Donald Trump, Rosie the Riveter, and the Revival of American Economic Nationalism


Sometimes big ideas get small coverage.  Unfortunately, that was the case with President Trump’s March 15 trip to Michigan, in which he raised an important idea—arguably the most important economic-policy idea in U.S. history—and yet his words received almost no attention.

Perhaps that was inevitable, because, as we all know, White House reporters these days have been focused on the healthcare bill, and the new proposed budget, and various allegations about hacking and tapping.  

Yet here’s a Virgilian prediction: Long after the sound and fury about those other controversies have passed away, Trump’s big point on the economy will be remembered.  Indeed, it’s likely that the pro-growth, pro-jobs, pro-profits alliance that Trump espouses will become permanently embedded in Republican thinking—and, quite possibly, Democratic thinking as well.  

So what, exactly, did Trump say in his brief speech at Willow Run, the former factory site in Ypsilanti Township, Michigan?  What was the larger message to the leaders of the Big Three automakers—Ford, Fiat-Chrysler, General Motors—as well as the head of the United Auto Workers, the governor, and other luminaries?  

Trump started out by taking his listeners back to a time when America was at the zenith of its power.  That was World War II. Back then, Americans were more confident and more united; they were all in this together, aiming to defeat Hitler abroad and, at the same time, defeat the Depression at home.  

And no state better epitomized that “Can Do” ethos than Michigan.  The Wolverine State was the manufacturing hub of the country, which meant that it was the manufacturing hub of the world.  And it was that manufacturing strength, of course, that enabled us to defeat the Axis powers in less than four years.  Trump recalled those years of American strength, and even included a wistful note about the manufacturing mojo that’s been lost in recent decades:

Great Americans of all backgrounds built the Arsenal of Democracy — including the legendary Rosie the Riveter, who worked here at Willow Run. . . .  Seventy-five years ago, during the Second World War, thousands of American workers filled this very building to build the great new airplane: the B-24 Liberator.  At peak production–listen to this, it’s not the country that we’ve been watching over the last 20 years—they were building one B-24 every single hour.

butamerican_small Donald Trump, Rosie the Riveter, and the Revival of American Economic Nationalism Economy

Without a doubt, Willow Run was an immense achievement.  In June 1941, it was just a field, 30 miles outside of Detroit.  And yet by September of the the following year, it was producing B-24 Liberator bombers, each with 488,193 parts, capable of delivering four tons of ordnance on a target nearly three thousand miles. 

By 1945, Willow Run had produced nearly 9,000 of these fearsome birds of war.  And oh, by the way, it employed 42,000 men, and women, at its peak—including Rosie the Riveter (even if Rosie’s story is, shall we say, clouded by legend).  

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