This week—on Thursday August 2—President Trump will host a rally for U.S. Senate Candidate Lou Barletta in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Barletta, a Trump loyalist, was one of the first people in Congress to endorse Trump’s presidential bid and has voted to the president’s liking 97.7% of the time.
Barletta is challenging incumbent Democratic Senator Bob Casey, who comes from Pennsylvania political royalty, in a race that will surely draw comparisons to the Trump/Clinton battle for Pennsylvania in 2016.
But to really make sense of what’s about to go down at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre on Thursday night, we need to reach back further into the historical archives.
Trump and Barletta are where they are because of demagoguery. Because they use racism to scapegoat the most vulnerable members of the working class. And because their abrasive rhetoric gets devoured by a base in search of an explanation for why the world is as it is.
The coal barons in Pennsylvania’s anthracite fields—which include Wilkes-Barre and Hazleton, Barletta’s hometown—perfected this tactic more than a century ago. They worked hard to retain an allegiance with established immigrant groups—whom they nevertheless exploited at will—by stirring ethnic animosity and blaming all of the problems on less established immigrants at the bottom of the mining hierarchy.
"Trump and Barletta are where they are because of demagoguery. Because they use racism to scapegoat the most vulnerable members of the working class. And because their abrasive rhetoric gets devoured by a base in search of an explanation for why the world is as it is. " Well before Trump came on the political scene, Barletta made a name for himself as the mayor of Hazleton, introducing the Illegal Immigration Relief Act (IIRA) in 2006. Hazleton’s ordinance, albeit later ruled unconstitutional, was the first in what became a wave of such legislation passed at state and local levels across the country. In Barletta’s words, the goal was to “eliminate illegal aliens from the city of Hazleton.”
I chronicle the politics surrounding the IIRA in my book, Undocumented Fears: Immigration and the Politics of Divide and Conquer in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. I show not only that Barletta was wrong about the source of the problem—undocumented immigrants accounted for just 0.25% of all arrestees in Hazleton between 2000 and 2006—but more importantly that these divisive tactics have enabled modern-day barons to continue exploiting workers and extracting wealth from Northeast Pennsylvania.
The actual story about what happened in Hazleton is economic to the core. After the demise of its coal industry, the city turned to manufacturing out of economic desperation in the 1950s. Then, as competition for attracting manufacturing firms intensified in the 1980s and beyond, Hazleton officials, with Barletta’s blessing, embraced a state-level tax incentive program called the Keystone Opportunity Zone (KOZ) initiative.
In classic race-to-the-bottom fashion, KOZ offered corporations opening up shop on certain parcels of land a near moratorium on state and local taxes for up to a dozen years. Jobs came. Just not good jobs. KOZ attracted a Cargill meatpacking plant and a host of warehouses and distribution centers, including an Amazon shipping facility.
With these industries, it’s hard not to be reminded of the legacy of coal. Meatpacking is one of the most dangerous jobs in America, and if they were alive today, coal bosses would salivate over the methods of surveillance and control that Amazon exerts on its workers.
Even though the jobs in post-manufacturing Hazleton tend to be low-paying, temporary, non-union, and dangerous, they were nevertheless attractive to many Latinx immigrants—mostly folks who left their home countries for economic reasons and came to Hazleton to take advantage of its relatively low cost of living after initially settling in and around New York City.
In 2000, Hazleton’s population was 95% white. By 2006 it was about 36% Latinx. Today, the white/Latinx breakdown is around 50/50.
Hazleton, like America, is thus home to working class people from different backgrounds disaffected by the same global economic patterns. Whites and Latinos alike struggle to get by in a county where about one in seven adults and one in three young children live below the poverty line.
Yet at Thursday’s rally, Barletta and Trump will do their best to emphasize our differences. Like the coal barons before them, they’ll look working class Pennsylvanians in the eye and tell them economic policies that favor the rich are good for them and that system-milking immigrants are to blame.
You can bet the ensuing discussion will focus on some outlandish thing the president said. And you can expect several takes about how this race is a litmus test. But we need to be talking about the roots of this problem. About how this is an ongoing struggle. A struggle where working class people are fighting to have our needs met and our dignity retained. A struggle against the people and forces that divide us.