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The Rally That Could Have Been

It’s time to expand the pro-family, pro-worker coalition.

Workers holding American flag in factory (Getty Images).

Last August, CNN published a moving feature on inner-city Baltimore by their enterprise writer, John Blake. In it, he describes the story of an unlikely Trump voter: his late, 91-year-old African American father who provided for his family with “a well-paying job, with union benefits, as a merchant marine.”

Blake paints a vivid portrait of his childhood memories in what was once known as “The Greatest City in America”:

The community I grew up in during the 1970s and ’80s was full of men and women like my father. Many of them had blue-collar jobs at places like the Bethlehem Steel plant or the Domino Sugar plant in the city’s inner harbor. They proudly purchased big Chevy Impalas, kept their homes in impeccable condition and had crab cookouts in their backyards.

Today, however, the city is in dire straits. Blake describes his family neighborhood in West Baltimore as an “economic wasteland,” noting that “Those stable, career jobs have now been replaced with minimum-wage service jobs and temp work.” Conservatives like to emphasize the importance of personal responsibility, church attendance, and stable families as a cure for inner-city poverty, however, Blake urges them to reconsider what he views as the most successful “anti-poverty” and “anti-drug” program known to man: JOBS, JOBS, JOBS.

It’s a message that comes naturally to conservatives. In fact, one could argue that it was the central theme of the Trump campaign in 2016. But Republicans have failed to translate that message into a majority coalition over the past 3.5 years. Instead, the President sits with a job approval rate at 40.9%, according to recent polling from FiveThirtyEight. Even worse, only 8% of blacks voted for Trump in 2016, and at the start of 2020, 83% of black Americans believed that the President was a racist.

It didn’t have to be this way.

When J.D. Vance wrote his NYT bestselling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, he described the plight of the white working class in a way that captivated the nation. For perhaps the first time in a generation, Republicans truly began to understand the connection between bad economy policy and bad social outcomes.

The argument was simple: Free trade sent jobs overseas to China and Mexico. America’s great cities deindustrialized. The businesses, civic organizations, and churches that supported company towns like Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Dayton dried up. The social fabric of communities ripped apart. And those who were left behind turned to opioids (ironically, made in China) to numb the pain, leading to a drug epidemic that kills nearly 70,000 people per year and counting.

Against that backdrop, Donald Trump rode a wave of anti-globalization sentiment into the White House, and the rest is history. Republicans learned an important lesson too: while some of the problems in poor Rust Belt communities stem from failures of personal responsibility, there were also more systemic economic issues at play. Bad decisions made on Wall Street and in Washington had wreaked havoc on the Heartland. For those with eyes to see, the “American Carnage” was all around.

Yet, for many on the right, the lesson didn’t translate to how they viewed black communities. Many blacks moved up from the South during the “great migration” to take manufacturing jobs in cities like Baltimore. While they faced the horrors of segregation, there existed thriving black communities with union jobs, black-owned business, healthy churches, and vibrant cultural institutions.

Much of this was uprooted by the very same deindustrialization that pillaged white working-class communities. Matters were made worse by the very real barriers posed by racism. The jobs left behind were often, as Blake described, “minimum-wage service jobs and temp work.” In other words, not a lot opportunity to pursue the American dream. And blacks that moved to the city in the latter half of the 20th century to buy homes in formerly white neighborhoods often fell victim to predatory developers in the form of “blockbusting,” which in some cases artificially inflated the values of homes sold to African-Americans by 80 – 100%, placing an “onerous burden on black homeowners.”

And to top it all off, in the decades following the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, mass immigration depressed working-class wages and forced blacks to compete for the new, low-wage service jobs, which replaced their well-paying, unionized jobs in manufacturing. As South-side Chicago pastor, Corey Brooks, told TAC in a recent interview: “a lot of African Americans do believe that…[on account of] being so loose with immigration…a lot of jobs that young African Americans could have, they’re not available.” This sentiment is backed by data from a 2007 study published by Harvard’s George J. Borjas, U. Chicago’s Jeffrey Grogger, and UC San Diego’s Gordon H. Hanson, which argued that “The 1980-2000 immigrant influx, therefore, generally ‘explains’ about 20 to 60 percent of the decline in wages, 25 percent of the decline in employment, and about 10 percent of the rise in incarceration rates among blacks with a high school education or less.”

All of these factors combined for a perfect storm buffeting the black community again and again over the past half century, producing understandable anger and frustration. Yes, two-parent families and increased church attendance would help to ameliorate some of the problems in America’s inner-cities. However, just as the white working class was under siege by forces beyond their control, even more so was the black community.

If only we had a President who could champion the interests of the working and middle classes, both white and black. If only we had a president who could stand behind a podium in West Baltimore, just as well as Youngstown, Ohio, and blast globalist politicians and hedge fund managers who sold these communities down the river to make a buck off of cheap labor from Communist China. If only we had a president who could explain, in very clear terms, how tight labor markets raise wages in both inner-city and rural communities. If only we had a messenger who could inspire a new, working- and middle-class majority to restore a sense of solidarity and patriotism across racial and class divides.

This weekend, President Trump travels to Tulsa for a “Great American Comeback” rally—the first stadium event he’s held since the coronavirus lockdown—that’s certain to attract tens of thousands of MAGA hat-wearing fans and provoke the ire of the mainstream media and cultural elites.

In a very different universe, one can imagine a similar rally taking place in downtown Baltimore. The crowd—a cross section of the city’s diverse residents—cheering wildly as a champion of a pro-worker, pro-family, “one-nation conservatism” takes the stage. He or she looks out at the crowd, and with a resolute eye, points to an Acela train in the distance whizzing past the burnt-out, boarded-up neighborhoods of Baltimore’s skyline, and vows with utter sincerity and perfect moral clarity: Never again.

about the author

John A. Burtka IV, executive director and acting editor, graduated from Hillsdale College and the Faculté Jean Calvin in Aix-en-Provence, France. He was a Lincoln Fellow at the Claremont Institute in 2018. He has appeared on Fox News and Fox Business and written for The Washington PostRichmond Times-DispatchFirst ThingsThe American Mind, and The Intercollegiate Review, among others. Previously, he worked for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and participated in academic fellowships at Washington College and The Trinity Forum.

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