Left: President Joe Biden joins striking United Auto Workers on the picket line, Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023, in Van Buren Township, Mich. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) Right: Former President Donald Trump speaks in Clinton Township, Mich., Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Mike Mulholland)

Only one debate Wednesday night was of any consequence. That debate was not in the Reagan library, but in an auto parts facility in Michigan, where Donald Trump delivered his pitch to striking United Auto Workers members, even though the vast majority of them were not in the room.  

The other Republican presidential candidates squabbled in their second debate. But the GOP primary increasingly resembles the Democratic one: a foregone conclusion in which the frontrunner leads his closest challenger by more than 40 points. In all likelihood, the general election campaign is already here. 

Trump’s appearance in Clinton Township, one day after President Biden’s visit to a UAW picket line in Bellville, was laden with his trademark dishonest demagoguery. But underneath the ranting is a thorny debate over the future of the auto industry that could determine who wins the White House. 

For the fate of the auto industry to be tangled up with a presidential election is not unprecedented. As vice president, Joe Biden coined the unofficial slogan of Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign: “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.” Contrasting the Obama administration’s efforts to save the auto industry from bankruptcy to Mitt Romney’s faulty prediction that a government bailout would trigger the industry’s “demise” helped the incumbent crush his challenger among Michigan’s union families by 33 points

Nationally, Trump hasn’t performed all that much better with labor than other Republican nominees. In 2016, he got 43 percent of the union household vote, and 40 percent in 2020. The latter was matched by the victorious George W. Bush in 2004 as well as the defeated Romney. Back in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan did better than Trump, though fell short of winning the union vote outright. (The last Republican to do that was Richard Nixon in 1972.) 

Michigan is another story. By 2016, the auto bailout had faded from memory, replaced by fears of progressive social change and international trade agreements. Trump slashed the Romney’s 33-point gap with Michigan union families to 13, helping him flip the state. Then in 2020, Trump’s losing margin with hard hats widened to 25, and Michigan returned to blue. 

The union vote matters more in Michigan than anywhere else in the country. Among the handful of presidential battleground states, Michigan—home to the Big 3 automakers Ford, GM, and Stellantis—has the highest unionization rate at 14 percent. According to 2020 exit poll estimates, the share of the Michigan electorate that’s in a union household was 21 percent, higher than any other swing state. 

So when the UAW, now led by the confrontational Shawn Fain, hesitated to endorse Biden, and criticized his administration for loaning Ford funds to build car battery manufacturing plants without requiring the company to hire union workers, Biden couldn’t ignore the discontent, and Trump sensed an opening. 

While some Democrats have been squeamish about how Biden has entered the fray of the UAW’s partial strike, complete avoidance wasn’t an option. The UAW’s demands include a just transition as the industry moves towards electric vehicles. Cleaner cars require less parts and less labor to make, and Biden’s policies—higher emissions standards, customer subsidies and agreements with Big 3 CEOs—are accelerating the transition the UAW currently finds wanting.  

Moreover, Biden has sold himself as the “most pro-union president in history.” A neutral stance in a high-profile labor dispute is normally the safe place for a president to be. Not for Biden.  

But Biden is not the only candidate facing difficult political terrain in unionized Michigan, and Trump’s rally last night showed.  

While Trump openly sought the UAW endorsement, he implicitly criticized the UAW’s acceptance of a future powered by electric cars. “If your union leaders will not demand that Crooked Joe repeal his electric vehicle mandate immediately,” Trump claimed, “then it doesn’t matter what hourly wage you get. It just doesn’t make a damn bit of difference because in two to three years you will not have one job in this state.” Even more provocatively, he said, “The auto industry is being assassinated. And it makes no difference what you get, I don’t care what you get in the next two weeks or three weeks or five weeks. They’re going to be closing up and they’re going to be building those cars in China and other places.”  

As usual, Trump is stoking hysteria and division without regard to facts. There is no “electric vehicle mandate,” only incentives. The economic pressure on the Big 3 is less about China than about Tesla, which is nonunion and has lower labor costs. Despite that, as HuffPost’s Jonathan Cohn detailed this week, since Biden’s inauguration the auto industry has net gained about 125,000 jobs, which does not meet the definition of assassination.  

Trump’s posture has antagonized Fain, who said on Tuesday, “I see no point in meeting with him because I don’t think the man has any bit of care about what our workers stand for, what the working class stands for. He serves a billionaire class, and that’s what’s wrong with this country.” And despite past criticism, Fain warmly received Biden on the UAW picket line, and Biden reciprocated by publicly endorsing Fain’s call for a 40 percent wage hike.  

The UAW, unlike Trump, has to operate within the realm of reality. In 2021, the UAW acknowledged that “there is agreement that EVs will grow into a larger portion of the market” and laid out a vision for a transition that “position[s] the American auto industry and its workers to lead on advanced technologies” and “provide[s] workers security in a changing industry.”  

Perhaps Trump’s resistance to accept reality, as well as his decision to hold court at a nonunion facility, hampered his ability to attract actual UAW members to his UAW rally. (One reporter estimated that 20 percent of the audience was UAW, and the crowd only totaled a few hundred people.) 

Granted, Trump is not really trying to unify the UAW behind him. He probably knows he’s never getting the UAW endorsement. (Told by a Newsmax reporter after the rally that Fain wouldn’t meet with him, Trump said, “Then I don’t like him very much.”) But he would like to stir up enough discontent among the UAW rank-and-file so either the leadership doesn’t give Biden the endorsement or any endorsement is stripped of its potency.  

Whether Trump’s divisive plan is working can’t be determined by the occasional quote from a Trump-friendly UAW member. Remember, Republicans always win a sizeable share of the union vote. Just like racial groups, labor is not a monolith. The question is whether Trump can get closer to his 2016 share of the Michigan labor vote, and we can’t know that from anecdotes alone.  

Biden may currently be in the awkward position of being in the middle of a partial strike that is indirectly connected to his policies. But at some point, the strike will be over. Workers will surely get a pay hike, even if it’s short of 40 percent. While we can’t know now how satisfied workers will feel with the eventual agreement, Biden may well be able to take some credit for helping the UAW increase its bargaining leverage and moving the industry towards a more just transition. At minimum, Biden will almost surely be able to say: General Motors is still alive, and no thanks to Donald Trump. 

Ultimately, the divergence between Biden and Trump is that one is seeking to help the American auto workers win the future, and the other wants them to cling to the past. 

Sometimes fear of change can work politically, as when Trump excoriated Hillary Clinton after she spoke clumsily about how to help West Virginia’s economy move beyond coal. Today, polls suggest many voters aren’t ready to fully embrace electric cars. But denying inevitable technological advancement is never good business sense, which is why the auto industry is in better shape than the coal industry.  

Biden has an opportunity to help restore and renew the alliance between auto workers and executives around a plan for the future. All Trump has to offer are more empty promises of an impossible return to the past.  

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Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.