That was the 1940s, mind you, but you get my point.
Once upon a time, the city of Pittsburgh was a robustly blue-collar anchor to the American steel industry. Once upon a time, the air was thick with smog and soot from industry lining the city’s rivers. Once upon a time, decades ago, the collapse of the steel industry and American manufacturing put the city itself at risk.
That’s the Pittsburgh that Trump was referring to in his speech about the Paris climate agreement Thursday.
“We don’t want other leaders and other countries laughing at us anymore, and they won’t be. They won’t be,” Trump said. “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.”
The irony to that statement is that the climate agreement signed by President Barack Obama in 2015 would in one critical sense do as much good for the residents of Pittsburgh as it would for those in Paris, by establishing a concrete international benchmark for the reduction of greenhouse gases — and with it, a reduction of the worst effects of the warming climate across the planet. Cutting global warming is a global good, so in that sense, the Paris agreement does Pittsburghers as much good as it does Parisians.
“It is time to put Youngstown, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, along with many, many other locations within our great country, before Paris, France,” he said at the end of his remarks. By rejecting the global effort to cut greenhouse gases, Trump’s not exactly doing Pittsburgh any favors.
But he mentions Pittsburgh, Detroit and Youngstown not because they are prototypical American cities, but because they embody his decades-out-of-date sense of the nature of the Midwest. (To establish my cred: My family lives in Pittsburgh, my mother lived for years outside of Detroit and I went to high school outside of Youngstown.) Trump’s envisioning a Pittsburgh in which unemployed steelworkers and coal miners wander the streets under smoggy skies, begging for deliverance from the vagaries of the international economy. While there are certainly people in the city who meet that description — and while there were certainly far more people meeting that description in the 1970s and 1980s — it’s not really what Pittsburgh looks like today.
People on social media were quick to point out that Pittsburghers vastly preferred Trump’s opponent in the 2016 election. The city stands out a bit on this precinct-level map of election results from southwestern Pennsylvania compiled by Decision Desk HQ.
The city voted against him because cities are increasingly Democratic and Pittsburgh is more than a third nonwhite. In 2008, Allegheny County (where Pittsburgh is located) backed Barack Obama by 15.4 points. In 2012, that figure dropped to 14.5 percent. In 2016? Voters in the county backed Hillary Clinton over Trump by 16.4 points. Clinton did better there than Obama.
The city’s mayor made clear the city’s politics on Twitter after Trump’s comments.
Pittsburgh is not a Rust Belt city any more. It’s home to Carnegie Mellon University, Pitt and Duquesne. It’s already embraced — and rejected — self-driving cars. There were more than 13,000 people in Pittsburgh who worked in renewable energy and energy efficiency in 2016, pillars of the economic transformations sought under the Paris agreement. By contrast, only about 5,300 people work in iron and steel manufacturing. There are, according to the Energy Information Administration, only two coal mines in Allegheny County. The shale industry in the region — sponsors of that event at which Trump was speaking — has actually helped change the American economy by adding to the glut of natural gas that’s helped electricity producers transition away from dirtier coal-burning.
This is not the Pittsburgh of 1975.
So why does Trump present it that way? Because for Trump and many other Americans, “steelworker” and “coal miner” are stand-ins for the broader idea of “the great American worker of a bygone era.” It’s not about coal miners, as such: It’s about continuing to hammer home that America has changed dramatically over the past few decades, and that Trump promises to return the country to the era before all that change. An era when real men went to work in steel mills along the Monongahela River, not this new era when people head to service-sector jobs at local hospitals. (The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center employed 62,000 people in 2014; only 20,000 more people worked in manufacturing.)
Trump’s promise to make America great again has always been an unattainable pledge to wind back the hands of time. By invoking a nonexistent Pittsburgh that loves him for supporting the coal industry, he’s simply modifying his campaign pledge.