent to 32
percent. And the percentage in the ranks of earners above $100,000
slipped from 11 percent to 8 percent.
In essence, white men in
Muncie have slid down from every rung of the economic ladder. They have
clustered at the bottom, poorer and more isolated than before, even as
the overall U.S. economy has grown and globalized.
The same trend is visible in faded industrial pockets from New Jersey and upstate New York to Alabama and Kentucky.
According to the data, in about 1,800 counties across the United
States—nearly 60 percent of those where data is available—the share of
white men in the lowest group of earners has grown over this period. The
trend is particularly pronounced in the Rust Belt states of Michigan,
Ohio and Indiana.
Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New
York University’s Stern School of Business, studies how people adopt
their political beliefs. “Trump is the first candidate to speak to—and
speak for—working-class white men in a long time,” Haidt says. That
separates him from the last two Republican nominees. Mitt Romney, who
lost in 2012, didn’t do that, “and John McCain didn’t particularly reach
out to that constituency” in 2008.
As for Trump’s extreme
positions and outright falsehoods, Haidt notes, “If your hero says
things that are untrue, you’ll cut him slack.”
Muncie was once the
epitome of America’s muscular manufacturing economy. After natural gas
was discovered here late in the 19th century, the city attracted dozens
of energy-intensive glass manufacturers, most notably Ball Corp, which
built sprawling factories that churned out millions of mason jars.
auto industry followed, and Muncie became a hub for transmission
making. The term “Muncie transmission” is still used by hot rod
enthusiasts when talking about gearboxes produced here by General Motors
Corp in the 1960s. One particularly powerful version is the “rock
crusher,” used in Corvettes and other muscle cars.
BorgWarner, based in Auburn Hills, Michigan, has even deeper roots in
Muncie than GM. Warner Gear was founded here in 1901 and merged with
other businesses to create what became BorgWarner in the late 1920s.
Many former workers here still call it Warner Gear.
In the 1920s, a
husband-and-wife team of sociologists picked the city to study the
values in a typical American community. They called it “Middletown,” to
conceal the identity of a place they felt was emblematic of the country
as a whole. Muncie residents soon figured out it was all about them.
Center for Middletown Studies—at Ball State University—has continued
the work, compiling oral histories and, in recent years, focused on the
devastation of deindustrialization. James Connolly, a history professor
who runs the center, says that more than anything else, Muncie’s
working-class white men feel a loss of power. When the big factories
were humming, the unions were an unstoppable force—not just for getting
good paychecks and lush benefits, but a voice in almost everything else.
illustrate this power, he cites a locally famous episode from the
1960s, when waitresses at a big downtown hotel went on strike for higher
“A group of police got rough and tried to break up the
pickets,” says Connolly. A local union leader—who had nothing to do with
the waitresses, other than knowing about them through community
connections—called the then-mayor, who was visiting Washington, and
“ordered him home” to intervene. The mayor returned and the police
“The strikers weren’t union members—but there was a
system of connections that gave them a sense of control,” says Connolly.
With the decline of the unions, working-class people “feel like they’ve
been robbed of that voice.”
And yet unions, which were unable to
prevent the factory closures that ravaged the city, are often viewed
just as suspiciously here as most national politicians are. That tension
is visible at the old school where the BorgWarner retirees meet.
Muncie Delaware County Senior Center was created to give retirees from
the big factories–particularly men–a place to go for companionship and
activities. One recent day, the room the BorgWarner retirees use was
filled with seniors learning line dancing.
“Some people don’t like the photos” of the union leaders, says Jim
Shields, a janitor, motioning toward the 10 portraits that adorn the
front of the room. They feel the images carry an implicitly political,
pro-union message. So, there was a fuss the last time the building was
used as a polling station, he said. “We had complaints.” Now, when the
BorgWarner retiree group isn’t meeting, Shields carefully drapes a long
bolt of fabric over the pictures to conceal them.
Michael Hicks, a
Ball State economist who studies manufacturing, says a mix of
exasperation with unions and the political elite created the perfect
opening for Trump. “It’s always easier to blame a larger force for your
problems, whether that’s Mexicans or greedy factory owners,” he says.
“But these people aren’t stupid. They know the jobs aren’t coming back.”
The bigger concern for many of them, he says, is what will happen to
The Reynolds family is a good example. Bruce
Reynolds’s oldest son, Bruce Jr, is a Baptist pastor and is supporting
Trump, albeit reluctantly. “I don’t think any of them can fix it,” Bruce
Jr says of the fallout he sees from economic hardship in his
congregation, from growing drug addiction to broken families.
second son, Robert, followed his father into BorgWarner after high
school. That job didn’t last. After just four years, he was laid off in
1994 during a wave of downsizing. He and his father say it was a trauma
from which he never fully recovered.
“I make $8 an hour less now than I made 21 years ago,” says Robert,
who enthusiastically backs Trump. After a series of low-paying jobs,
including a stint at Wal-Mart and as a manager of a video store, he now
works overnight shifts at a warehouse for $18 an hour. He likes the job,
he says, although the company recently cut three paid holidays,
including the Fourth of July.
Robert concedes that he finds the
Republican candidate’s approach to foreign policy worrisome. “You wonder
if something will upset him and he’ll declare war,” he says. “That
would be awful.” He also doesn’t like how race and immigration has
become a theme in the campaign. “This country was built on bring us your
tired, your poor–I think we should honor what our forefathers built,”
But he also doesn’t believe Trump’s message is racist. “I
think he’s looking at all the illegal activity going on in the U.S. and
how it affects the job market,” he says. “He’s just not very tactful”
in how he expresses this. Meanwhile, Trump’s promise to restore the
economy is the draw.
To be sure, Muncie has retained some of its
smaller factories, and other jobs have come in, including a call center
that tracks down delinquent student loans and a Caterpillar Inc
locomotive factory that moved into an old plant. But none of these are
unionized, and the wages and benefits aren’t as high as the old places
One frustration for locals is that the statistical
measures of the economy don’t seem to reflect what they see around them.
Muncie’s jobless rate is 5.7 percent, less than one percentage point
higher than the national rate of 4.9 percent or Indiana’s 4.6 percent.
But the impact of deindustrialization—including the exodus of over
10,000 factory jobs since 1970 in a city of only 70,000 people—is
visible almost everywhere.
Most of the departing companies tore
down their factories, leaving lots strewn with weeds and rubble.
BorgWarner left a handful of structures—including a 1.2
million-square-foot sprawl of red brick and steel near the edge of town.
city, especially the once-thriving white working-class neighborhoods on
the south side, is now dotted with over 2,000 abandoned houses. Some
can’t be occupied because they were contaminated by chemicals left
behind by meth labs.
Meanwhile, the FBI recently opened a probe
of the city government, which appears to be focused on possible
corruption in its blight clearing program and the sanitation district.
The FBI wouldn’t comment on the investigation, and Mayor Dennis Tyler
said he can’t talk about it. There have been no indictments in the case,
and it’s possible no charges will result.
Mayor Tyler, a
Democrat, notes the jobless rate stood just under 10 percent four years
ago, when he took office, so there’s been improvement. But he
understands working-class frustration.
“They feel they’ve
intentionally been left behind by trade agreements this country imposed
on them over the last 25 years,” says Tyler.
Trump’s appeal here
isn’t restricted to working-class white men. Another local supporter is
Todd Murray, president and CEO of family-owned Mursix Corp, which makes
auto parts including tiny switches that go inside door locks and
interior lights. His company has grown rapidly in recent years and now
employs over 300 people.
Murray says he knows some of Trump’s
trade proposals—such as putting hefty tariffs on goods from Mexico and
China—could hit his own business. He exports 60 percent of his output,
mostly to Mexico, and operates his own small plant in China. But he
insists he’s “not smart enough to know how that would all shake out.” He
still strongly favors the Republican standard bearer, who he sees as
But the economy alone doesn’t explain Trump’s
appeal. Another family with deep roots at BorgWarner is the Lephart
clan. At one point in the 1950s and 1960s, the patriarch and nine of his
sons worked there, a fact immortalized in the company magazine by a
photo of the group posed on a tall step ladder, each holding a lunch
bucket, except for the brother at the top, who holds the family dog.
Lephart, whose father is one of the nine brothers, avoided the decline
entirely through shrewd job-hopping and retraining—but he’s still a
Trump supporter. He commutes to a UAW job as a pipefitter at a GM plant
in Marion, Indiana. He earns about $100,000 a year, with overtime, he
says, and has put both of his children through college.
58-year-old says one thing that influenced his transition from Democrat
to Republican was talking to his children, whom he describes as part of
the “business world.” His son is now a stockbroker in Indianapolis.
the first half of my life, I thought Democrat was the only way to be,”
Lephart says. “There’s this belief that you can’t be Republican and
union—but I don’t believe that any more.”
5.7 percent. But the city of 70,000 has lost 10,000 factory jobs since