ELKHART, Ind.—In the RV capital of the United States, life has been pretty darn good.
Just ask Dwight Miller, the vice president for operations at Dometic, a company that builds appliances and other equipment that are essential for RVs.
For years now, customers have been gobbling up mobile homes. Sales are robust. Unemployment is low. And Elkhart, Indiana, the center of it all, is booming. On Middlebury Street along the town’s main stretch, manufacturers and warehouses have full parking lots and “we’re hiring!” signs planted in the grass along the road. Restaurants and bars have popped up downtown. New lofts are coming, too, as is a $65 million aquatic center.
But as thrilled as Miller is about his city’s current fortunes, ominous signs have recently begun to emerge. A trade war started by President Donald Trump—specifically the tariffs imposed on steel and aluminum imports—is threatening to unravel the progress made in this key industrial hub in Vice President Mike Pence’s home state. So far, the effects have been limited, measured mostly in greater inventory instead of job losses. But these manufacturers fear what will come if they don’t get clarity soon.
“It was sprung on so quickly on short notice,” Miller said in an interview at one of Dometic’s manufacturing plants here. “I would’ve liked to have more time to say, ‘Okay, I’ve got what you’re doing. I see what the bigger picture is. Can you give me 12 months to react to something instead of two weeks?’ It just seemed like it was a knee-jerk reaction and not very thought through—what the ramifications would be. Maybe there’s a bigger picture I’m just not seeing in my mini-world.”
Like countless towns throughout the industrial midwest, Elkhart is grappling with an aggressive, protectionist economic policy from the president. But what makes it different from the rest is the unique lore it enjoys in the country’s recent political narrative.
Before it began bracing for the impact of Trump’s trade wars, Elkhart was the shining example of former President Barack Obama’s stimulus package. It was during the 2008 Democratic primary that the then-senator from Illinois first came to northern Indiana. He would return again during the general election campaign.
After that second visit, the financial crisis hit. Suddenly, few people had the disposable income to buy a mobile home, leaving the mainstay of Elkhart’s economy hobbled. The town, which has nearly 100 RV manufacturers and 400 RV suppliers, was decimated. Unemployment shot up to 20 percent. Obama’s solution was a massive recovery act that he said would jump-start spending and recharge the markets. And, as president, he decided to go back to Elkhart again to pitch the idea. It was the first city that he visited after assuming office.
Over the subsequent years, Elkhart would receive nearly $170 million in stimulus funding, according to data gathered by ProPublica. Over time, the money, along with the larger economic recovery, worked. The RV industry recovered. Jobs came back. Businesses thrived. By 2016, the unemployment rate was well under four percent in Elkhart, and Obama returned that summer to celebrate.
But Elkhart never embraced him or his policies. Elkhart County voted ever-so-slightly for Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in the 2008 election. In 2012, Mitt Romney won 62 percent of the vote in Elkhart County. In 2016, Trump trounced Hillary Clinton with 64 percent of the vote. And even today, as the impact of tariffs looms over the city, voters seem perfectly content with their choices.
“Trump is sort of bulletproof here because of the results,” said Dan Holtz, the Elkhart County Republican party chairman. “There is no other Republican who comes to mind in the last 30 years who has anywhere near the courage of Donald Trump. To say that courage in a leader engenders allegiance is a trite statement in human history. Of course it does. You can sit back and say, that’s it; 100 percent of it. His courage endears fierce allegiance.”
Why Elkhart’s voters have proven willing to stand by a president who may endanger their economic boom and unwilling to reward one whom he says helped them during a time of economic despair, is a complicated question with a variety of answers.
Political tribalism—the notion that you are part of a team and must defend it even if it runs counter to your financial well-being or ideology—plays a role.
But many here say the correlation between presidential politics and their economic success is not so clear or simple. The stimulus may have helped matters, but it funded projects ranging from school repairs to highway construction to public housing. It did not go into the RV industry directly, and it certainly didn’t do much to raise take-home pay.
“When I say that no serious person in this county gives Barack Obama credit for the recovery, I mean it,” said Holtz, who, nevertheless, gave credit to the Trump tax cuts for the current state of the economy.
Trump’s tariffs, meanwhile, may prove harmful and haphazardly crafted, but RV manufacturers in Elkhart applaud him for trying to fix international trade imbalances and, underneath it all, they have not yet seen any truly harmful impacts.
Cecilia Redmond, an Elkhart transplant who formerly worked in the RV industry, noted that most industry employees make a salary of less than $80,000 a year. But they do get commissions based on sales that often bump yearly pay over $300,000. When sales are good, so is life in Elkhart. Lately, sales have slowed but not alarmingly so.
“It is kind of now gone back to normal [as opposed to exceptional],” Redmond said. “They aren’t freaking out yet because it is getting back to normal. But I think you will see people really freak if the [annual Elkhart RV Open House] September show doesn’t deliver the results they are expecting.”
But signs of danger are already beginning to show. In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs announcement, the per-pound price of aluminum jumped by almost 50 percent to $1.41. RV manufacturers were “hit hard,” said Jay Landers, vice president of government affairs for the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA). Some absorbed the costs. Others passed it along to consumers. Landers said retail prices, as a result, are up by eight to 12 percent.
Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN), a conservative Democrat who is trying to align himself with Trump ahead of a tough re-election bid in November, has been sharply critical of the president’s tariff policies and even confronted him directly about it during a meeting at the White House.
“It’s like having a window in the house that you need to fix, so you burn the whole place down,” Donnelly, who lives near Elkhart and used to represent the area in the House of Representatives, said in an interview. “This fight is very dangerous to my state.”
But Trump, who came to Elkhart in May, hasn’t backed off yet. Instead, he has escalated the trade fight, announcing new steel and aluminum tariffs on Turkey this past week. The impact is already taking hold down the supply chain, where steel and aluminum are used to build the RV appliances.
“Every time you apply taxes, local industries enter into an uncomfortable zone. And they don’t have a whole lot of incentives to innovate,” Fabio de Souza, Dometic’s director of purchasing, said in an interview in his Elkhart office. “People are going to buy fewer RVs, fewer boats. That ripple effect, I cannot measure.”
To date, Dometic has not been forced to lay off any of its nearly 1,000 employees in northern Indiana. But the company, and others, are in what several officials described as an anxious holding pattern. The Trump administration continues to negotiate with China and other nations over the tariffs, and there is hope that he will give the town that needed clarity soon. He has been given a fair amount of political rope to do so. But the rope isn’t endless.
“What I look at from a personal situation is: how am I personally impacted? How’s my career? How’s my personal security around my area? How’s all of that being impacted?” Miller said, noting that all of his answers to those questions are positive—for now.