Factory Towns to Trump: Don’t Defend Yourself by Invoking Us!

AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

Environmental activists march for stricter pollution rules in downtown Pittsburgh in July 2014. 

To the injuries inflicted on America’s embattled factory towns, insults have long been added as well. Not surprisingly, Donald Trump has now become insulter-in-chief.

In the 2003 article “Collateral Damage,” the two of us traced how media reports on the impact of deindustrialization on Youngstown had shifted over time, from describing the city as the poster child for deindustrialization to representing the city as a place of loss and failure, then as a site of desperation, and finally as an object of ridicule. We argued that along with losing jobs to deindustrialization, communities like Youngstown could also lose their identities, as outsiders invoked these places and their struggles for their own purposes.

Which is precisely what Trump did last week in announcing that the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accords.

“It is time to put Youngstown, Ohio, Detroit, Michigan, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, along with many, many other locations within our great country, before Paris, France,” Trump proclaimed. Presumably, Trump knows that the climate agreement is not about Paris or any particular location, but—like so many others—he cited those Midwestern onetime industrial powerhouses to illustrate his “America First” agenda, because he knew that listeners would recognize them as cities that have struggled with the effects of deindustrialization—which some critics tie to environmental regulations as well as global competition.

Trump has long promised to put jobs for American workers over the environment, and in his speech, he famously claimed that he was elected by “Pittsburgh, not Paris.” It didn’t matter that the overwhelming majority of Pittsburgh voters (75 percent) chose Hillary Clinton, or that Trump’s claim that pulling out of the agreement would create or protect jobs was patently false. The reference to these deindustrialized cities allowed Trump to present his decision as fulfilling a promise to his supposedly blue-collar base.

When Trump finished speaking, Pittsburgh begged to differ. Trump’s “misguided decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement does not reflect the values of our city," said Mayor Bill Peduto. "Pittsburgh will not only heed the guidelines of the Paris agreement, we will work to move toward 100 percent clean and renewal energy for our future, our economy, and our people.” According to Pittsburgh’s Green Building Alliance, more than 500 owners and private enterprises have signed carbon reduction initiatives similar to those outlined in the Paris climate agreement.

Youngstown Mayor John McNally also dismissed Trump’s rationale, telling CNN that, “the U.S withdrawal from the agreement is not going to create jobs for Mahoning County.” While the Youngstown area experienced a brief boom a few years ago with the rise of the shale industry, the boomlet never produced the prosperity its advocates had promised. Ironically, the city’s last steelmaking facility, Vallourec Star, is a French company making steel pipes for the fracking industry—and a supporter of clean energy. Vallourec is hiring, though bringing back a few of the 200 workers it laid off in 2015 is unlikely to generate much growth for the local community.

Peduto and McNally are right to stand up to Trump’s use of their cities as examples of places that will either benefit from or support his rejection of the climate agreement. Trump’s decision probably won’t create economic growth, but the two cities’ mayors reclaiming their right to define their stories may suggest a different kind of recovery—of local identity as well as local economies.

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