With violent rhetoric, Trump fights electric vehicles to defeat Biden in Michigan

With violent rhetoric, Trump fights electric vehicles to defeat Biden in Michigan

An issue at the core of Joe Biden’s presidency that former President Donald Trump is zeroing in on with increasingly violent rhetoric could have outsize influence in critical battleground territory: the effort to accelerate the U.S. transition from gas-powered automobiles to electric vehicles.

For Biden, the combination of subsidies to boost electric vehicle manufacturing, new federal standards aimed at further cutting emissions, investments in charging infrastructure and tax credits to encourage electric vehicle purchases amounts to arguably his most ambitious industrial policy and climate change agenda. He has made repeated trips to electric vehicle assembly lines and newly built battery plants as he and his administration tout the new jobs his agenda has fostered and the increased share of Americans now driving electric vehicles.

Yet Trump and many of his allies have zeroed in on that agenda, particularly in Michigan, long the hub of the American auto industry, in dire and violent terms, warning of the potential for mass job losses and railing against vehicles that are cost-prohibitive, require electric infrastructure that in many places does not yet exist and are yet to perform up to the same capabilities as their gas-powered peers. 

Auto manufacturing jobs are growing, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the sticker prices of some electric models are starting to come down. But the Biden administration also recently slashed its target for electric vehicle adoption by 2032 from 67% to roughly half that amount amid pushback from auto labor and management.

The battle is likely to rage strongest in the bitterly contested state of Michigan, as well as in Georgia, a purple state that has drawn billions in electric vehicle investments from carmakers. In fact, many of the new electric vehicle-related plants that have opened in recent years have been in red states like South Carolina and Kentucky, where state and local lawmakers have touted their boost to local economies — and where weak union protections allow for low labor costs.

Major automakers and other industry players largely view the transition to electric vehicles as an inevitability — one they are looking to embrace. Rather than a catastrophe, they see it as a necessary step to not only combat climate change but also protect their bottom lines.

Still, Trump has warned the policies would lead to a “bloodbath” in the U.S. economy, “kill” the auto industry and trigger an “assassination” of jobs. At an event last week in Grand Rapids, Michigan, framed around immigration, Trump repeatedly lambasted Biden’s electric vehicle incentives, calling them “one of the dumbest [decisions] I’ve ever heard” and predicting they would be a boon for Chinese and Mexican auto manufacturers. 

“Isn’t it a shame we play away from our strength?” he said, pointing to oil and gas reserves in the U.S. and pledging to “end” the policies immediately. “And we play right into their strength by doing this.”

Michigan state Sen. Mallory McMorrow, a Democrat, expressed frustration over how Trump and other Republicans have framed the issue. She acknowledged that electric vehicles remain too expensive for many consumers and that there is still progress to be made in onshoring the EV supply chain, saying, “This shift is going to take time.”

But failing to pursue the transition is not “an option,” she added, pointing to other countries that are pursuing phase-outs of vehicles with internal combustion engines.

“If Donald Trump succeeds in convincing workers that we have an option of not making the transition, then you’re going to get to a place where our automakers will go out of business because you will no longer have customers to sell to, especially in a global market,” she said. “It’s hard to get that nuance across.”

Republicans who spoke with NBC News said it was not that they had any issue with electric vehicles themselves but that they felt the Biden administration was rushing too quickly to transition that part of the economy, particularly before the electric grid and infrastructure are fully ready to handle it.

“From the folks that I talked to and interact with, there continues to be a very high degree of doubt about the sustainability of electric vehicles’ taking over our transportation system in the near future,” said Michigan state Sen. Ed McBroom, a Republican.

Surveys have found mixed views and a distinct partisan split on the shift. A Pew Research Center survey last year found that 59% of U.S. adults opposed phasing out new gasoline vehicles by 2035, an increase from 51% in 2021. The same survey found that 84% of Republicans and Republican-leaning adults opposed the shift, while 64% of Democratic and Democratic-leaning adults supported it, though the numbers of Republicans and Democrats opposed had increased since 2021. 

A Gallup survey conducted last month and published Monday found that 7% of Americans say they own electric vehicles, up from 4% just a year ago. But fewer Americans now say they may consider buying electric vehicles, dropping from 43% to 35% compared to one year ago. There was also a significant partisan breakdown, with Republicans 42 points more likely than Democrats to say they would not buy an electric vehicle and 22 points more likely than independents.

In Michigan, a statewide survey conducted by the Detroit Regional Chamber and the Glengariff group with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points found that 46% of likely Michigan voters supported the shift to electric vehicles, while 44% opposed it. The split was pronounced between Democrats, largely in support, and Republicans, largely in opposition, while independent voters favored the transition by 8 points. Voters in the Detroit metro area favored it by 20 points, while those elsewhere in the state opposed it by 10 points.

In a focus group of Michigan voters who either are union members or have family members in unions, voters backing Trump and Biden raised concerns about the transition to electric vehicles, though most concerns focused mostly on consumer worries — that the cars did not perform as well as gas-powered vehicles and that the infrastructure does not yet exist for widespread adoption, rather than concerns over potential job losses. The sessions were produced in collaboration with Syracuse University and Sago, an international market research company, for the NBC News Deciders Focus Group series.

None of the voters questioned, however, agreed with Trump’s prediction that Biden’s electric vehicle policies would trigger a “bloodbath” wiping out auto industry jobs. And none said those policies made them any more or less likely to support Biden’s candidacy.

“I don’t necessarily think it’s a good or bad thing,” said Andrea G., a Biden supporter from Warren, Michigan. “I just think that it’s so new still that there’s so much more to come on it. I don’t fully have all the information. I don’t think they do, either.”

Nationally, the auto industry has experienced substantial job growth since Biden took over in January 2021. Preliminary March job numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show more Americans are employed in motor vehicle and parts manufacturing than in nearly 20 years, an increase of about 120,000 jobs during the Biden administration.

The sector grew by about 55,000 jobs during the first two years of Trump’s presidency before a downturn began just before the pandemic, with the Covid virus further cutting into job growth. He left office with a net loss of 8,000 jobs in auto manufacturing, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In Michigan, however, preliminary March numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show a gain of about 3,000 jobs in motor vehicle manufacturing during the Biden administration while the auto parts manufacturing sector has shrunk by about 4,000 jobs. Trump’s presidency coincided with a net loss of about 1,000 jobs in the former and 8,000 jobs in the latter.

The job impacts of the EV push were front and center during negotiations between the Detroit automakers and the United Auto Workers last year, with workers particularly concerned about the notion that electric vehicles require less labor to build — meaning there are fewer jobs to be had.

That point has been at the center of Republican pushback against the policies in Michigan.

Pete Hoekstra, the state GOP chairman, predicted that jobs would be on the line in his state not only with auto manufacturers, but also with auto parts suppliers.

“EVs require 40% less labor to assemble” than cars with internal combustion engines, he said. “That’s going to have a significant impact. … Some of the jobs are replaced because of the new vehicles. It’s beneficial to have them here versus somewhere else. But it’s still going to be a significant net loss of high-quality, high-paying jobs in Michigan.”

But researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that electric vehicle production will actually increase the total number of labor hours required to complete an automobile.

Kate Whitefoot, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and engineering and public policy who worked on the study, told NBC News that the assertion that electric vehicles require less labor “has to do with this really simplistic view that if you have fewer parts, you have less labor.”

“And that is just not the case,” she said, noting that the study found that in examining how many processes are required rather than how many parts, EV manufacturing may actually lead to an increase in manufacturing-worker hours.

Still, on the consumer side, electric vehicles make up only a small part of the overall auto market, with growth beginning to slow. Mark Schirmer, a spokesperson for Cox Automotive, an automotive data firm, said that while electric vehicles are “still more expensive than the average car,” they “are getting closer to parity.” Schirmer said the big reason for a slowdown in EV sales is a slowdown in sales for Tesla, which is the biggest player in the U.S. EV market.

For Trump, the electric vehicle policies provide an opportunity to hit Biden’s standing among workers, his economic policy and his handling of China, a leader in the EV market, in one punch.

“Joe Biden’s extreme electric vehicle mandate will force Americans to buy ultra-expensive cars they do not want and cannot afford while destroying the U.S. auto industry in the process,” Karoline Leavitt, a Trump spokesperson, said in a statement. “This radical policy is anti-jobs, anti-consumer, and anti-American. It will destroy the livelihoods of countless U.S. autoworkers while sending the U.S. auto industry to China.”

Former Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., said Trump has taken “a kernel of truth” and distorted it “beyond recognition.”

“The president has agreed to slow down the transition to EVs in a way that the UAW and the auto companies support,” he said. “So Trump is really out here by himself. It’s hot rhetoric. But in fact, the U.S. automakers and the union are also planning with Biden on his plan to move towards EVs.”

Allan Smith

Allan Smith is a political reporter for NBC News.

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