Donald Trump ventured into the beating heart of Boeing country when he staged a rally in Everett Tuesday evening. Oddly enough, the Republican presidential candidate didn’t talk about Boeing.
Some might consider it an act of cowardice, this refusal by the New York billionaire to stand up and explain his facile You’d-Better-Elect-Me-or-Boeing-Is-Going-to-China sound bites, which he’s thrown out like red meat to friendly interviewers. ("They'll start taking your business away, and you won't have much of Boeing," Trump told KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson on Monday.)
Did Trump shed his backbone by appearing before a company town audience and failing to back up his blasphemous Boeing rants? Did he back down in the backyard of the most-trade-dependent manufacturer in the U.S.’s most trade-dependent state?
Not likely. Trump has never lacked for chutzpah in front of blue-collar crowds that buy what he sells. And he didn’t ignore the topic entirely in Everett, vaguely promising that a President Trump would renegotiate trade deals and shepherd a resurgence of American manufacturing.
The more likely scenario for Trump’s Tuesday night Boeing blackout, we’d like to believe, is that he (or at least his latest team of handlers) had an epiphany of common sense.
China is by no means a clear and present danger to thousands of high-paying, good-benefits Boeing jobs in Washington state. The very suggestion of the Chinese bogeyman is “side-splittingly hilarious” and “an embarrassing misunderstanding of the aircraft industry,” aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia recently told McClatchy Newspapers.
Sure, Trump scored some points after Boeing’s announcement last year that it’s building a plant in China. But he glosses over that this will be a finishing facility, a site for low-level jobs like carpet installation and exterior paint on planes destined for the booming Asian market. It will allow the company’s skilled U.S. workforce to focus on the big picture, including an estimated 100-month backlog of 737 orders.
Think Boeing would risk moving its high-brainpower functions to a country with infamously lax intellectual property protections? Don’t bet on it.
Setting Trumpian nonsense aside, there is real cause for insecurity among Boeing employees on at least two fronts. First is the continued automation of manufacturing work inside U.S. borders. Next year, for instance, assembly lines in Everett will start using robots to make wing skins and spars on the Boeing 777X.
The other threat — which Washingtonians are well aware of and Trump must be, too — comes in the form of an internecine struggle. A Civil War, if you will, that pits Boeing’s historic presence in the Pacific Northwest against the cheaper labor environment of South Carolina.
The company has moved thousands of jobs out of Washington over the last four years to work on aircraft including the 787 Dreamliner and 737 Max. The new employment base in North Charleston, S.C., has enjoyed remarkable stability even while Boeing rolled out a Puget Sound workforce cut of at least 4,000 jobs this year.
Candidate Trump, of course, gains little by acknowledging the complexities of the dog-eat-dog fight for family-wage jobs inside the 50 states. If anything, he could ignore the West Coast and pander to the South, where there are states he can win in November.
The easier rhetorical route leads straight to Beijing.
But at least for one night, during a 48-minute speech in the heart of Boeing country, Trump did the right thing by not taking the low road to China.