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The industrial Midwest delivered the biggest message of all this week

Republican presidential candidate at a campaign stop in Warren, Michigan.
Jake Neher

Call it the revenge of the Rust Belt.

The little people of the industrial Midwest paved Donald Trump’s electoral college path to the presidency in red, straight through the heartland. He promised to represent the “forgotten” men and women left behind by globalization and trade, and to rewrite the economic rules governing the past generation’s consensus on trade. 

That’s easier said than done. Still, Trump’s economic nationalism, and the kind of crossover appeal that won him a presidential election has meaningful implications for manufacturers, unions and working stiffs who work hard and play by the rules.

It could put Ford Motor and General Motors on a collision course with a president-elect deeply critical of their plans to build more vehicles in Mexico. His improbable victory — and Republican control of Congress — means he’ll have the leverage to reshape a trade consensus signed 22 years ago by Bill Clinton.

If Trump delivers on the promise to improve trade deals and create jobs for Americans in the heart of U.S. industry, he could paint enough of the so-called “Blue Wall” red and loosen the traditional Democratic hold on the Midwest.

Think about that. Folks in flyover country have been voicing these laments for years, only to see plants close, jobs lost, whole communities slowly impoverished. 

They were largely ignored. Their predicament is understood by few outside the heartland bubble — especially by the coastal elites. They were dead certain that Hillary Clinton and her allies on Wall Street and in Hollywood would prevail easily over a billionaire bumpkin named Trump.

They were wrong. Now does the heartland have your attention?

The stunned faces early Wednesday, the hushed tones on the MSNBC set, suggested no one saw the electoral tsunami coming — not big media or big data, not the political pros or the true believers. Right. This smackdown had been telegraphed for at least six years. It was frustration fueled by relentless condescension and cynical dismissal.

In 2010, outrage over the Affordable Care Act unleashed a red wave that turned the reliably blue industrial heartland Republican. In Michigan and Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Indiana and even the U.S. House of Representatives.

In 2014, voters delivered the U.S. Senate to Republicans with the assignment to slow the Obama agenda. But Republicans did not command enough votes to override a president willing to wield the veto.

In 2016, the message was delivered, loud and clear. It’s a stunning rebuke of “The Establishment” in both parties. Of the news media and their polling outfits. Of the Obama legacy and the Washington-to-New York corridor – where they don’t know what they don’t know about life and work in the middle of the country.

The heartland lived the dislocation, the decline of vital industries. Its people grew angrier at a political class that cared for itself, not the people it’s elected to represent. 

They picked Trump. Now they’re going to find out who’s right — them or the smart people who declared his candidacy a national joke. Who’s laughing now?

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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