Donald Trump's fondness for Chinese steel feels like betrayal on the Iron Range

Though Trump brays about bringing American manufacturing back to its former glory, he's been buying Chinese steel for years.

Though Trump brays about bringing American manufacturing back to its former glory, he's been buying Chinese steel for years. Kheel Center

The Iron Range is not as great as it used to be.

In recent years, the chain of small mining towns built along northern Minnesota’s rich deposits of iron ore has suffered mine closures and massive layoffs, the purported result of the Chinese government’s overproduction and subsidization of steel and aluminum. As businesses gobble up cheaper Chinese products, American steel made from Minnesota taconite hasn’t been able to compete.

About 13,000 steelworkers are out of work. Keewatin Taconite, one of six mines on the Iron Range, has been closed for 18 months. People have lost their homes. They’ve had to leave the towns where they grew up, or go back to school, in search of work in other industries.

It’s no wonder then that when Donald Trump put on his “Make America Great Again” cap, the message resonated with Rangers. When Trump talked about fighting noncompetitive Chinese imports, rebuilding American manufacturing, and protecting American jobs from bad international trade deals, Iron Rangers heard a guy who spoke their language.

During the presidential primaries, Trump performed worse among Minnesotan Republicans than he did anywhere else in the nation. But he also found more support on the Range than anywhere else in Minnesota.

Then the truth started coming out about Trump’s personal contribution to the region's troubles.

Two days ago, Newsweek published an investigation showing that Trump has always favored Chinese steel for his casinos and hotels.

John Rebrovich, United Steelworkers representative from Hibbing, says it was only a matter of time before Trump was exposed as a charlatan.

While Rebrovich’s friends and neighbors may have once found hope in the candidate, Trump has been quietly subverting them all along. News spreads fast in small towns, Rebrovich says. Everywhere he goes now, people are talking about how they feel lied to.

John Arbogast, a Minntac miner of 21 years who was last laid off in 2009 because of China’s steel dumping, sees taconite as the only game in town. But when even American businessmen turn their backs on American miners, that’ll be the end of the Iron Range, he says.

Arbogast has kept close enough attention to Trump’s record that he never believed the politician’s promises. Previous reports that Trump used underpaid Chinese and Mexican laborers to make the suits and ties for his clothing line were evidence that Trump had no loyalty to American manufacturers.  

“He’s chumming people for votes,” Arbogast says. “But I could see through all that bullshit. He could have used American steel, aluminum made in America to build his big hotels or whatever the heck. Now that the story’s come out, hopefully people will wake up and recognize that he’s a lying game show host and he’s full of crap.”

It’ll be hard to find a long-term solution for the Iron Range’s economic woes. Hillary Clinton doesn’t have particularly satisfying answers either, but she did come out against the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership, and she’s always been pro-union, Arbogast says.

“Donald has always been anti-union,” he says. “Lots of his bankruptcies, contractors that have worked with him have never gotten paid. Hillary Clinton’s never done anything like that.”