I’m still mystified over the bond between Donald Trump and many Italian-Americans. Despite the events of Jan. 6 of 2021, that bond seems unbroken. Why?
I think back to an incident in a South Philadelphia Acme during the presidential campaign of 2016. While I was shopping, an old friend from work rushed up to me. She was upset, it turns out, with some columns I wrote for this newspaper criticizing Donald Trump. But that wasn’t the shocking part. As a columnist with strong opinions, you get used to some readers disagreeing with you. It was what she said that stunned me. “How could you be against Trump?” she asked, “you’re Italian.”
In the days and weeks that followed, my disbelief deepened as I learned that many Italian-Americans in South Philly had such a strong emotional connection to Trump. That reminded me of the fanatical support around here for the late former Mayor Frank Rizzo. I could understand the historically fevered support for Rizzo. Much of it was based on ethnic pride and his strong law-and-order stance. It made a certain amount of sense. The manifestations of love for Trump, not so much. Rizzo, Trump. Could any two men be so different from each other?
Rizzo rose from the ranks of his blue-collar supporters. He shrugged off the elitism of his liberal opposition. Heaped scorn on such blue-blood critics and political opponents as Thacher Longstreth. Rizzo had a lot of malicious fun pronouncing the name “Thacher.” But Trump was a guy born with the proverbial silver spoon, a guy who was “born on third base and thought he’d hit a triple.”
Rizzo believed in the school of hard knocks. Trump was handed a million-dollar trust fund when he was 20 and a cushy Ivy League education. He went through the motions at the University of Pennsylvania, convincing himself that he was the smartest guy in the room. He wasn’t. There is nothing in Trump’s background that indicates a shred of a connection with Italians or hard work. He is the ultimate BS artist. The con man. The kind of phony that South Philadelphians usually see through a mile away. How the hell did this charlatan pull the merino wool over the eyes of so many Italians in this area?
Part of the explanation is the wokeness of the opposition. The annoying prissiness of the far Left. The obsession with which personal pronoun to use. The failure of the Democratic Party to draw the connecting line between its legislative accomplishments and its compassion for the working class. Its outright ridicule of the social culture of those they profess to care about. A culture Barack Obama sloughed off as a dependence on guns and religion. Observers like Italian journalist Massimo Jaus believe resentment is the glue that binds Italian-Americans to Trump.
The politics of resentment is ugly, but an effective political tool for Trump’s Republican Party. Resentment played a part in keeping the Republican Party afloat, even in the sunny days of Ronald Reagan. Reagan loved to tell stories of mythical welfare queens in Cadillacs living large. There’s nothing that foments simmering anger against poor minorities more than the idea that the poor always qualify for government goodies while the working class struggles to survive without a helping hand. Most of the so-called “giveaways” to the poor are — if they exist at all — much less generous than those harboring resentment imagine. Nevertheless, the welfare myths die hard. And this is where Trump is a master. He — the soft one, the guy who gets a pass while others risk their lives on the battlefield — plays upon the strings of resentment to achieve power.
Despite Trump’s political skill at playing the victim and appealing to those who feel victimized, the events of Jan. 6, 2021 should have opened the eyes of South Philadelphia’s Italians. Most Italians are conservative and by nature strong believers in law and order. And yet even after it becomes more obvious every day that Trump tried to change the results of a democratic election and incited violence, too many Italians continue to remain loyal to him. The idea that you would be willing to sell out democracy for a half-baked evil, a P.T. Barnum-type should be unthinkable. And yet it isn’t.
My old area is largely Italian-American. Composed of hard-working citizens, the kinds of folks whose work ethic is the backbone of our democracy. They send their kids to school in hopes that their children will become successful adults. They keep strong family ties. Ask for nothing more than what they earn. Care about their neighbors. Support their parish church. Some have risen to become influential political leaders.
Yet note this. Trump won only a handful of wards in Philadelphia, but one of the exceptions was Packer Park with a strong Italian-American population. And I’m betting that nothing much has changed since late 2020.
South Philadelphia Italians by and large still support Trump. And although Philadelphia will likely still vote against him, if Trump is the Republican nominee he will use his winning vote tally to try to win Pennsylvania.
The key to defeating Trumpism may well lay in understanding his continuing attraction to South Philadelphia Italian voters. How can their political hero be a man whose values and lifestyle be so different from their own?
Someway. Somehow. Donald Trump has tapped into the darkest corners of our soul.