“The story’s always the same. Seven-hundred tons of metal a day. Now, sir, you tell me the world’s changed. Once I made you rich enough. Rich enough to forget my name.”
– Bruce Springsteen, “Youngstown”
SAN DIEGO – Youngstown again? As an avid spectator of politics, I’ve been hearing about that city in the Mahoning Valley of northeast Ohio for decades. Although it’s home to just 64,000 people, Youngstown gets more than its share of attention from politicians, media, filmmakers, and even a poetic singer/songwriter from Freehold, New Jersey.
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Last week, President Donald Trump returned to Youngstown – a longtime Democratic stronghold that the billionaire businessman visited more than once during the campaign and where he remains popular with white blue-collar workers. He went there in an attempt to change the subject away from what his daughter-in-law Lara Trump, who introduced him to the crowd, dismissed as “the crazy Russia story.”
The president also doubled down on a campaign promise to push through a trillion-dollar bill to rebuild the country’s infrastructure. If that legislation were ever passed, some of that money would presumably find its way to Youngstown.
On top of that, Trump pivoted and – as he does so often when speaking to groups of white Americans – dedicated a sizable chunk of his speech to his favorite chew toy and wedge issue: immigration. He once again pledged to build a “big beautiful wall” on the U.S.-Mexico border that increasingly seems like it either is never going to materialize or, if it does, will be neither big nor beautiful. Vowing to bring back “our sovereignty as a nation,” Trump restated his opposition to so-called sanctuary cities and repeated the highly dubious claim that his administration has – in six months – “cut illegal immigration on our southern border by record numbers – 78 percent.”
As the crowd chanted “USA” and “build that wall,” Trump insisted that his administration was “cracking down hard on the foreign criminal gangs that have brought illegal drugs, violence, horrible bloodshed to peaceful neighborhoods” and, referring to the brutal Salvadoran gang that populates some U.S. cities – “throwing MS-13 the hell out of here.”
For Trump, getting rid of foreign criminals is a top priority.
“One by one, we are finding the illegal gang members, drug dealers, thieves, robbers, criminals and killers,” he told the crowd. “And we are sending them the hell back home where they came from. … We are going to get criminals off our streets. And we are going to make America safe again.”
It’s no surprise that Trump returned to the familiar theme of demonizing Latino immigrants. The surprise is that he chose to do it in Youngstown of all places – a city with a minuscule immigrant population, located in a state where the Latino population is just 3.7 percent.
Yet, Trump implies that immigration is a huge concern here?
I’ve never been to Youngstown. The closest I got several years ago was spending a couple days in Lorain, another Ohio town about 90 minutes away that was also hit hard by the decline of the nation’s manufacturing industry from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s.
Youngstown first landed on my radar during the 1996 presidential campaign, when conservative journalist Patrick J. Buchanan made a run at the Republican nomination. Buchanan accused GOP elites of neglecting those folks in the Rust Belt states who were struggling with high employment, low wages and home foreclosures. And Youngstown – a former behemoth of the steel industry – was a prime example, Buchanan said.
Old scapegoats give way to new ones. A couple decades ago, Buchanan told the people of Youngstown that greedy corporations and monied interests were to blame for their troubles. Then came a wave of elected officials who blamed unfair trade deals and globalization. Today, Trump puts the blame on Latino immigrants.
Do you know who no politician ever blames for the problems that besiege Youngstown? The residents of Youngstown, who may not have much but still have the power to vote. From the stories I’ve read, many of them refused to move and seek out opportunities in other places. Others passed up the chance to acquire more education, training and skills. After all, they must have reasoned, Grandpa managed to have a job for life and a pension – all with no more than a high school diploma. So why couldn’t they?
Because Springsteen was right. The world did change. And those who didn’t change along with it got left behind.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.