President Trump is in Phoenix for a campaign-type rally that is expected to draw some of his most fervent fans and bring thousands of anti-Trump protesters into the streets. His decision to go to Phoenix prompted Mayor Greg Stanton to urge Trump to stay away lest the president inflame racial tensions in the wake of white nationalist demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va. Even though Trump’s rally was planned before the racial violence in Charlottesville, the unpopular president is entering a surprisingly supportive space — one that defies our contemporary notions of a blue America confined to cities and a red America entrenched in rural counties.
After all, Phoenix remains the place where Sheriff Joe Arpaio used his badge to harass, intimidate and round up Latinos. Phoenix is the city where during the campaign Trump called for mass deportations. Still, Phoenix has grown much more racially and ethnically diverse in the past two decades; approximately 40 percent of the city is now Latino, and, from his seat in City Hall, Mayor Stanton has offered a strong counterpoint to Trumpism, challenging the president’s attitudes and policies on his signature issues of trade and the border, and underscoring the evolving character of the city’s politics.
In Stanton’s April 2016 State of the City address, he took a not-so-veiled jab at Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. Defending a pro-trade, pro-immigrant vision rooted in social tolerance, Stanton boasted of how his city “began working to repair our relationship with Mexico — and create new jobs on both sides of the border.” He went on to note that “in partnership with the city of Tucson, we began the push for the Arizona Trade Office in Mexico City. We’ve teamed up with Phoenix and Arizona chambers of commerce and the consul general to conduct more than a dozen trade missions over the last four years. Late last year, six Arizona mayors traveled south to sign an agreement with Mexico City to promote two-way trade and student exchanges.”
But there’s a reason Trump finds a reliable base of support here. Phoenix provides him with a home to hard-right racial, anti-immigrant and conspiratorial politics, past and present, making his decision to hold a rally in this post-Charlottesville moment likely to inflame both his base and worsen already raw racial divisions and ethnic tensions roiling the United States.
Phoenix’s most famous son, Barry Goldwater, was the GOP’s 1964 presidential nominee, and in the early ‘60s countless conservatives hailed Goldwater’s anti-big-government and unapologetic pro-business politics and policies. One of Arizona’s current Republican senators, Jeff Flake, in fact recently wrote an anti-Trump polemic that took its title from Goldwater’s 1960 call to arms, “The Conscience of a Conservative.”
But what’s even more salient to Trumpism than Phoenix’s Goldwater traditions — the historical air that helped make Trumpism politically viable — is Phoenix’s far-right politics. In the post-World War II era, the city became an unlikely beacon to some of the forces that have brought us the Trump presidency. In Phoenix, newspaper kingpin Eugene Pulliam built his media empire, which included dozens of newspapers such as the Indianapolis Star and the Phoenix Gazette along with a handful of radio stations, and used the Arizona Republic to editorialize, for example, in defense of “right-to-work” laws curbing the power of unions. Pulliam’s distinct voice on behalf of “Americanism” provided one of numerous antecedents to staunchly pro-Trump media outlets such as Fox News and Breitbart.
Other activists, ideas, and controversies inflamed the city’s extremist politics. Phoenix’s American Legion campaigned in the 1950s to expose communist sympathizers whom some Phoenicians believed were infiltrating the city’s high schools. The legion went to so far as to identify six teachers and accused them of having communist ties, and Pulliam’s Arizona Republic endorsed a like-minded campaign to ban textbooks that it deemed pro-socialist.
The John Birch Society, whose founder, Robert Welch, promoted a batch of conspiracy theories about communist infiltration at the highest levels of American government, was active in Phoenix. In November 1961, another president — John F. Kennedy — went to Phoenix and was greeted by hard-line anticommunists picketing his presence at a dinner in honor of Arizona Sen. Carl Hayden at the city’s Westward Ho Hotel. Demonstrators hoisted signs that proclaimed, “Communism thrives on U.S. foreign aid.”
But even more significant for the current moment, Phoenix after World War II was a booming city in a state where racial segregation was deeply entrenched, a state (and city) where segregation was so pervasive that Arizona was sometimes referred to as the Mississippi of the West. Three scholars once titled an article about environmental racism afflicting South Phoenix as “The Geography of Despair.” They described South Phoenix as a place of “Sunbelt Apartheid” where white supremacy was maintained by patterns of racial segregation and systematic economic deprivation and environmental degradation.
Which brings us back to Trump’s rally. His appearance in Phoenix is more than just another in a string of presidential mind-melds with his fervent followers. The rally in Phoenix is an indication both of how Trump was able to run such an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim campaign and still win the White House and, as the anti-Trump protests suggest, a reflection of the still-considerable strength of Trump’s opponents. While some journalists, politicians and scholars have predicted that demographic trends in cities such as Phoenix will ultimately turn them “blue” and erode the strength of the forces that brought us Trumpism, the president’s inflammatory decision to go to Phoenix, and the support he enjoys there, signifies that this development is still in the future.
Matthew Dallek, associate professor at George Washington’s Graduate School of Political Management, is author of Defenseless Under the Night: The Roosevelt Years and the Origins of Homeland Security
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