Youngstown, Ohio, is a go-to destination for a certain type of political outreach and reporting. Bolstered by its identification as quintessentially blue collar in a Bruce Springsteen song, it’s a city that fills in neatly as a backdrop for any story or rhetoric focused on the Rust Belt or the Midwest or the declining white middle class. As our Jenna Johnson noted, that is an oversimplified picture of what Youngstown looks like these days, but the familiar political shorthand it offers makes it irresistible.
In September, the Guardian stopped by a Republican Party picnic outside of Youngstown, hoping for a bit of that Midwestern, Rust-Belt real-keeping. Reporter Paul Lewis interviewed Kathy Miller, a former town trustee in nearby Boardman who was serving as Donald Trump’s campaign chairman in the county — at least, until Lewis’s interview with her was published.
“I don’t think there was any racism until Obama got elected,” she said. She continued: “If you’re black and you haven’t been successful in the last 50 years? It’s your own fault.” She added that there’s no racism if “people have jobs and go to work and do what they’re supposed to do,” and that if black people are offended by her saying that, it’s “because they’re not going to work.”
“We have three generations of all still having unwed babies, kids that don’t go through high school,” Miller said. “I mean, when do they take responsibility for how they live? I think it’s due time, and I think that’s good that Mr. Trump is pointing that out.”
Miller’s racist comments no more reflected the entirety of Mahoning County than they did the entirety of Trump’s base of support. Nor are her words those of the president’s. But when Trump visited the city again on Tuesday night, he gave a speech that demonstrated that his own positions on racial politics has not evolved from the campaign trail. He referenced black and Hispanic people in the same contexts as he did last year, talking about the former as residents of inner cities and the latter mostly in the context of immigration and the need to purge violent gangs.
He began his speech by saying how happy he was to be away from the “Washington swamp” and instead to “spend time with tens of thousands of proud Americans who believe in defending our values, our culture, our borders, our civilization, and our great American way of life.” This is a theme Trump has used before, and there’s always an inescapable undertone to it: Who is the “our”? What constitutes “our civilization” or “our culture”?
Is the quinceañera of a Hispanic family that has lived in the United States for generations part of that culture? Is Kwanzaa? It seems unlikely that a president who declined to host a traditional Ramadan celebration or recognize Pride Month thinks of Islamic traditions or gay culture when he’s describing “our civilization.” A president whose campaign was explicit in its appeal to working-class whites is pretty clearly talking about working-class white culture, and talking about it in a place that, to many, embodies it.
In Youngstown, Trump also revisited his famous “What do you have to lose?” exhortation from the campaign. That line was ostensibly an appeal to black Americans for their votes but was seen by many observers as solely an effort to convince his base that he was seeking support from black voters, to offset worries about racism. (In an August Post-ABC poll, a fifth of Republican men and a quarter of Republican women viewed Trump as biased against minorities and women.)
“I’d say, ‘What do you have to lose?’ I talked about the inner city, and I talked about the crime and the problems and the lack of education, and I talked to my African American friends and I said, ‘Vote for me, what the hell do you have to lose?’ Remember that? The Hispanic, the African American, the inner cities — So now it just came out, African Americans and teenagers are enjoying their lowest unemployment since just after the turn of the millennium. That’s pretty good, right?”
The equation of “African Americans” and “teenagers” there is probably a slip-up; Trump appears to have meant to say “African Americans and African American teenagers” or just “African American teenagers.” Here’s that employment trend.
The lows were in April 2000, spiking at the time of the recession. Since then, a slow decline in unemployment rates — for which it’s not clear Trump deserves credit. It’s also worth noting that, during the campaign, Trump used a wildly inflated number for this metric to bash President Barack Obama.
But the broader point here? Trump still lumps black Americans inexorably into the “inner cities.” He binds his consideration of African American life to “crime” and “the lack of education.” To address that point during the campaign, he insisted that he would advocate for more charter schools, arguing that this would give parents more choices in where they send their kids. He held to that promise — but, on Wednesday, the NAACP blasted the charter school system.
Besides the brief mention of Hispanics above, Trump spent a great deal of time talking about that population in the context of immigration. To cheers, he returned to the tactic with which he launched his campaign: painting immigrants as criminals who must be thrown out of the country.
“Never again will America surrender the security of our people, the safety of our communities or the sovereignty of our nation. We are cracking down hard on the foreign criminal gangs that have brought illegal drugs, violence, horrible bloodshed to peaceful neighborhoods all across our country. We are throwing MS-13 the hell out of here so fast. You know, we’re actually — hard to believe that we’re talking about our great country — we are actually liberating towns and cities. We are liberating — people are screaming from their windows, ‘Thank you, thank you’ to the Border Patrol and to [Homeland Security director] General Kelly’s great people that come in and grab these thugs and throw ’em the hell out. We are liberating our towns and we’re liberating our cities. Can you believe we have to do that?”
“Throw them out!” the crowd chanted. His administration was, Trump said, and they weren’t doing it in “a politically correct fashion.” “We’re doing it rough,” he assured the cheering audience.
Trump went on to talk about the “predators and criminal aliens who poison our communities with drugs and prey on innocent young people.”
“You’ve seen the stories about some of these animals. They don’t want to use guns, because it’s too fast and it’s not painful enough. So they’ll take a young, beautiful girl, 16, 15, and others and they slice them and dice them with a knife, because they want them to go through excruciating pain before they die. And these are the animals that we’ve been protecting for so long. Well, they’re not being protected any longer, folks.”
This anecdote, referring to a murder in Virginia, is Trump’s graphic depiction of Hispanic immigrants in the United States: violent, bloodthirsty animals.
He did talk about immigrants in other contexts, too. “We want people to come into our country,” he said, “who can love us and cherish us and be proud of America and the American flag.” He also declared that his administration was looking at reforming immigration laws so that those seeking to immigrate could do so on the basis of merit, since we don’t want “people that come into our country and immediately go on welfare and stay there for the rest of their lives.”
Trump ended his speech with an exhortation for an America gone by, the America with which Youngstown is associated.
“Now it is up to us to preserve the birthright of freedom and justice, the birthright of prosperity that our ancestors won for us with their sweat, with their sweat, with their blood, with their work, with their muscle, with their brain. They won it for us and we’re going to make it bigger and better and stronger than it ever was before.”
That depiction of how the country was built leaves out an important detail about the nature of much of that sweat and muscle: It came from black slaves, who didn’t share in the resulting prosperity.
Thanks in large part to institutionalized racism and exclusion from the culture of power in the United States over decades, neither have many of their descendants. Trump’s Mahoning County chairwoman never understood that. It seems clear that Trump, even six months into his tenure as president of the United States, hasn’t either.