Former President Donald Trump is trying to tap into union autoworkers’ anxieties about the switch to electric vehicles, seeking a political vulnerability in one of the Biden administration’s signature economic policies.
He aimed a barrage of attacks at President Joe Biden’s environmental stances during a campaign speech Sunday to about 2,000 people in Novi, Mich., contending that electric car manufacturing will destroy jobs in the auto industry. Michigan helped propel Trump to the White House in 2016 when he won a surprise victory over Hillary Clinton with an 11,000-vote margin in the state.
“Biden is a catastrophe for Michigan, and his environmental extremism is heartless and disloyal and horrible for the American worker, and you’re starting to see it,” Trump said.
Neither the White House nor the Biden campaign responded to requests for comment. But in September, Biden told a crowd at the Detroit Auto Show that Michigan is at the forefront of an industrial revolution, saying: “I believe we can own the future of the automobile market.”
Trump’s remarks about electric cars point to an emerging theme in his presidential campaign that expands on the populist messages he offered to coal miners and blue-collar workers in 2016 and 2020. And they come amid signs of unhappiness among some of Biden’s allies about a crucial theme of the president’s pitch for 2024 — his success in enacting climate and infrastructure laws that are creating manufacturing jobs around the country.
Already, the United Auto Workers announced in May that it wouldn’t endorse Biden, at least for now, arguing that his electric vehicle policies could lead to fewer or lower-paying jobs. The union also criticized the administration’s announcement last week of a $9.2 billion loan to Ford Motor Co. to build three battery plants in Kentucky and Tennessee — two red states with anti-union policies, like many of the other states benefiting from the new wave of clean-energy projects.
The UAW has flatly ruled out endorsing Trump, saying he is not “pro-worker, pro-climate, and pro-democracy.” Still, the former president’s message to Michigan voters echoed some of the union’s own criticisms of the administration’s effort to move the nation past the internal-combustion engine.
“Driven by [Biden’s] ridiculous regulations, electric cars will kill more than half of U.S. auto jobs and decimate the suppliers that they decimated already,” Trump said at the Oakland County Republican Party dinner. He added, “It’s going to decimate your jobs, and it’s going to decimate, more than anybody else, the state of Michigan.”
Trump’s visit to Michigan on Sunday was his third to the state since he announced his candidacy late last year.
Driven in part by the incentives in Biden’s climate law, the electric vehicle industry is poised to expand its presence in Michigan. General Motors has proposed spending $4 billion on a factory to build electric pickup trucks. Ford is spending $7 billion on four battery or vehicle manufacturing factories in the state.
But worries persist in Michigan that Biden’s efforts jeopardize the state’s status as the king of cars.
It takes fewer workers to assemble electric vehicles than gasoline-powered ones, and they have fewer parts. Also, salaries in electric vehicle plants, and in facilities that make components such as batteries, tend to be lower than for workers who make internal-combustion-engine vehicles.
That means Trump is hitting the right notes in a state with a long history of car manufacturing, said Matt Grossmann, director of Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research.
“I would say there is definitely fear that the future of the auto industry is not going to be based in Michigan,” he said.
Though electric cars are still a small part of the vehicle market, at about 8 percent, their expansion is accelerating under Biden. U.S. sales grew 55 percent last year, according to the International Energy Agency. The administration proposed regulations this year that would make two-thirds of new cars all-electric by 2032.
UAW President Shawn Fain wrote in a memo in May that Biden needs to ensure that autoworkers will be paid fairly. He pointed to the hourly wage of $16.50 at a General Motors Corp. battery factory as cause for alarm, noting that workers at a separate GM factory that closed in 2019 made twice as much.
“If the government is going to funnel billions in taxpayer money to these companies, the workers must be compensated with top wages and benefits,” Fain wrote. “A ‘just transition’ has to include standards for our members and future workers.”
Michigan offers a key to victory for Biden or Trump, if the former president wins the GOP nomination. Recent polls show Biden and Trump are tied in Michigan at this early stage of the race.
On Sunday, Trump told the crowd — which gave him a “Man of Decade” award — that Biden is overseeing a “maniacal push” for electric vehicles that will be a boon for China, which dominates the market for critical minerals used in electric vehicle components.
“Sadly, none has betrayed Michigan more than crooked Joe Biden,” Trump said, adding, “He’s betrayed your state because he’s allowing people to take away your jobs.”