Mike Pence
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Indiana, like much of the Midwest, is littered with nondescript towns that blend together between the oceans of corn and soybean fields lining its arterial interstates.

Columbus, Indiana, nestled between Indianapolis and Louisville, isn’t one of them. The town of 45,000 is known for its impressive collection of modernist architecture. It also features a gleaming new sign visible when you drive east into town from nearby Bloomington: “Hometown of Michael R. Pence: Vice President of the United States.”

Columbus is where Pence was born and raised. It’s also the American city most vulnerable to protectionist trade policies that could be imposed by his administration. That’s the result of a report from Mark Muro and Joseph Parilla of the Brookings Institution, who ranked metro areas by the share of their economic output generated by exports, a metric they call “export intensity.”

While the country’s largest cities generate the most exports in absolute terms, it’s generally smaller towns with less diversified economies that are most reliant on exports. During the campaign, Trump promised to impose tariffs on foreign manufacturers. If he follows through, it could spark a trade war, as the affected countries respond by raising tariffs on American goods. Towns with high export intensity would be at the greatest risk because they tend to rely on a single large manufacturer or a single industry to sustain their economies. A trade war affecting that industry could bring an entire town to its knees.

For Columbus, the industry is auto manufacturing. A staggering 50.6 percent of the town’s GDP is generated from exports, mainly of vehicle engines, by far the most nationwide. (The next highest-ranked city, Beaumont, Texas, comes in at 40 percent.) Columbus has a remarkable concentration of auto manufacturing for a city of its size; one in six American jobs in engine equipment manufacturing is located there. Two other Indiana cities appear on Brookings’ list of export-intensive towns: Elkhart and Lafayette, reflecting the strong manufacturing presence in this corner of the Rust Belt. The most export-intensive cities in fact resemble a coalition of the downtrodden places across Middle America that Trump rode to victory last November.

In an election tainted by Russian interference — and decided by fewer votes than the average number of spectators at an Ohio State football game — it’s easy to mistakenly attribute Trump’s victory to any singular atom in the universe of differences between the two major candidates.

But to the extent that policy issues contributed to the demise of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy across the Rust Belt, none was more critical than trade. As Secretary of State, Clinton advocated for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP); as a candidate, she couldn’t shake her identity as the wife of the man who signed NAFTA into law. Trump, meanwhile, was the blistering nationalist who launched a flurry of attacks on both deals, condemning them variously as  “the worst trade deal ever,” “one of the worst things that ever happened in the manufacturing industry,” “a disaster done and pushed by special interests who want to rape our country.”

For a town its size, Columbus is an economic powerhouse, with an unemployment rate of 2.9 percent, the lowest in the state.

Now that he is in office, Trump is making good on his promises to remake U.S. trade policy. Not even two months into his presidency, Trump has already withdrawn the U.S. from the TPP — which took eight years to negotiate — and has indicated that he wants to renegotiate NAFTA. But the impact of these actions on Columbus and other export intensive communities listed in the Brookings report might be the opposite of what Trump intends. The cities most reliant on trade are the ones most likely to be hurt if America’s trading partners retaliate against “America First” protectionism.

“Well, I guess it’s nice to make some list, but I’m not sure that’s one of the lists we want to make,” said Tom Dell with a chuckle. Dell is a small-business owner and one of just two Democratic members of the Columbus City Council. While concerned, he noted that there’s still considerable uncertainty when it comes to the Trump administration’s trade policies. “We all need to be cautious and observant in seeing how all these trade deals play out,” he said. “That’s all we can do. Hope that people can negotiate fairly and come up with the best scenario for our manufacturing here that is reliant on exports.”

For a town its size, Columbus is an economic powerhouse, with an unemployment rate of 2.9 percent—the lowest in the state—and the country’s highest concentration of mechanical engineers.

Cummins Inc. is the single biggest reason why such a large percentage of Columbus’s economic output is generated from exports. The Fortune 200 company, which manufactures diesel engines and does business in 190 countries, employs more than 8,000 people in Columbus. While it isn’t the only big employer in town—Toyota employs 1,110 building forklifts in Columbus—it anchors the local economy. Overwhelmingly, Columbus is Cummins, and Cummins is Columbus.

Cummins’ impact on the town goes far beyond the economic. With investment from Cummins, Columbus has quietly emerged as a destination for world-renowned modernist and contemporary architecture. The blocks of this “Athens of the Prairie”—a moniker for Columbus coined by Lady Bird Johnson—are sprinkled with striking buildings designed by internationally famous architects. The public library, by I.M. Pei, sits across the street from the country’s first modernist church, the brainchild of Eliel Saarinen and his son Eero, who also designed the St. Louis Gateway Arch.

These gems are the legacy of former Cummins executive J. Irwin Miller, who envisioned breathtaking architecture and dazzling public art as way to draw top workers to Columbus in the 1950s.

“Cummins was having a hard time attracting professionals, and engineers especially, to come and live in the middle of cornfields in Southern Indiana—which frankly is a problem that Cummins is still combating today,” said Erin Hawkins, director of marketing at the Columbus Area Visitors Center. “You know, in small town Indiana, it’s tough to compete with big cities for college grads.”

Miller pledged to pay the architect fees for any tax-funded, public building, as long as the city picked from a pre-selected list of architects, a promise that eventually evolved into the Cummins Foundation Architecture Program. “What we have here are really great schools, fire stations, government buildings, park facilities,” said Hawkins. “All designed by world-class architects.”

North Christian Church

Credit: Columbus Area Visitors Center

Expecting their son Mike, newlyweds Nancy and Edward Pence fled Chicago for the north side of Columbus in 1959, at the cusp of the city’s architectural transformation. During Mike’s childhood, 18 new buildings were built with funding from the Cummins Foundation, the height of Columbus’s building spree.

Yet for companies in Columbus like Cummins that are reliant on trade, having a native son in the Vice Presidency may not end up being a cause for celebration. Jon Mills, a spokesman for Cummins, said the company has already had conversations with officials in the Trump administration to reiterate the importance of free trade to the health of the company. “It’s not just about our company, but we have twenty-five direct U.S. suppliers that we have ripple effects on as well,” Mills said. “It’s really important.” Cummins’s PAC—which tends to divvy up its lobbying equally between Democrats and Republicans—donated nearly $30,000 to Clinton versus just $1,117 to Trump.

Columbus voters, on the other hand, overwhelmingly backed Trump. While the local economy remains relatively strong, there are signs of the economic and racial fissures that Trump exploited on his way to the White House. Job security for manufacturing workers is increasingly shaky in a volatile auto industry prone to automation and susceptible to fluctuations in the price of oil. Violent crime is up 70 percent, and the wound of racism has been aggravated, partly as a backlash to a rise in immigrant H1B workers. KKK fliers were spotted around town several times last summer, and the Traditionalist Workers Party, an ascendant white nationalist organization, has established an outlet in town.

The Robert Stewart Bridge frames the entryway into downtown Columbus.
The Robert Stewart Bridge frames the entryway into downtown Columbus. Credit:

Trump often stresses the need for America to “start winning again.” But trade, unlike reality television, isn’t zero sum, with winners to decorate and losers to fire. Further retrenchment from free trade may speak to the millions of Americans who feel left behind by globalization, but Trump’s gleeful promise to play hardball with China and Mexico isn’t a recipe for The Art of the Deal.

For Columbus, the long-term danger is if Trump decides to impose import tariffs in an attempt to advantage American manufacturing. That could lead to a trade war that cripples Cummins’s ability to ship its diesel engines abroad.

“We have a lot of interests in positioning American companies to benefit from rising consumer demand abroad,” said Brookings’ Joe Parilla. “We’re a big domestic economy, but the world continues to rise. It’s just in our strategic interest to be well-positioned to export into those markets, and if you assume that there will be retaliatory measures on the trade front, you are kind of closing those off in the long term.”

Mike Pence’s vision to “Make America Great Again” likely harkens back to his idyllic childhood, but trade policy changes won’t be an abstraction for cities like Columbus. To protect American workers, the Trump administration will have to transcend self-congratulatory political spectacles like the Carrier deal, which generated a tsunami of favorable headlines but ultimately saved only 800 jobs.

During his debate with Tim Kaine in Farmville, Va., last October, Pence took a deep breath, stared into the camera, and made his pitch to voters by distinguishing himself his blue-blood running mate:

I’m a small-town boy from a place not too different from Farmville. I grew up with a cornfield in my backyard… My mom and dad built everything that matters in a small town in Southern Indiana. They built a family and a good name and a business. And they raised a family. And I dreamed some day of representing my home town in Washington, D.C.

Now that he’s left the cornfields of Columbus for the cherry blossoms of Washington, Pence has achieved at least part of his childhood dream. But whether the Vice President will indeed represent the interests of his home town remains to be seen.

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Follow Saahil on Twitter @Saahil_Desai. Saahil Desai is a politics editor at the Atlantic. He was digital editor at the Washington Monthly from 2016 to 2018.