The Myth of Main Street

Roundup
tags: Economy, Trump



Louis Hyman, an economic historian, is the director of the Institute for Workplace Studies at the ILR School at Cornell. Thumbnail Image - By Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 3.0

Shortly after Donald Trump was elected president, John Solak, a resident of Binghamton, N.Y., began lobbying the city to rename its Main Street “Trump Street.” The proposal, though quixotic, succinctly captured the hopes for economic salvation that Mr. Trump represented to so many voters in country towns and small cities across the nation. “At each and every campaign stop,” Mr. Solak explained to a Binghamton radio station, “he mentioned the blight of upstate New York and the economy here.”

And what better symbol of that blight than Main Street? Throughout the Rust Belt and much of rural America, the image of Main Street is one of empty storefronts and abandoned buildings interspersed with fast-food franchises, only a short drive from a Walmart.

Main Street is a place but it is also an idea. It’s small-town retail. It’s locally owned shops selling products to hardworking townspeople. It’s neighbors with dependable blue-collar jobs in auto plants and coal mines. It’s a feeling of community and of having control over your life. It’s everything, in short, that seems threatened by global capitalism and cosmopolitan elites in big cities and fancy suburbs.

Mr. Trump’s campaign slogan was “Make America Great Again,” but it could just as easily have been “Bring Main Street Back.” Since taking office, he has signed an executive order designed to revive the coal industry, promised a $1 trillion infrastructure bill and continued to express support for tariffs and to criticize globalism and international free trade. “The jobs and wealth have been stripped from our country,” he said last month, signing executive orders meant to improve the trade deficit. “We’re bringing manufacturing and jobs back.”

The frustrations that fuel the nostalgia for Main Street are understandable — and longstanding. From the beginning of our country’s history, rural and small-town Americans have been on the losing side of a rising market economy. You can draw a straight line from the Jeffersonians in the late 18th century to the agrarian populists in the late 19th century to Mr. Trump’s voters, all of whom have felt that the city hornswoggled the country. The rage that arose in the 1880s, as rural incomes fell and farm mortgages defaulted while city bankers got rich, does not feel so distant today. ...




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