Politics & Policy

Alabama Has Lessons for Trump

An Airbus A321 on the assembly line at the company’s Mobile, Ala., plant. (Reuters photo: Michael Spooneybarger)
Foreign-owned corporations are driving its booming economy.

When President-elect Trump returns Saturday to Mobile, Ala., famously the site of his first campaign mega-rally, he has a chance not just to revel in an extremely friendly reception but also to learn some lessons from a thriving community. Chief among those lessons is that a more nuanced approach to his “get tough” outlook on trade would better accomplish his own, admirable aims of protecting American workers.

Alabama’s own Senator Jeff Sessions of course has been right to question the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris climate agreement, and other multi-lateral trade and diplomatic accords, citing their bureaucratic entanglements and threats to national sovereignty. On the other hand, the experience of coastal Alabama shows that trade and cross-national industrial investment works both ways. U.S. workers benefit tremendously from the ability of corporations to let market pressures determine where best to build, operate, and manufacture. If a president goes too far in dissuading American companies from foreign investments, he risks a backlash from foreign businesses that otherwise would be willing to move production to the United States.

Consider the renaissance that in 2015 made Mobile the top-rated “midsized city” for manufacturing growth, according to Forbes.com. Almost all of it was driven by foreign-owned corporations. With 4,200 employees, Austal Shipyards is the area’s largest manufacturer. Its corporate home is Australia. At Brookley Field, where Trump’s private jet landed for his 2015 rally, VT Mobile Aerospace Engineering, whose parent company is Singapore Technologies Engineering, employs 1,500 in Alabama and hundreds more in the Florida panhandle. Also at Brookley, Airbus planes are now rolling off the assembly line as the European corporation quickly ramps up to employing 1,000 full-time workers in the area.

In the northern edge of Mobile County, two steel plants employ, respectively, 1,600 and 1,000 American workers. AM/NS Calvert is a joint venture of companies from Luxembourg and Japan, operating a plant originally built and operated by the German corporation ThyssenKrupp as part of an operation in which U.S. workers use raw materials from Brazil. The other steel plant is run by Outokumpu Stainless USA, a division of a company from Finland.

In coastal Alabama, where, combined, smaller manufacturers employing several thousand Alabamans, many firms rely on raw materials from abroad that would not be economical to import if they were subject to high tariffs. Without the imports, the American jobs would disappear.

Across the state, the foreign automakers Mercedez-Benz, Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai operate large manufacturing centers. Wage growth in Mobile County is up 18.5 percent in five years, in an area where the cost of living remains remarkably low.

We in Alabama believe (and apparently businesses agree) that, despite ranking low on some measures of educational attainment, we can boast a particularly industrious work force. (It’s a cultural thing.) At least as important, Alabama has strong right-to-work laws, comparatively light regulatory burdens, and extraordinarily low property taxes. (We also add other natural advantages such as an excellent port, a strong river-transportation system, and a climate that doesn’t lend itself to winter weather delays — though all that is immaterial from a policy rather than a business perspective.)

One major lesson here is that, with smart internal policies, U.S. localities still can compete for manufacturing and other business development without resorting to punitive measures against foreign “competitors.” So, if we grant that Mr. Trump may have a point that some negotiations require sticks as well as carrots, we nonetheless ought to reserve the bludgeon of punitive tariffs as a last resort — after we have our own labor, regulatory, and tax policies in better order — rather than as a hair-trigger first reaction to any perceived “unfair trading practice” from abroad.

Another lesson the president-elect should learn from Mobile involves tone and temperament. Obviously, Trump’s own brashness has attracted plenty of adherents down here, and his willingness to eschew “political correctness” is in many ways refreshing. But the stories of three Mobile mayoralties show that when it comes to governing, there are times and places for subtler arts.

Another lesson the president-elect should learn from Mobile involves tone and temperament.

All three stories involve race relations. The reality is that even as the rest of Alabama was ground zero for some of the worst scenes of the civil-rights wars of the 1960s, coastal Alabama integrated much more peacefully. Then-mayor Joseph Langan, a spry, upbeat, gentle soul, engineered public-conveyance integration through quiet, carefully planned legal action — and Mobile escaped major conflagrations.

Some 40 years later, in a 2005 election presaging Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential run, relatively business-friendly black Democrat Sam Jones — obviously with plenty of white support — defeated a moderate white opponent for mayor when Mobile voter registration was still about 57–43 white-to-black. Eight years later, with voter registration by then 50–50, conservative, white Republican businessman Sandy Stimpson enjoyed significant black support in ousting a Jones administration that seemed to have lost energy.

In all three cases, measured (and nonracial) rhetoric, and constructive tone and actions, achieved more than bombast or bravado.

The perpetually smiling Stimpson, by the way, has run a remarkably successful administration, with a budget now under control, long-delayed public infrastructure projects funded, two upgrades in municipal credit rating, re-possession and better upkeep of abandoned or blighted properties, a city-wide neighborhood-reinvigoration plan, and numerous cultural enhancements. Trump’s critics (myself included) too often missed the part of Trump’s campaign message of a positive, can-do energy (“We’re going to see so much winning, believe me!”); his supporters can only hope that, with his vaunted business acumen, Trump achieves results as fine as Stimpson’s.

Space permitting, much more could be written either about lessons Trump could learn from coastal Alabama —from its record of cooperation, for example, between local environmentalist groups and fossil-fuel outfits — or about how some of his strengths resonate so well with existing attitudes in the region. Meanwhile, conservatives can justly be heartened that Trump seems to be listening to thoughtful advisers on the right, such as David Bossie and Kellyanne Conway, while surrounding himself with a running mate and nominees of the quality of Mike Pence, Jeff Sessions, James Mattis, Tom Price, Betsy DeVos, and Elaine Chao.

#related#Suffice it to say that, if it was in Mobile that it first became clear just how wild and rambling but ultimately successful a campaign Trump would run, then this Saturday’s rally can likewise signal the start of a new, equally successful labor of the Trumpian odyssey.

For Trump to win the election, obviously somebody else had to lose, but as he makes the transition to public service, he can show he understands that governing is different. As coastal Alabama has shown, governing can, at least at times, be a “win-win” game — a collaborative and unifying enterprise in which mutual benefit is the result.

The man will soon be the president for all Americans, even Never Trumpers. It’s time for him to rally us all, so his presidency can go mobile.


The Latest