Cardella: When politics Trumps ethnic pride

During the 2016 presidential campaign, a friend of mine whom I hadn’t seen in ages ran up to me in the local supermarket. She seemed excited to see me, but not for the reason I’d expected. It turned out that she didn’t want to catch up on how life had been treating me. She had an urgent question — “You’re Italian,” she said, “How could you not be for Trump?”

The question caught me off guard. From any perspective, what did being “Italian” have to do with supporting Donald J. Trump? Our ensuing conversation shed no light. Four years later, I’m still puzzled. But I do know this: For Trump supporters hereabouts, ethnic pride has been turned on its head.

The president has always been adept at distracting from his failures by creating political enemies. Trump supporters parrot his talking points. So it is in South Philly. The current Trump enemies list includes several prominent Italian-Americans: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi; Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a leading voice on the White House’s coronavirus taskforce; and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Ethnic pride hasn’t prevented this trio from being vilified around South Philadelphia and the rest of Trump’s America.

Pelosi’s accomplishment at becoming the first female Speaker hasn’t earned her any kudos downtown. Of the trio, she’s been a favorite target, even predating Trump’s run for president. Some of the South Philly Facebook postings I’ve seen portray her as the very essence of evil. I can understand disagreeing with Pelosi’s politics, but getting the Affordable Care Act passed would hardly seem to qualify her for the role of Satan’s No. 1 helper. And, it’s safe to say, Pelosi has become even more hated since she’s become the face of Trump’s political opposition — especially since the Democrats won the House of Representatives in the midterm elections and she moved forward with articles of impeachment.

Dr. Anthony Fauci is a different case. In normal times, Dr. Fauci might’ve been a hero in South Philly. But these are not normal times. Dr. Fauci has been in his post at NIAID since 1984. During that time, he’s never been controversial and has remained studiously non-political.

At the outset of the White House coronavirus briefings, Dr. Fauci was lauded as being the most credible public voice of the Trump administration. But that soon changed. As the president began to downplay the effects of the virus and to hype ineffective — and even dangerous — treatments (Trump’s currently taking an unproven drug to “prevent” COVID-19 infection), Fauci sometimes contradicted the White House party line. With Trump and his followers, you’re either for or against the president no matter what. Every issue is political. Fauci failed the Trump test for loyalty. It didn’t help Fauci’s cause that his popularity was seen as threatening by the insecure Trump. Since then, Fauci’s appearances at White House briefings have been noticeably fewer. Worse — he’s become the subject of ever-increasing dark conspiracy theories that claim he’s trying to undermine the president. Fauci’s once-impeccable reputation has been tarnished. HANG FAUCI signs have begun appearing at Trump rallies.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s fall from grace has followed a path that includes elements from both the Pelosi and Fauci situations. As a leading Democrat, Cuomo could be considered political fair game like Pelosi. But that hardly explains the new-found enmity for Cuomo. Until the recent pandemic, Cuomo had little or no visibility in South Philly. New York state politics didn’t give Cuomo a boost to run for president in 2016. Even in his own state, he wasn’t especially popular. And then Cuomo’s state became a flash point as the coronavirus swept America.

By refusing to accept any responsibility for his mishandling of the pandemic response and instead deferring to the states, Trump unwittingly gave Cuomo a national platform. After a rocky start in his relationship with the president, Cuomo earned the president’s praise for cooperation. But Cuomo forcefully disagreed with Trump over how many ventilators and how much protective equipment New York needed. That public policy difference and Cuomo’s rising leadership inevitably served to raise the ire of Trump. As with Dr. Fauci, Gov. Cuomo’s ascendant popularity has also been seen by the White House — and thus by Trump’s supporters — as a direct threat. A recent Facebook post, in fact, directly blamed Cuomo for every coronavirus death in New York state.

South Philadelphia is not solely the permanent or original residence of Italian-Americans. But our culture has always been heavily influenced in the public’s mind by the Italian-American stereotype. The stereotype has been flattering and at times not so flattering. The Italian-American community has always been portrayed as being proudly loyal to its ethnic heroes. Most famously, our area’s continuing embrace of former mayor Frank Rizzo is seen as a prominent example of ethnic loyalty. But the reasons for that loyalty have always been more complex. In the case of Rizzo, no doubt ethnic pride played a part. However, Rizzo moved out of South Philly when he was young. South Philly’s embrace of Rizzo was always been more about the late mayor being “one of us,” rather than about where he made his home.

Trump’s popularity is obviously not tied to his ethnic origins or where he lives. But the president has tapped into elements of our South Philly culture that are seen around here as authentic. And so we’re back to my friend’s question four years ago in that supermarket confrontation. Why does being a proud Italian-American require me to love Donald Trump?

That question makes no more sense to me now than it did four years ago. 

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