A handful of Harley-Davidson workers came by the office a few days ago to talk about the closing of their motorcycle plant north of the river. All were frustrated, as you might expect.
In that frustration lies an important key to the 2018 elections and beyond.
Harley’s management took some serious criticism. The workers said they had little advance warning of the shutdown, although they had known for some time the plant was on the ropes. They said the company ignored evidence of the Kansas City plant’s productivity.
Harley executives failed to anticipate changing consumer tastes, the workers said, building expensive bikes that younger riders don’t want and can’t afford.
Parts are made overseas. Quality has slipped on occasion. Unsold motorcycles were stacking up in stores, leading to a market glut.
The complaints made sense. But they are not unique to Harley-Davidson. Poor management decisions, outsourcing and cheaper foreign competition have plagued some American companies for decades.
So we asked the workers if government could do more to help.
Not really, they said. Kansas City wouldn’t be able to offer incentives large enough to keep the plant. Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens failed to respond to a request for help, but there wasn’t much he could do, either.
President Donald Trump? He’d just imposed huge tariffs on imported steel. That will make domestic Harleys more expensive, encourage the company to move more jobs overseas and potentially lead other nations to raise taxes on Harley-Davidson bikes.
So, no. Trump wasn’t helping, either.
Yet the workers weren’t really mad at the president. Most of the workforce at Harley-Davidson, they admitted, probably voted for him.
Would they do so again? This year’s campaigns may hinge on the answer.
Trump has been extraordinarily skilled at exploiting the anger and frustration of workers at places like Harley-Davidson (and Boeing, where Trump is scheduled to speak Wednesday in St. Louis.) The promise to “make America great again” has always been in part about bringing back 1950s-era manufacturing jobs — building motorcycles and washing machines and other consumer goods.
Yet, as the Harley workers now know, saving blue-collar jobs isn’t easy. Sometimes consumer decisions cause plants to close. Management can make bad choices. Technology can make today’s products obsolete, almost overnight.
Sometimes, government can do damage: high tariffs, bad trade agreements, regulatory retaliation.
Much of America remains on a sugar high from federal tax cuts, and the job market remains strong. That bodes well for the GOP in November.
But not everyone is sharing in the recovery. Farmers and rural businesses are waking up to the possibility of reduced exports and lower incomes, and Harley-Davidson workers are losing their Kansas City jobs. Other manufacturing jobs are at risk.
Both groups — rural Americans and blue-collar workers — form the backbone of the Republican party, and Trump’s election coalition. If they become convinced the president’s promises to protect them are hollow, that coalition could collapse.
The GOP will do what it can to shore it up. They may try to make the elections about social issues — abortion, gay marriage, guns. Republican Rick Saccone, running in a special election for a House seat in Pennsylvania, took a vicious swing at “the left” in a campaign appearance Monday.
“They have a hatred for our president. And I tell you, many of them have a hatred for our country,” he said. “They have a hatred for God. It’s amazing. You see it when I’m talking to them.”
If blue-collar America sours on Trump’s policies this year, that divisive approach may be all that the GOP has left for November. We’ll see if it’s enough to convince Harley’s Kansas City workers, who will be out of a job.