GM to Trump: Drop dead*

(*The headline is a play on the iconic New York Daily News front-page headline published Oct. 29, 1975, that read, “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” The story detailed a speech by then President Gerald Ford in which he denied federal assistance to spare New York City from bankruptcy.)

When General Motors gets around to tearing down the massive banner of the Chevrolet Cruze that has adorned the fa ßade of the Lordstown assembly plant for so many years, the empty space should be filled with a “huge” portrait of President Donald J. Trump, accompanied by this tug-at-the-heartstrings quote:

“I rode through your beautiful roads coming from the airport, and I was looking at some of those big, once incredible job-producing factories, and my wife, Melania, said, ‘What happened?’ I said, ‘Those jobs have left Ohio.’”

The president’s “promise” to the people of the Mahoning Valley should also be part of the fa ßade display:

“They’re all coming back. They’re all coming back. Don’t move. Don’t sell your house ... Do not sell it. We’re going to get those values up. We’re going to get those jobs coming back, and we’re going to fill up those factories or rip them down and build brand new ones. It’s going to happen.”

President Trump delivered that uplifting message in July 2017 to thousands of his rabid followers during a campaign-style rally at the Covelli Centre in downtown Youngstown.

The appearance by the Republican occupant of the White House in this traditionally Democratic stronghold was a victory lap of sorts. In the 2016 general election, Trump, the billionaire real-estate developer from New York City who had never run for office before, carried predominantly Democratic Trumbull County and came close to winning in heavily Democratic Mahoning County.

His “America First” message and his pledge to make this region a manufacturing powerhouse again resonated with blue-collar voters. His promise to reopen the huge steel mills that once dotted the banks of the Mahoning River had his followers seeing visions of sugar plum fairies dancing in their heads.

Steel was once king in the Valley, but all that changed in 1977 when the first of the giant mills closed. By the time the economic dust settled, more than 50,000 steel and non-steel jobs were lost.

The region still has not fully recovered economically, which is why Trump’s promise to rebuild America’s manufacturing muscle struck a chord with the residents of Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties.

Indeed, his commitment to force the Big Three American automakers – General Motors, Chrysler and Ford – to close assembly plants abroad and boost domestic production was music to the ears of Valleyites.

After all, General Motors’ Lordstown facility has been a major part of this region’s economic landscape since 1966 when the first car rolled off the assembly line.

Of course, Trump’s supporters were so eager to follow their savior to the land of milk and honey they failed to see the irony of his fire-and-brimstone speech.

Six months earlier, General Motors had eliminated the third shift at its Lordstown complex because demand for the once top-selling Chevrolet Cruze was falling – fast. The explanation given by GM as more than 1,200 jobs were eliminated is that customers are moving away from fuel-efficient sedans and towards crossovers, SUVs and trucks. The comparatively low cost of gas, coupled with the advancement in technology, means that for a lot of buyers bigger is better.

The elimination of the third shift in January 2017 was the shot across the bow. Yet, when Trump addressed his 7,000 Valley supporters at the Covelli Centre rally, he didn’t voice any concerns about what was happening at the Lordstown plant.

Then this past summer, General Motors took the next step toward the ultimate mothballing of the assembly complex. It eliminated the second shift, again resulting in the loss of 1,500 jobs.

True to form, the giant automaker cited declining sales of the Cruze as the reason for the cuts.

It is worth pointing out that GM Chairwoman and CEO Mary Barra made the decision to shrink the Lordstown operation, despite President Trump’s warning that American automakers would be punished if they keep expanding operations abroad while contracting them at home.

And here’s where GM’s “drop dead” message to the president comes in: While Barra was slashing 1,500 jobs in the Lordstown assembly complex, the global automaker was launching the production of a new and improved Chevrolet Blazer SUV. In Mexico. You read that right: Mexico.

But even that obvious in-your-face move did not trigger a public response from President Trump.

It certainly did from Ohio’s two U.S. senators, Democrat Sherrod Brown and Republican Rob Portman, and from Valley Congressman Tim Ryan of Howland.

They berated Barra for adding insult to the injury suffered by the Mahoning Valley. The lawmakers pointed out that GM received a huge financial windfall from the sweeping corporate tax cuts pushed by the president and approved by the Republican-controlled Congress. Today, General Motors is sitting on billions of dollars in cash.

Brown and Ryan also reminded Barra and other GM executives that the federal bailout of GM and Chrysler in the midst of the Great Recession is the reason both companies are in such good shape today. Without that help, the two automakers would have gone bankrupt.

Indeed, Trump, the real-estate developer who has several bankruptcies in his business background, criticized former Democratic President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress for bailing out GM and Chrysler. Trump argued that bankruptcy would have resulted in leaner, more efficient companies.

But despite the criticism directed at GM for not assigning the Chevrolet Blazer to the Lordstown plant and, instead, building it in Mexico, CEO Barra has doubled down on reducing the number of American plants.

Last week, she announced that the Chevrolet Cruze would be discontinued in March and there’s no other product to take its place.

Barra also announced the mothballing of three other plants in the U.S. and one in Canada.

President Trump finally spoke out against General Motors and was portrayed by various news outlets as being extremely angry.

But here’s a question that could affect the future of the Lordstown complex: Was Trump angry because the Blazer is being built in Mexico, or was he bent out of shape because Barra seems unfazed by his threats of retaliation if GM doesn’t close plants abroad and expand operations in America?

Valley residents should hope the answer lies with the Mexican snub because it means President Trump would be justified in using the power of his office to force GM to bring the Blazer to the Mahoning Valley.

After all, he did tell the people of this region not to sell their homes because great things are in the offing.

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