There’s a lot of rusted metal in New York City. Along the ports of South Brooklyn, old barges, bridges, and loading docks lie dormant and deteriorating. Outer borough subways and overpasses, long overdue for maintenance, bristle with corrosion. But this is not the Rust Belt.
The real Rust Belt is elsewhere. Maybe in Pennsylvania, but not along the coast, where the city of Philadelphia, majority Black and long a center of American LGBTQ culture, props up Democrats. You’ll have to drive three hundred miles west to Pittsburgh, the Steel City, where the disaffected workers, in 2016, delivered the city and Allegheny County to… Hillary Clinton? Something’s gone wrong.
Where can the Rust Belt be found? Every time you approach, it seems to shift and fade. Wisconsin elected the first openly gay woman to the Senate, caucused for Bernie Sanders, its new governor ran on “BadgerCare for all.” Where are the homophobes scared of socialism? One of Michigan’s new Democratic representatives promised to “impeach the motherfucker,” and one of its Republican congressmen joined the call and left his own party. But aren’t Rust Belters shy of going after Trump? In Youngstown, Ohio, the mayor and nine of every twenty people are Black. Why don’t they all look like Tim Ryan?
It must be that this group of places, this belt of rusty towns and cities and states, is not the Real Rust Belt. The Real Rust Belt lives in New York, or DC, or California, wherever one is surrounded by people who want more change, or faster change, or change that reaches more people. Maybe it’s just what you need to patch up your progressive reputation as you push back against progress – you think it would be nice, you think it would be lovely, but you could never win in the Rust Belt doing things like that. Maybe you’re just scared, because bad things have happened before, and this Bogeyland embodies all your fears. Maybe you’re in trouble, you’ve done something wrong, the people around you are catching on, and you need to remind them that there are people in the Rust Belt who don’t care about what you’ve done, who will rise up and defend you against any attack. Maybe you’re an elite, surrounded by elites, coasting on elite money, making policy for the elites, but you need a better face for the operation, so you conjure up a Rustenvolk to give you a mandate.
Either way, the Real Rust Belt is always elsewhere, it is always perfect, it is always exactly what you need it to be. And it is always standing between this world and anything better. The Real Rust Belt is a reverse Tinkerbell – it exists as long as you disbelieve in the possibility of change.
The Real Rust Belt can also be found in the actual rust belt, if you know what you’re looking for and don’t get distracted by the rest. Like the world, the actual rust belt is large, and in a large messy world you can find whatever small and neater worlds you want. While the lazy conjure the Real Rust Belt from their living rooms, pull it out of their asses in TV studios, the enterprising drive out to the actual rust belt and assemble a version of the Real Rust Belt out of primary sources. This is a project for liberal moderates, who need the Real Rust Belt for a variety of reasons – to counterbalance a leftward shift that outpaces them (no, it doesn’t outpace us, your distinguished neighborhood liberals, but it outpaces Real Americans, you see), to appease right-wingers (who seem to always move the goalposts, but we’ll keep at it, if they won’t come closer to us we’ll come closer to them), or just to sell a clear and popular story (who invented this story, and who it serves, is a question for a different day, or for no day at all). The convenient thing about this kind of reporting is that it doesn’t require investigating or engaging with any kind of power. It just requires knowing the story you want to hear and finding the people willing to tell it.
Does believing in the Real Rust Belt make you care more or less about the actual one? Maybe it makes you visit, send resources, investigate, engage, stick around and fight even as the luster fades and the scene gets blurrier. This could be a good thing. No doubt it is a place that matters, because people live there, and people make things there, and people vote there (but not only there, though Real Rust Belt believers never seem as interested in Florida, for example, with its somehow messier demographics and more electoral votes than Ohio and Wisconsin combined), and there is connected to here and people and ideas and culture move back and forth across places.
It might turn out that there is a lot like here after all. Maybe you can still get sick and die in the Rust Belt, and maybe it’s just as hard to afford private insurance there as anybody else, and maybe the people there need health care. Maybe rich people keep getting richer and poor people keep getting poorer there as well, and maybe taxes and labor laws can help there like anywhere else. Maybe the Rust Belt is on the Earth, and the climate is changing there too, and as places become more (less often) or less (more often) habitable and arable, people will need to adjust. Maybe you can still be Black or Brown or gay or trans in the Rust Belt, maybe you can still be a woman, and maybe the world makes people suffer for these things there as everywhere. Maybe corrupt politicians and businesses can still poison the water there, and maybe they need to be held accountable. Maybe it’s another place where elections depend on fighting suppression and building field offices and canvassing and holding town halls and networking with locals and making a case for what must be done as much as they do on triangulation. But maybe that reality never rises to the perfection we demand, and we need to stay focused on the Real Rust Belt, where all people want to hear about or talk about is how progressives have gone too far and are driving them to Trump (where it turns out they’ve been all along).
Maybe you’ll find the Real Rust Belt was inside you; the Rust is the rust on your heart as you fail to warm to new cultures, the Belt is the belt you tighten around around your finances (or really around poorer people’s finances so you can keep expanding your own). Maybe you never needed those tens of millions of people after all. Maybe they don’t need you. Maybe, closer to home, in the shadow of the power to which you have rare and privileged access, there are people who do.