By uttering the words “Buy American” during his announcement Thursday of steep new tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, Republican President Donald J. Trump solidified the strong support he enjoys in the predominantly Democratic Mahoning Valley.
Indeed, by ignoring warnings from leaders of his own party of a global trade war, Trump channeled one of the most influential politicians in the history of the Valley: the late James A. Traficant Jr.
It was Traficant, the long-time area Democratic congressman, who adopted “Buy American” as a legislative strategy during his almost 20 years on Capitol Hill.
Traficant, who ultimately fell from grace and served time in a federal penitentiary for using his office for personal gain, earned a national reputation for his unapologetic America First agenda.
The former sheriff of Mahoning County blamed the collapse of the steel industry in the Valley on the dumping of cheap foreign-made steel. He railed against this country’s trade policies that, he argued, were responsible for the exploding trade deficit.
Traficant’s popularity remained high in this region even after his trouble with the law. The reason: He was seen as a fighter for working men and women.
Trump, the political newcomer in 2016, carried predominantly Democratic Trumbull County and received a sizeable vote in heavily Democratic Mahoning County by channeling Traficant and delivering the same message about blue-collar workers being the victims of the nation’s economic dysfunction.
Here’s what President Trump said Thursday in justifying the tariffs that undoubtedly will resonate with local residents:
“A strong steel and aluminum industry are vital to our national security. Steel is steel. You don’t have steel, you don’t have a country.”
Trump was surrounded by steel and aluminum workers holding hard hats during the signing of the tariffs proclamation in the White House. He cast his action as necessary to protect industries “ravaged by aggressive foreign trade practices. It’s really an assault on our country. It’s been an assault.”
Those comments brought to mind the numerous speeches Traficant made in the House of Representatives on the issue of trade.
Here’s one example:
“Mr. Speaker, America had a $15.7 billion record deficit in May. Billion. The formula says for every $1 billion in deficits, America loses 20,000 jobs. So in May, check the formula, America lost 314,000 jobs. These are not burger flippers and chicken skinners. These are manufacturing jobs, folks. It’s getting so bad that China today has a 34 percent tariff on most American products. After all this, the White House by whatever name you want to call it once again wants most-favored-nation trade status for China.
“Who are the trade advisers at the White House, a bunch of proctologists, ladies and gentlemen? This is out of hand. Think about it. While Congress is debating campaign finance reform that was promulgated because of illegal Chinese contributions, the Chinese keep kicking our assets all the way to the bank.
“Beam me up.
“We need a proctologist.”
The “Beam me up” phrase became Traficant’s calling card and made his one-minute daily speeches from the well of House a popular event for journalists assigned to Capitol Hill.
His willingness to speak his mind and throw caution to the wind made him popular with white male blue-collar workers who blamed the dumping of cheap foreign products for the loss of their factory jobs.
Traficant served in Congress from January 1985 to July 2002, when he was expelled from the House because of his criminal conviction. He was sent to the federal penitentiary in September of that year and was released in September 2009.
Traficant died in a farm accident on Sept. 27, 2014.
The late congressman enjoyed the strong support of organized labor because he was unapologetic in his America First posture.
Likewise, Republican President Trump received high praise from national labor leaders and Democratic members of Congress from the so-called Rust Belt.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka issued the following statement after the president signed the tariffs proclamation:
“Wall Street’s hair is on fire over these tariffs because wealthy investors enrich themselves by closing mills and factories in the United States and moving them overseas. Using tariffs isn’t going to start a trade war. There’s been a war on working people for decades, and we have been getting our butts kicked. Just look at southwestern Pennsylvania if you want proof.”
In his comments during the White House ceremony, Trump also talked about how the tariffs will slow the importation of foreign-made steel and aluminum and trigger a resurrection of the American factories.
But while such a pronouncement grabs headlines, the president continues to downplay this reality: Automation has made labor-intensive factories a thing of the past.
When he appeared in Youngstown last year and talked about reopening the massive steel mills that once dotted the banks of the Mahoning River, The Vindicator pointed out in an editorial that Vallourec Star’s $1.2 billion steel pipe-making complex on Route 422 between Youngstown and Girard is a prime example of today’s industry. The employment at the Vallourec Star’s complex hovers around 500.
There’s no basis for Trump’s contention that the resurgent steel and aluminum industries will generate hundreds of thousands of jobs.
But for the president’s supporters, such details are meaningless. They’re just happy that there’s an occupant in the White House who had done what others have talked about for years: Stick it to America’s trading partners.
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