The Foxconn Debacle Is Key to What the Trump Era Has Meant in Wisconsin

As President Donald Trump makes his first Wisconsin campaign visit of 2020, we need to remember that his legacy in the state is tied to the project he called the "Eighth Wonder of the World."

The Recombobulation Area is a new weekly column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.

Speaker Paul Ryan, President Donald Trump, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Foxconn Founder and CEO Terry Gou and Christopher Murdock at Foxconn's groundbreaking ceremony in Wisconsin, June 28, 2018. Photo by Shealah Craighead [Public domain]

President Donald Trump comes to Milwaukee on Jan. 14 for one of his campaign rallies, which is sure-to-be vitriolic, loaded with lies, and deeply problematic, as his rallies often are. Beyond the spectacle of one of these rallies from this president happening right in the middle of a city that’s overwhelmingly opposed to him — he received less than 19 percent of the vote in the Brew City in 2016 — it serves as the starting point of what’s sure to be an intensely competitive year of campaigning in perhaps the most hotly contested state on the 2020 electoral map

So as the Trump circus descends upon the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panther Arena Tuesday night for the first of what’s sure to be many campaign visits to the state of Wisconsin this year, it’s important to remember what’s been one of the key pieces of what his presidency has meant in Wisconsin: The Foxconn debacle. 

To say this project hasn’t lived up to expectations would be a massive understatement. It looks like, for the second straight year, the project won’t even create the bare minimum number of jobs to meet the terms of the state’s (extremely favorable!) deal with the Taiwanese tech manufacturer. This certainly wasn’t the plan. 

Sifting through the drip-drip-drip of details coming from Mount Pleasant, it’s been obvious for quite some time that this deal is not being adhered to in any way and the Evers administration is right to renegotiate (which is something I wrote about in a pre-Recombobulation Area column months ago). A new study also suggests the Foxconn project will be a net loss to the Wisconsin economy, costing the state as much as $6 billion over the next 15 years. It was a reckless gamble to begin with, and two years later, it’s clear that it will not pay off as backers intended.

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But let’s not forget that a big part of why the deal happened in Wisconsin and happened the way that it did in the first place was because of President Trump. The project’s inception dates back to a helicopter ride over Kenosha with Reince Priebus in April 2017. As the project flails — and based on an in-depth, investigative piece by The Verge published less than a month ago, it is flailing wildly — to divorce the debacle from its connection to Trump would be a mistake. Foxconn is here in Wisconsin because of Donald Trump, and it is a 10-figure drain on Wisconsin taxpayer dollars because of the deal struck by members of Trump’s Republican Party, and by any objective, common-sense assessment, the project is failing miserably. 

If this were just one chance economic development project that happened to go sideways, that would be one thing. But that’s not what Trump — and Priebus, and Gov. Scott Walker(and then-Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, whose respective districts are home to the project) — sold it as. The groundbreaking ceremony is remarkable to revisit in its lofty praise for the company and dramatically outsized ambition for the project. 

Here’s what Trump had to say about the Foxconn project in his June 28 remarks at the project’s official groundbreaking:

“To Foxconn and to Terry Gou, and to all of the amazing Wisconsin workers with us today and all over this state, I want to wish you good luck and congratulations on truly one of the Eighth Wonder — I think we can say this is — we can say the Eighth Wonder of the World.  This is the Eighth Wonder of the World.  But this is something so special.  So I want to just congratulate you all.  You’re very special people and a very special state.”

The Eighth Wonder of the World, this isn’t. Even before Trump had said those words, Foxconn had already changed its plans, from a Gen 10.5 manufacturing plant from the initial agreement to a Gen 6 (and now we don’t even know if that’s what they’re planning to build, according to the Verge report). 

(Sidenote: if you want an explainer on the details of what the latest string of failures means for the project, the Wisconsin Budget Project has a really good one.)

Instead of the thriving advanced manufacturing hub that dealmakers envisioned, what’s resulted is a series of moving goalposts the company continues to defend with half-truths and lofty promises, changing its own rules before the game began and then questioning why anyone would doubt their commitment to following through. The whole Foxconn deal has now been dragged into the weeds, mired in a nuanced debate about the extent to which Foxconn is maintaining its commitments to the contract, as the company puts the new Democratic state leadership through the ringer as it attempts to course-correct. 

It’s really the perfect Trump Era project, after all. 

Like so much of what the president has done throughout his administration (and, really, his entire career), the Foxconn debacle is a grift built on a lie, dragged out into an endless legal battle, trampling innocent people in the process

It’s snake oil -- both Trump and Foxconn. And those who can’t see that by now simply never will. 

But what we all need to recognize is that Trump and Foxconn are forever connected. And as Trump and the eventual Democratic nominee compete for Wisconsin’s 11 electoral votes between now and Nov. 3, the Foxconn debacle needs to be high on the list of major issues up for debate during this campaign as candidates criss-cross the state. 

Donald Trump and the Republican Party sold this as the Eighth Wonder of the World. It is costing Wisconsin taxpayers billions of dollars. It is failing. And every time the president returns to the state, that’s something we need to remember. 

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