Fresh off a walking tour of blighted Flint, Mich., on Wednesday, Vivek Ramaswamy spoke excitedly about a comeback for the “forgotten America” that he has made a part of his long-shot bid for the presidency.
He wasn’t promising that the automakers that had largely abandoned Flint would return. “We have opportunities, though, to look to the future of a lot that we need to bring to this country,” Mr. Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old entrepreneur, said, ticking through the industries that he’d like to see help drive a revival: semiconductors, pharmaceuticals, defense production.
The industry he doesn’t want involved is the one already pouring money into the state: electric vehicles. He attributes the investments and the rising popularity of the cars to tax credits and favorable regulations that he would reverse as president.
“That’s not only a market distortion, but a market distortion that is decidedly a step in an anti-American direction that I think is frankly dangerous to the future of the country,” he told reporters just outside Flint.
Mr. Ramaswamy’s enmity toward electric cars, extolled in the ancestral home of the American automobile, does not exactly set him apart in the presidential field. The front-runner for the Republican nomination, Donald J. Trump, was in Michigan last week, reeling off a rambling bill of particulars against E.V.s, complaining falsely that they run out of power in 15 minutes, are bad for the environment, and would destroy the domestic auto industry within a few short years.
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a distant second to Mr. Trump in national polls, recently railed against electric vehicles when he unveiled an energy policy platform that promised to roll back E.V. subsidies to “support Americans’ right to drive the cars they want.” Mike Pence, Mr. Trump’s former vice president-turned-competitor, agrees with Mr. Ramaswamy and others that the transition to electric vehicles would send American auto manufacturing to China.
Opposing electric cars — and the industry’s ongoing shift away from internal-combustion engines to battery power — allows Republican candidates to criticize China, the dominant economic force in the battery industry. It also pleases G.O.P. voters still hostile to the notion of climate change — what Mr. Ramaswamy disparaged Wednesday night as “that God-forsaken religion, the climate cult” and “the E.V. subsidy cult” — and to all things environmental and “woke.” And it evokes a nostalgic halcyon past, the same one that Mr. Trump conjured when he promised in 2016 to bring back coal mines, steel mills and basic manufacturing.
But the steel mills and coal mines failed to roar back to their glory days, and the internal-combustion engine is unlikely to as well. In fact, the electric vehicle transition is well underway.
That transition is driven in part by President Biden’s policies, which subsidize the manufacturing and purchasing of E.V.s and their components and impose strict fuel economy standards on automakers that can be met with zero-emission electric cars. But it’s also motivated by Detroit executives who have vowed to convert their corporations to all electric, by consumers reacting to environmental concerns and gas prices, and by aggressive policies from governments like those of California, Britain and Europe that are beyond the reach of a Republican White House.
Those forces have prompted hundreds of billions of dollars to pour into states like Michigan and Ohio, but also to Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee, to assemble electric vehicles and build batteries and other parts with the warm embrace of Republican governors.
“The free market and consumer demand should drive the automobile manufacturing industry like it has here in Georgia, creating thousands of high-paying E.V. jobs across our state because of Georgia’s first-class business environment, unmatched work force and strong logistics network,” Georgia’s governor, Brian Kemp, said in a statement this week. “The path to America leading industrial innovation in the 21st century is through Republican-led states.”
But Republican presidential candidates say that, if elected, they will eliminate Mr. Biden’s tax incentives to build and buy electric cars and trucks, and roll back his fuel efficiency standards aimed at sharply reducing climate-warming greenhouse gases.
“I support letting people choose the cars that they want without those perverse incentives and the tax code that suggests that buying an electric vehicle is somehow in the owner’s best interest,” Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina said, though such incentives have helped prompt BMW, Volvo and Mercedes-Benz to expand E.V. operations in his state.
The Republican Party’s attacks on E.V.s. stem in part from real concerns shared by the auto industry and foreign policymakers. China does dominate battery-making, and as lithium-ion battery imports soar — they were up 99 percent last year from 2021 — a weakening Chinese domestic economy is bolstered abroad.
In Green Charter Township, Mich., where Gotion, a Chinese subsidiary, plans to build a battery plant, Mr. Ramaswamy showed up Wednesday evening at a horse farm dotted with signs reading “No Go on Gotion.” Alongside promises to “make sure that God-forsaken plant never gets built,” he criticized the “electric vehicle subsidy cult,” which, he said to cheers, “will end on my watch as your next president.”
“If you want to buy an E.V., I’m fine with that — we don’t need to use our taxpayer dollars to subsidize it,” Mr. Ramaswamy said, declaring that subsidies involve “subsidizing the C.C.P. because those E.V.s require batteries made in China — now made by China across the street from here,” a reference to the Chinese Communist Party.
And some attendees agreed.
“I don’t have a problem with electric vehicles — if you want one, OK, cool, buy one. But don’t force me, because I got a Dodge Ram with a Hemi and I love it,” Randy Guppy, from Howard City, Mich., said, referring to a type of V-8 engine.
John Bozzella, president of the auto industry’s Alliance for Automotive Innovation, also fretted that the Biden administration’s aggressive push for electrification was driving the auto industry faster than suppliers could ramp up battery production, strengthening China’s hand — and possibly opening the domestic market to cheap Chinese electric cars.
But the notion that electric vehicles are economically out of reach, technically infeasible and will somehow cripple domestic auto production and shift manufacturing to China appears belied by what is actually happening. This spring, fully electric vehicle sales reached 7.2 percent of all car and light-truck sales, a 48.4 percent increase over the year before and on a trajectory that analysts believe will only accelerate, according to Cox Automotive. U.S. consumers chose from 103 different models of cars, pickup trucks, S.U.V.s and vans.
The automotive industry said the average cost of an E.V. fell this year by $10,700, to $54,300 — $5,800 more than the overall average cost of cars and light trucks in the country.
Some 77 percent of all E.V.s sold in the United States were produced in North America — almost 60 percent from Tesla, owned by Republican-friendly Elon Musk. The rest were from Japan, Europe and South Korea. More than 660,000 electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids were sold in the United States in the first half of this year, by the industry’s count; only a few thousand were from China, and that number actually declined, according to automotive analysts.
Money is pouring in. Around $115 billion has been pledged to build vehicles, batteries and components in the United States, much of that in Michigan and the Southeast. Georgia, a key swing state in 2024, has seen $25.1 billion in pledged investment alone, said Garrison Douglas, a spokesman for Governor Kemp.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment in the industry will rise by more than 8.3 million by 2031, and while employment for basic assembly-line workers will decline by 96,000, higher wage jobs in engineering, software development and electronic assembly will shoot upward.
Earlier this year, Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, a Republican, blocked Ford from considering his state for a new battery factory, saying he was worried that the automaker was being used “as a front for China,” which would have controlled much of the plant’s technology. Ford then moved its $3.5 billion investment to Marshall, Mich.
Stacey LaRouche, a spokeswoman for Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan’s Democratic governor, talked up such investment on Wednesday, as Toyota and LG Energy Systems were announcing a $3 billion expansion of LG’s battery plant in Holland, Mich., to power Toyota E.V.s built in Kentucky.
Electric vehicle and battery deals, she said, “are creating thousands of good paying jobs right here in Michigan, not overseas.”