AMERICA'S "RUST BELT" AND THE RISE OF TRUMP
"WHERE PEOPLE LIVE IN TOXIC CESSPOOLS"
Joseph Heathcott examines how people in the "rust belt" of the USA
deal with industrial death. The economic misery did not lead
to the rise of Trump, says the urban researcher.
An interview by Alexander Sarovic
Der Spiegel, December 24, 2020, 2:08 p.m.
Marquette Park in Gary, Indiana: “Deindustrialization and Capital Flight” Photo: Jim Young / REUTERS
SPIEGEL: Mr. Heathcott, the American "rust belt" became a kind of cliché after the US election in 2016: Journalists and researchers flocked to the area to look at the white workers who had elected Trump. What does the rest of the country not understand about this area?
Joseph Heathcott: Your question suggests it. The working class in these parts of the country is not exclusively white but multiethnic. A very large proportion of people who live there are black and Latino, and they voted overwhelmingly against Trump. The working class in the United States has always been multiethnic, although unions often partnered with employers to promote protectionism in favor of whites.
SPIEGEL: The cities that you are researching are either mostly black or have a very large black population. Which question do you want to get to the bottom of?
Heathcott: We're going to look at five cities: St. Louis, Missouri, which has a lot of vacancies, that is, abandoned or abandoned properties and areas. In addition, Detroit, Philadelphia, the city of Gary in Indiana and Birmingham, Alabama. The latter is not in the rust belt, but I really wanted to explore a city in the south. It will be about how people in these cities try to cope with the consequences of deindustrialization and capital flight; how they organize their lives under these circumstances.
Abandoned Homes in Detroit: Art and Decay Photo: Patrick Gorski / ZUMA Press / imago images
SPIEGEL: What exactly are you going to investigate?
Heathcott: We're going to look at different social currents, such as environmental movements that have formed in working class communities where people sometimes live in toxic cesspools. Another question is how the residents deal with the vacancy in these cities. It is difficult for anyone in Europe to imagine how much land is simply vacant: factories and shops have been abandoned, houses abandoned. Many of these buildings were then demolished because the cities were too expensive to maintain. In these cities, which still exist, there is an archipelago of spaces that have been lost. Together they make a kind of 'lost city'.
SPIEGEL: And beyond the physical?
Heathcott: Of course, much more has been lost than the infrastructure: the idea of a coherent city, the urbanity of these places, the sense of community, the touchstones of collective memory. A colleague of mine at the New School, Mindy Fullilove, calls this “root shock.” People are detached from their roots and no longer have the physical touchstones to help them remember. This gives rise to feelings of rootlessness.
SPIEGEL: What does that do to America's self-image?
Heathcott: America sees itself as a place of constant reinvention. The fact that we have these ruins in our midst troubles that self-image. A common notion is that in these places the white working class has been abandoned, and that this in turn feeds an anger that fuels Trumpism. I think this is nonsense.
Birmingham, Alabama: "Factories and shops have been abandoned, houses abandoned" Photo: Carlos Barria / REUTERS
SPIEGEL: Why do you think it's nonsense?
Heathcott: I come from this world: from a white working-class household in an industrial town in Indiana. Support for Donald Trump is not significantly related to economic misery, as it cuts across class lines. It has a lot more to do with skin color and identity. White revanchism plays a much larger role.
SPIEGEL: Trump also made gains among Latinos and blacks in this year's election - at least if you believe post-election surveys.
Heathcott: I think this increase is negligible. It could be due to the "incumbent effect," the advantage that the office-holder often has.
SPIEGEL: What does the attitude that you call white revanchism draw from in everyday life?
Heathcott: From fear of losing cultural supremacy. That's abstract, I know. Take the fear of more immigrants in your own communities in Germany. Try to explain to a Trump supporter that migrants - even those without documents - work hard and do not live off welfare from the state: impossible. The whole thing has a hallucinatory dimension.
Decaying factory site in Detroit: »The withdrawal of capital has left a huge vacuum« Photo: ERIC THAYER / REUTERS
SPIEGEL: That is an interesting choice of words. In your opinion, does that have to do with the fact that much of what used to be cities has disappeared? The tangible plays an ever smaller role, the imagined an ever greater one.
Heathcott: Yes! The weakening of the unions and the withdrawal of capital have left a huge vacuum. Unions were important institutions for working class people to get their political education. That has disappeared from our society. The local and regional newspapers also fell by the wayside. Right-wing media have overtaken this space.
SPIEGEL: The black community has been struggling with a drug epidemic for some time. In recent years, the opioid crisis among whites has moved into the public eye. To what extent is the drug problem a symptom of urban and community decline?
Heathcott: The lack of jobs and housing is a bigger part of this crisis. It's a huge problem in these communities. The relationship between drug addiction and abuse, on the one hand, and housing, on the other, is tight, because addicts make up the majority of the chronic homeless population in both black and white communities.
SPIEGEL: The Democrats, at least on the left wing of the party, talk a lot about the so-called Green New Deal. Could this bring back some of what has been lost?
Heathcott: There's a lot to do, a lot to repair in these deindustrialized areas. That alone could give people work for decades. But there has to be the political will to spend money on it. After all, we have spent billions bailing out big banks. Only when the Green New Deal improves people's lives in concrete ways can it be successful.
Photo: Joseph Heathcott
Joseph Heathcott is an urban researcher and lecturer at the New School in New York City. With a grant from the Gerda Henkel Foundation, he is investigating how the residents of the American rust belt deal with de-industrialization and capital flight.