As if a message from providence on the morning after the election, a hot lightbulb chanced to fall upon a pile of cardboard in a shuttered steel plant in upstate New York.
The result was a huge conflagration that served at once as a reminder why Donald Trump was elected and the reason nobody should have voted for him, as well as a suggestion why Hillary Clinton might have made a good president.
The big Bethlehem Steel plant in Lackawanna, New York, had once been the biggest such facility on earth, employing 20,000 workers during World War II and getting even bigger in the aftermath. It supplied steel for the nation’s bridges and tunnels and skyscrapers and ships, as well as weapons. The company’s CEO, Arthur B. Homer, was the highest paid corporate executive in America, and he saw no reason to innovate new methods such as were being developed in other countries.
“We have a nice business as it is,” he was quoted saying.
Foreign companies using modern techniques with cheaper labor began producing ever cheaper steel as Bethlehem kept to its old ways while paying ever higher wages, not to mention executive compensation. Bethlehem’s sales plummeted.
In 1983, the once-booming mill closed. Other facilities closed as American builders continued to seek higher profits by using foreign steel. Donald Trump bought Chinese prestressed steel concrete to build both the Trump International Hotel Las Vegas and the Trump International Hotel & Tower in Chicago.
In the meantime, some 900 workers from the now shuttered Bethlehem Steel plant who had developed cancer had come to suspect their illness was related to uranium rods they had handled unknowingly during the Cold War. They sought aid from the government for decades before they finally were able to prod Congress into action in 2000.
Under the legislation, workers were eligible for up to $150,000 in compensation. The hitch was they had to prove that they had been exposed to radiation and that it likely caused their cancer.
But the workers had not even been informed they were handling uranium, much less issued radiation badges. And no effort had been made to monitor their exposure. They were being rejected one after another when then Sen. Hillary Clinton stepped in to help.
In 2006, she presented the workers’ case before the Presidential Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health. She noted a provision in the statute that allowed the government to establish a “special cohort” of workers who qualified for the benefits on the presumption they had been exposed
“This was a landmark law and it was such in the tradition of our country to acknowledge the wrong that the government had done, and promise timely compensation to workers and their survivors,” she said. “The statute to my reading is pretty clear. It says that if the government doesn’t have the information to reconstruct doses then workers should be given the benefit of the doubt and their claims should be paid.”
She added: “More precisely it provides for classes of workers to be added to a special exposure cohort if it’s not feasible to estimate the radiation doses with sufficient accuracy, and there is reasonable likelihood that the radiation dose may have endangered their health. I don’t think we could have a clearer case than Bethlehem Steel.”
She concluded, “So I’m appealing to you to help us bring this process to a conclusion. It has been six years since Congress passed the law… I think they deserve to be compensated and really given justice for what they did for our country.”
Government continued to move at the speed of government, and Clinton enlisted fellow New York Sen. Chuck Schumer to join her in introducing legislation that required authorities to grant special cohort status in such circumstances. That finally came to pass in 2010, after Clinton had gone on to become secretary of State.
In the recent presidential campaign, Trump blasted Clinton for supposedly selling out America with trade deals that favored other countries, most particularly the Chinese. He excused his personal contribution to the problem by insisting it had only been good business for him to have bought Chinese-made steel for his buildings. He offered the same excuse for having bought Chinese-made clothing for his apparel line.
But his supporters shrugged off such contradictions as they fell under his mantra that he would Make America Great Again. He was apparently harking back to a time such as when the steel mill in Lackawanna employed tens of thousands before being made jobless by less expensive foreign steel such as he himself had purchased.
Trump was not as persuasive as he might have wanted to be in Lackawanna County. He garnered only 47 percent of the vote while Clinton got 50 percent.
But he won by a big enough margin in other places that he will now become the next president of the United States. His great appeal was to those whose yearning to recapture times gone by was so strong that they were willing just to take him on his word.
“Believe me,” he said, and many did.
As many of us were left wondering how a Trump presidency could have come to pass, a hot lightbulb fell onto some cardboard in a shuttered steel mill that was now being used to store cars and boats.
More than 100 firefighters fought the ensuing blaze, and along with the leaping flames and clouds of black smoke roiling high into the sky, our past becoming too much like what many of us fear for the future.