THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
The people of the Rust Belt get a bad rap in America. At best, we invoke a sense of pity: We’re just a downtrodden demographic that’s stubbornly clinging to the dying manufacturing industry. At worst, we inspire a sense of outrage: We’re the reason Donald Trump was voted into office. Always, the Rust Belt is defined by what it lacks. A lack of jobs and economic opportunity. A lack of diversity and inclusion. A lack of forward-thinking values. A lack of culture.
Nowhere was I was reminded of this prevailing view more acutely than on a recent trip to New York City, where I talked with a young woman who’d grown up in Miami. She had visited the Rust Belt with her partner, spending a week or two within its borders, and now she felt that she had a pulse on its problems.
“No offense,” she said, “but the people in the Rust Belt just don’t have a very comprehensive view of the world.”
She went on to explain that Rust Belt natives were naïve, ignorant, sheltered. We were too insular and narrow-minded, and we clung too tightly to our Midwestern politeness. We were repressed and provincial. We were like children without a clue. It didn’t take long for the woman to make her point: Those who had spent their lives in Rust Belt towns were simply a less-enlightened group of people. No offense, of course.
This is often the narrative about my hometown, and it’s one that used to make me feel self-conscious in my younger days. I’ve spent my entire life in Cleveland, Ohio. I’ve been born and bred in the Rust Belt. I’ve always lived with the steel mill on the horizon, and I used to fear that this excluded me from some esoteric form of knowledge that could only be found in big cities. Maybe I needed to live in New York or LA in order to gain insight. Maybe I needed to pack my bags if I ever wanted to reach enlightenment.
I never got around to moving away, of course. I’ve built my life in a Rust Belt city, and I’ve learned that there’s a lot to be gained from just staying put. When you live in a place for years, you become a master of its subtleties. You find the little cultural gems. The art museums, the botanical gardens, the independent bookstores, the local poets. You eat spectacular Thai food from the dive bar down the road, which is owned by a first-generation immigrant, and you get the best hummus of your life from the gas station on the corner, also owned by a first-generation immigrant. You don’t frequent those places out of a self-congratulatory need to prove that you understand diversity. You don’t pat yourself on the back because you suddenly feel more “cultured,” and you sure as hell don’t claim that you’re enlightened just because you order Pad Kee Mao from the lady down the street once a week. You’re from the Rust Belt. This is just living.
And maybe, like me, you find yourself working in the steel mill for a time. The job offers good pay and good benefits, but the paycheck is only part of the equation. Inside the mill’s borders, you find that a fierce sense of community exists between steelworkers. People look out for each other, always mindful of the dangers of molten metal and heavy machinery. They tell stories of the mill’s history, always conscious of the generations of steelworkers who fought diligently for better pay and safer working conditions. They memorialize those who have fallen victim to the harsh conditions of the mill, always conjuring a deep reverence for their brothers and sisters in steel. If you happen to walk inside the mill on Workers Memorial Day, which rolls around every spring, you’ll find that the mill stops completely. A deep silence settles over machines that are usually roaring. Then, in the middle of that stillness, the sirens on every crane within earshot go off all at once, creating an eerie lament that resonates in your bones.
Even now, in the midst of the coronavirus, when only essential businesses are allowed to run in Ohio, steam is still coming from the mill. Steel is essential to us in the Rust Belt. It’s not just a matter of the economy; after all, the Cleveland Clinic has long surpassed the mill as the largest employer in my city. It’s not just a matter of supplying the industries that make American run; after all, most auto manufacturers are shuttered from the time being. In the Rust Belt, steel is essential to our history, our identity, our sense of who we are. Built on grit and determination. Built on sacrifice. Built on hard work.
Over the past four years, in the wake of Trump’s election in 2016, pundits and politicians have been looking to the Rust Belt for answers. What can possibly explain the region’s fierce loyalty to a reality-star billionaire? The answers have abounded. Maybe this widespread support for Trump was rooted in racism, or a lack of education, or some sort of economic nostalgia. Granted, these theories aren’t too far off base. Trump supporters in 2016 tended to have less education than their Clinton-supporting peers. Xenophobic sentiment abounded in the Midwest and across the nation, and many people were angry about a lack of economic opportunity that had been amplified by a slow recovery from the Great Recession. But there’s something that those explanations are missing, which brings me back to that woman from New York.
She was all too eager to explain away the people of the Rust Belt, assuming we were ignorant and narrow-minded and generally lacking in culture, but she was unwilling — or perhaps unable — to understand the unique culture that does exist in the area. She didn’t want to appreciate the Rust Belt on its own terms. She wanted to lecture. Make no mistake, a vote for Trump in the Rust Belt is about more than just xenophobia or education or economics. It’s a middle finger to the coastal liberals and the big-city dwellers who condescend to people that they don’t understand. It’s a slap in the face to anyone who’s ever viewed the people of the Rust Belt as a bunch of half-baked bumpkins who “don’t have a very comprehensive view of the world.”
Don’t get me wrong, the stereotypes aren’t completely unfounded. There’s a Trump 2020 flag flying just down the street from where I live. It waves above a dilapidated pickup truck that’s on blocks in the front yard. Those clichéd Rust Belt voters absolutely exist here — I can’t argue otherwise — but such voters are not unique to this place. And they’re not representative of the area as a whole. While it's true that the Rust Belt is typified by a few key qualities, like a common history and a shared sense of grit, the people here are like people anywhere. We’re diverse in our attitudes, our upbringings, our outlooks — a Trump 2020 flag flies just down the street from a former steelworker who was gung-ho for Elizabeth Warren — but we’re similar in our needs and desires. We want to do well for ourselves, to carve out a future, to do right by our parents and our kids. We’re not an enigma to be solved, and we’re not a caricature to be criticized. We’re a slice of America that reflects the rest of the country, and we want to be seen — and respected — as more than just a tired cliché.
Eliese's book, Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit was published by Quercus Books on March 3rd, 2020, and is available to buy now.