Donald Trump assured Rust Belt communities that, under his leadership, American auto manufacturers would expand their workforce and keep open existing plants. It was therefore a bit of a problem for the Republican president when GM announced plans yesterday to do the opposite, shuttering three assembly plants and two other facilities, while eliminating an estimated 14,700 jobs.
In a brief Q&A with reporters yesterday, Trump was asked for his reaction to General Motors' announcement. "Well, we don't like it," he responded. Referring to a conversation he claims to have had with GM's Mary Barra, the president, "I was very tough. I spoke with her when I heard they were closing. And I said, 'You know, this country has done a lot for General Motors. You better get back in there soon. That's Ohio, and you better get back in there soon.'"
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Trump went a little further.
"Well, it's one plant in Ohio. But I love Ohio. And I told them: You're playing around with the wrong person.... They better damn well open up a new plant there very quickly. [...]"I spoke with Mary Barra, the head of General Motors last night. I said, 'I heard you're closing your plant. It's not going to be closed for long, I hope, Mary, because if it is you've got a problem.'"
There's a lot about this story that we don't yet know. For example, GM has not yet confirmed whether the conversation with Barra actually happened, and the president has an odd habit of describing the details of discussions that did not occur in reality. We also don't know what, if anything, Trump plans to do to GM if the auto giant ignores the president's pleas, or if the company even cares about the president's posturing.
But even putting those questions aside, since when are Republicans comfortable with officials threatening private companies over their business decisions?
About a decade ago, Barack Obama and his team rescued the American auto industry from collapse. As New York's Jon Chait explained yesterday, prominent conservative voices at the time saw White House intervention in the internal affairs of auto giants as "the literal death knell of capitalism."
Michael Barone quickly coined the phrase "gangster government" to capture the conservative belief that the Obama administration was threatening the private sector with the untrammeled power of government. Denunciations of "gangster government echoed from editorials (the Washington Examiner "the way Obama strong-armed creditors who rightfully expected to be treated justly under the law was right out of Juan Peron's playbook") to tea-party rallies to a book by David Fredosso (Gangster Government: Barack Obama and the New Washington Thugocracy.)The conservative pundit Lawrence Kudlow used the term in a hysterical interview with one of the bondholders who had to accept some losses as part of the bailout. "I mean was there bullying in those meetings? I have heard from other sources that there was. And some of this stuff is pretty mean and nasty. And that ain't the American way," he asked at one point. "We are corrupting the Constitution and contract law," Kudlow declared at another point.
If Kudlow, now the top voice on economic policy in the Trump White House, still has any similar concerns, he hasn't shared them publicly.
Complicating matters is the familiarity of the circumstances. After all, the current Republican president has also threatened Harley-Davidson. And Nordstrom. And Amazon.com. And media companies that publish reports he disapproves of.
A cynic might wonder if the right's concerns about "gangster government" are limited to Democratic administrations.
Postscript: I'd be remiss if I failed to emphasize Trump saying yesterday, "It's one plant in Ohio. But I love Ohio." If GM's announcement only affected people in "blue" states, would his reaction have been different? Or put another way, how much of the president's response was shaped by his concerns about suffering in a key electoral swing state?