US Election: How Donald Trump's 'empty promises' left a steel town rusting away

We’re driving south from Detroit. It’s grey and drizzling.

A nasty smell creeps in through the air-vents and we emerge into a dystopian landscape of monstrous steam-pumping, fire-spewing structures. I’ve never seen anything like it.

This is what was once America’s industrial heartland, but is now better known as the rust belt.

We’ve come to find out whether voters here in Michigan feel Donald Trump has delivered on the promises he made in 2016.

Back then Donald Trump vowed to rebuild the state’s automobile industry, rejuvenate struggling steel manufacturing and "stop the jobs leaving Michigan".

Zug Island, the heart of America's steel industry. Credit: AP

Those pledges helped turn this normally Democratic bastion, Republican.

But as we cross the railway tracks on to the eerie looking Zug Island, we see evidence of his unfulfilled pledges.

Steel has been produced here since 1902, becoming the foundation for the communities that now surround it and depend on it.

But recently, the Great Lakes Works, once one of Michigan's largest steel plants, announced it’s shutting down production, with the loss of up to 1500 jobs.

"It was just empty promises," Bob Kemper of United Steel Workers tells me as he shows me around the Union Hall in River Rouge.

The building stands almost exactly as it did when it was built in 1946, the original wood panelled walls are now covered in photographs and memorabilia celebrating the long history of steel production here.

Three generations of Bob’s family have worked at the steel mill, he explains how blue collar workers here measure their “worth” by what they are able to make and says Donald Trump’s promises were simply “lies”.

Next we drive two hours west to the perfectly named Battle Creek, which sits in the middle of this fiercely fought over Battleground state.

This is the home of Kellogg’s and was once fondly known as the “cereal bowl of America”.

Trump supporters during a campaign event in Michigan. Credit: AP

But at the height of the pandemic, a quarter of people here were out of work and it’s estimated almost half of residents in Calhoun County can’t afford daily essentials; things like nappies for their toddlers and babies.

We see a line of cars queuing for the “diaper drive-through”, which runs every week, helping people like Juliet Brown who has four grandchildren to support.

She tells me she worries about providing for them and doesn’t know what she’d do without help from the churches and food banks. 

We get back in the car and drive further west.

As I drive our hire car, I think about the fact Michigan was, of course, once a powerhouse of car manufacturing.

Not anymore, but the industry is still embedded within the state’s identity.

So Donald Trump’s promise to restore that pride, helped to secure his win here in 2016, but only by the tightest of margins - just under 11,000 votes.

In Kalamazoo, we pull into Roberts Corvettes to meet father and son, Tim and Jim Roberts.

The parking lot is full of shiny gorgeous classic cars with enormous bonnets. The family have been restoring Corvettes, aka “America’s Sports Car”, since 1982.

They tell me business has never been better, thanks to President Trump’s handling of the economy.

"I’m voting for Trump because the country needs to be run like a business again," they say.

As we drive east along the freeway, back towards Battle Creek, I'm reminded of the people forced to queue up to get free nappies, because they don’t have enough money to buy them for their kids.

I wonder, even though the US economy was travelling in the right direction before the pandemic, will that be enough to convince voters in this crucial state?

Watch Trump vs Biden: The Results on Tuesday 3rd November from 11pm on ITV