Ferguson, Freddie Gray, and the Limits of Urban Tourism Development

This week in North Philly Notes, Aaron Cowan, author of A Nice Place to Visitpremieres his new promotional video for the book and explains the shortcomings of the urban tourism strategy in the wake of police violence.

Nice Place to Visit

In A Nice Place to Visit, I examine the attempts of four cities – Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St. Louis – to remake themselves into tourist destinations in the second half of the twentieth century. Though each location had its own unique characteristics and variety, these cities – and many others like them – followed a similar pattern of substantial public investment in an “infrastructure” of tourism: massive downtown convention centers, fancy new chain hotels with impressive atriums, and recreational facilities like sports stadiums and festival marketplaces. These were accompanied by aggressive marketing campaigns from professional convention and tourist bureaus, often supported by tax dollars.

All of this public subsidy was justified, said political leaders and business executives who supported them, because tourism provided the best route out of the “urban crisis” of the postwar period, and would bring prosperity by generating new tax revenue, and especially new jobs for urban residents hard-hit by the loss of manufacturing in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. In the early 1970s, as the city of St. Louis debated a bond issue to finance a new $25-million convention center for the city, promoters promised the new convention business drawn by the structure would bring “a resurgence of the city’s heritage, a return to the halcyon era of easy-going good living, good dining and good entertainment.”

The transformation from gritty industrial city to sparkling tourist destination was not an easy one, however, and in nearly every case tourist development failed to provide the panacea it seemed to promise. Service jobs in new hotels or restaurants could not offer the wages or benefits that union-backed industrial labor had provided. Furthermore, the substantial public debt incurred by cities to build tourist facilities meant diverting scarce funds from core functions like education, infrastructure maintenance, and emergency services. Finally, while new convention centers and entertainment districts drew visitors to downtowns, they did little to stem the exodus of middle-class (mostly white) residents out of cities and into suburbs.

The shortcomings of the urban tourism strategy have been thrown into sharp relief in recent years by the widely-publicized protests over police violence. In the late summer of 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri an unarmed 18-year-old African-American Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer. The death of Brown catalyzed a protest movement demanding an end to racially-biased policing practices. Protestors and heavily-militarized police clashed throughout the fall of 2014 along the town’s main thoroughfare of West Florissant Avenue, a short 15-minute drive from the St. Louis convention center, now dubbed the “America’s Center Convention Complex.”  The following April, Baltimore erupted in a series of protests after the death of Freddie Gray, an African-American man, due to injuries sustained at the hands of police. While most protests were nonviolent, a small group of rioters destroyed police cruisers and storefronts.  Maryland National Guard troops occupied the central city,  standing guard over the city’s Inner Harbor, the central location of its tourist facilities including the city’s convention center, hotels, National Aquarium, and Harborplace waterfront marketplace.  Cincinnati and Pittsburgh have faced similar challenges in achieving racial justice and overcoming the economic and social legacies of postwar urban segregation.

The historical narratives of these cities should, then, give us pause regarding the role of tourism in contemporary cities.  Just as past urban leaders pursued downtown hotels and convention centers, today casinos increasingly flourish in the Rustbelt urban landscape, and cities are grappling with the challenges of tourist-oriented “sharing economy” businesses like Airbnb and Uber, which threaten to diminish hospitality tax revenues or disrupt established parts of the economic sector. While tourism is indisputably an important element of urban economies, A Nice Place to Visit suggests that cities would do well to temper the belief that tourism-driven economic development is a cure-all, and, furthermore, to remember that the benefits of such development are rarely equitably distributed. Truly successful cities are those that are not only “nice places to visit” but also communities that provide economic opportunity and social justice that make them good places to live.

Follow Aaron Cowan on twitter @aaronbcowan.

 

Honoring the achievement of African American writers

This week in North Philly Notes, we post an excerpt from Werner Sollors’ new book, African American Writing: A Literary Approach

In a lecture on “The Literature of the Negro in the United States” Richard Wright said that the literature should be understood against the background of the global movement from traditional, rural, religiously based, and pre-individual cultures, to modern, urban, industrial, secular, and stridently individual, societies. It is for this reason that, despite all specificities and differences, “one ought to use the same concepts in discussing Negro life that one used in discussing white life.” In this context, Wright arrived at one of his most famous quips:

 The history of the Negro in America is the history of America written  in vivid and bloody terms; it is the history of Western Man writ small. It is the history of men who tried to adjust themselves to a world whose laws, customs, and instruments of force were leveled against them. The Negro is America’s metaphor.

Today’s students may find Wright’s gendered language and the very word “Negro” antiquated, if not reactionary. Yet they may be overlooking the Enlightenment legacy both of the study of black literature–that began in the wake of the French Revolution with Abbé Henri Grégoire–and of the language of the “rights of man”–that could easily be imagined to stand for men and women: even the 1848 Declaration of Sentiments spoke of “the family of man” in articulating its hope for gender equality. The term “Negro,” too, though it was disparaged by 1960s radicals and satirized by LeRoi Jones as “knee-grow,” was once a dignified term into which the hope for full equality was inscribed. For Wright, the Negro as America’s metaphor was also a mirror for white America. Near the end of his lecture, he said:

The differences between black folk and white folk are not blood or color, and the ties that bind us are deeper than those that separate us. The common road of hope which we have all traveled has brought us into a stronger kinship than any words, laws, or legal claims. Look at us and know us and you will know yourselves, for we are you, looking back at you from the dark mirror of our lives.

“Negro literature” was a global term, capacious enough to include writers anywhere in the world. In fact, from Gustavus Vassa to LeRoi Jones himself, writers most commonly employed the word “Negro” to describe themselves as well as people of African ancestry more generally. Early scholarship in the field in America, much of it written by intellectuals who had to work within the constraints of a racial segregation, supported the political strAfrican American Writing-smuggle for equality and integration. In 1926, Carter G. Woodson established Negro History Week during the second week of February to commemorate the birthdays of Frederick Douglass (1818) and of Abraham Lincoln (1809), a black man and a white man, who together symbolized the end of slavery and the promise of full equality. Woodson had pioneered in history with such classic studies as The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861 (1915) and The History of the Negro Church (1924), and with an early focus on the history of what in the United States is called “miscegenation” (interracial sexual, marital, and family relations). Benjamin Brawley published literary histories that included The Negro Genius (1937); Eva B. Dykes demonstrated the significance of the antislavery struggle for English Romantic literature in The Negro in English Romantic Thought; or, A Study of Sympathy for the Oppressed (1941); the poet-critic Sterling A. Brown critiqued stereotypes and highlighted realistic portrayals in American writing in his Negro Poetry and Negro Drama (1937) and The Negro in American Fiction (1937); Benjamin Mays pioneered in the study of religion and published The Negro’s God as Reflected in His Literature (1938); the immensely productive historian John Hope Franklin offered a helpfully synthesizing textbook to complement American history textbooks, From Slavery to Freedom (1947); Frank Snowden, who in 1944 submitted his Latin dissertation “De Servis Libertisque Pompeianis,” focused in his Blacks in Antiquity (1970) and Before Color Prejudice (1983) on the role of blacks in the ancient world, a time when there were no black laws or bans on miscegenation; and Marion W. Starling (1946) and Charles H. Nichols (1948) undertook the first full-scale doctoral work on the slave narrative. Such scholarship had the effect of writing blacks into American and global history, rectifying omissions and neglect, and setting the record straight against the then dominant American scholarly opinion that slighted the importance and contributions of blacks. Perhaps the work of generations of “integrationist” scholars (and “integrationist,” once a fighting word, has also become a problematic term) deserves to be considered afresh today and to be taken as guide in rereading major works of literature and debates about the legacy of race, slavery, and segregation.

Reflections on the AFL and its merger with the NFL

This week in North Philly Notes, Charles Ross, author of Mavericks, Money, and Men, blogs about the AFL and the growth of the NFL.

As I sat watching the NFL draft I couldn’t help but think about the AFL and its merger with the NFL in 1970.  Pro football is clearly the most popular sport in America and that popularity is largely due to the rival leagues calling a truce and becoming one.  The last two teams to win the Super Bowl were original AFL teams–New England Patriots and Denver Broncos, and interestingly they struggled to achieve success as members of the AFL.  They never won an AFL Championship but the Patriots have won four Super Bowls and the Broncos three.  Maybe more importantly Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams probably didn’t anticipate the teams that made up the so called “foolish club,” being valued at hundreds of millions of dollars, when the original franchise fee was $25,000.

Mavericks_smEvery original AFL team including the two expansion teams have played in the Super Bowl, however, there are two NFL teams that have never had that experience, the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions. Again the Browns and Lions picked early on Thursday night, both teams since the merger have arguably struggled to field strong teams led by great quarterbacks and solid defenses, the usual ingredients necessary to reach the pinnacle of a successful pro football season.  The draft was virtually parallel to the percentage of African American players in the NFL, in essence the overwhelming majority of players selected were black.

The two universities that I owe much of my professional success had a historic night.  The Ohio State University where I received my Ph.D. had five players selected in the first round and the University of Mississippi where I have spent the last twenty years since leaving OSU, had three players selected in round one for the first time in school history.  Three of the five players from Ohio State were African American and all three from the University of Mississippi, of course having five players selected in round one for perennial power OSU was not necessarily a surprise.  But for the University of Mississippi to have three players chosen was, unfortunately the controversy that surrounded offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil’s fall to the Miami Dolphins because of posts on his social media page dominated the media’s focus and took the spotlight off what both programs had achieved.

Arguably the growth of the NFL since the merger is a real testament to pro football’s marriage to television.  The medium of television helped to increase the value of franchise’s, players contracts, coaches contracts, and profits from owners.  Large amounts of money fuel these relationships and ultimately the same relationships at the collegiate level.  Billy Cannon signed his contract to play for the Houston Oilers instead of the Los Angeles Rams after the Sugar Bowl in 1960, on New Year’s Day.  Cannon had agreed to contracts with both the Rams and the Oilers which was a NCAA violation, and he signed his contract on television under the goalposts when the game ended.  This was great publicity for the AFL and set the tone for the next six year war between the AFL and NFL.  The saga of Tunsil also played out on national television but like Cannon many fans will want to know more about this young man and his ability to be successful on the football field during this upcoming season.  The Miami Dolphins think he will be successful and so do I.

A lot has changed since the merger but one thing has not, the success of teams will be established on the field.  Publicity both positive and negative will continue to characterize aspects of what is now America’s favorite sport, in many ways the NFL has reached a zenith where the only competition is itself.  Pro football is not competing against the NBA or even major league baseball, its chief competition now is its own public perception.

 

Unveiling of State of Pennsylvania’s Historical Marker Honoring Albert M. Greenfield (1887-1967)

This week in North Philly Notes, Dan Rottenberg, author of The Outsider, provides his remarks from the April 21, 2016 unveiling of a historical marker honoring Albert M. Greenfield, the subject of his book. The marker is located outside the Philadelphia Building, 1315 Walnut Street, which Greenfield built in 1923 and occupied for more than 40 years. 

This is an especially appropriate time to honor Albert M. Greenfield. We live in an age characterized by pessimism and fear— especially fear of the future, and fear of immigrants.

The Outsider_smAlbert Greenfield was both an immigrant and an optimist. In his 79 years on this planet he demonstrated what a difference a single individual can make in his community, his country, and his world.

In Philadelphia he put up high-rise office buildings and new hotels. He revived the city’s derelict historic district as Society Hill, a model urban community. In the process he drew the upper-middle-class back to Philadelphia’s downtown from the suburbs. He helped reform the city’s political system. He played a role in the creation of the state of Israel.

In this election year, when presidential candidates and European leaders talk of erecting walls to keep people out, it’s worth recalling that Albert Greenfield spent his life breaking down walls between people. First he got the German Jews and the Russian Jews to stop fighting with each other. Then he got the Jews and the Catholics to stop fighting with each other. Then he got whites and blacks to stop fighting with each other. He even broke down barriers between men and women. Ultimately got all of them together to challenge the entrenched Protestant Establishment that had dominated Philadelphia since its founding.

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The obstacles to human progress that Greenfield opposed—pessimism, timidity, prejudice, fear of immigrants, resistance to change— still persist. This is a good time to recall the Mayo Clinic’s definition of an optimist: “Optimism is the belief that good things will happen to you and that negative events are temporary setbacks to overcome.” That was Albert Greenfield: a man who wasn’t afraid of change and in fact delighted in it.

We can’t all follow in his peripatetic, hyperactive footsteps— the world would be a madhouse if we did—  but we can resolve to follow his example in embracing the future with a stout heart, courage and good cheer, just as Albert Greenfield did.

 

It’s Not (Only) About Transgender: Bathroom Bills and the Politics of Fear

This week in North Philly Notes, we repost a column by Finn Enke, editor of Transfeminist Perspectives in and beyond Transgender and Gender Studies, that first appeared April 2 on myhusbandbetty.com, about bathroom legislation and the climate of fear these bills produce.

In 2015, 21 different anti-trans bills were put before legislatures in over 12 states. In the first 3 months of 2016, politicians have brought us another 44 bills in still more states. Most of these bills focus on public facilities that are sex segregated; most criminalize transgender and nonbinary people for using public facilities; most suggest that these bills are necessary for the “safety” and “privacy” of “the public;” most include a definition of “sex” as that determined by birth assignment and confirmed by birth certificate, and chromosomes. Many focus on public schools. In their rhetorical conflation of transgender with perversion and predation, and in their legitimation of excessive surveillance, they disproportionately impact people who are already most targeted: trans and queer people of color, trans women generally, and nonbinary people.

Whether or not they pass, these bills produce a climate of fear and suspicion, and they have already contributed to an increase in violence in and around bathrooms.

As a white transgender person who doesn’t “pass” well in either bathroom, I am more nervous than ever every time I need to use a public restroom (roughly 1,500 times a year).

These bills don’t originate from public concern or from any documented problem, and protests against them show that many people aren’t buying it. After all, trans people have been around forever, and there is no record of any trans person harassing anyone in a bathroom, ever. Plus, the bills themselves are staggering in their fantasies that sex could simply be flashed at the door with the wave of a birth certificate. Most people know that these bills don’t make bathrooms safe and only marginalize trans people, even making it impossible for us to use any bathroom.Transfeminist Perpectivessm

We know we are political fodder. The GOP made a sudden “issue” out of our access to public facilities in order to galvanize a crumbling party. It wouldn’t be the first time the GOP has created a political platform around vilifying already-marginal communities. As John Ehrlichman explained in 1994, Nixon advisors designed the war on drugs in order to derail the Civil Rights Movement and the Viet Nam Antiwar Movement. In the midst of the Cold War, the GOP also consolidated itself around anti-abortion platforms. And from the 1990s on, the GOP turned gay marriage into the fuel behind their campaigns rather than addressing economic and environmental crises.

But even more specifically, the rhetoric surrounding these bills relies on a very old trope of white women needing protection against sinister intruders. In Wisconsin during a 9 hour public hearing about its bathroom bill, we heard from quite a few men who didn’t want their daughter or granddaughter to be vulnerable to men preying on girls in the locker room. One said, for example, “we don’t allow exhibitionists and child molesters to hang out outside of school buildings, so how can we even be talking about letting them into girl’s locker rooms?”

North Carolina State Senator David Brock shared a similar concern in response to the state paying $42,000 for an emergency session to pass SB2 which criminalizes trans people for using public facilities: “you know, $42,000 is not going to cover the medical expenses when a pervert walks into a bathroom and my little girls are in there.”

Or we can look at the campaigns against Houston Proposition 1 during 2015. Prop 1 was an Equal Rights Ordinance barring discrimination in housing and employment on the basis of gender identity as well as sex, race, disability and other protected statuses. These are rights that should already be guaranteed under the Civil Rights Act of 1963 and elaborated by Title IX and the American with Disabilities Act. Refusing to affirm these rights, those who opposed the bill claimed that the bill would allow men into women’s bathrooms. They created TV ads depicting large dark men intruding on white girls in bathroom stalls. They rhetorically turned a housing and employment nondiscrimination ordinance into a “bathroom bill,” and they succeeded; Prop One failed to pass.

And let’s not forget that the North Carolina bill also contains unchallenged sections that discriminate against workers and veterans. Against the more graphic iconography of predatory men in women’s bathrooms, the rights and workers and veterans are easily lost from view.

This is not the first time that demands for equality across race, sex and gender have been resisted with the claim that public accommodations will become spaces of unregulated danger against innocence. The face of the intruder may change slightly, but across centuries, the victim is ever and always a young white girl.

It’s also not the first time we have seen white women used in the service of sexist and racist and transphobic violence. Feminist historians have conclusively shown that the 19th and 20th c. trope of protecting young white womanhood was foremost about securing white masculinity, domesticity, and white supremacy.

Though they cause real violences, these bathroom bills are not primarily about transgender people or bathrooms. Nor have lawmakers, for all their concern about young girls being molested in bathrooms, shown similar concern about the most common forms of sexual violence and assault against girls and women (across race) that take place outside of bathrooms.

As mean as these bathroom bills are, something much larger is also at stake.  The North Carolina bill is designed primarily to strip the right of local municipalities to set their own anti-discrimination and protection laws.

We have lost all semblance of constitutional, democratic process.

These anti-trans tactics work because they succeed in directing fear away from the corporate demolition of democracy; they succeed by making people believe that the reason they are struggling and vulnerable is because some other group of people is dangerous and taking away something “we” worked hard to earn.

How, then, can we best address the fact that these bills increase everyone’s vulnerability and directly make the world less safe for people of color, people who are known or perceived to be trans, nonbinary, queer, or gender non-conforming?

While politicians vie for corporate favors at the expense of their constituents, and as more and more people struggle to maintain jobs, health, and life, we can still refuse to perpetuate hatred. Our only hope may be to refuse the rhetoric that pits people against each other. As politicians and corporations dismantle democracy, it is more crucial than ever to organize across race and class and ability, across queer and feminist and trans and straight; and to be brilliant in our resistance to cooptation.

Something to be Proud Of

In this blog entry, Jamie Longazel, author of Undocumented Fearswrites about the pride, shame and legacy of his hometown of Hazleton, PA.

People talk a lot about being proud of where they’re from. Understandably so: It’s nice to feel connected, to be able to associate with a place and call it ‘home.’

I’m proud of where I’m from. I was born and raised in Hazleton – a hardscrabble, former coalmining town in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Like anywhere else, we have our own dialect (we say “youse” instead of “you all”), cuisine (you ought to try the cold pizza!), and ways of doing things that folks from other places probably wouldn’t understand.

Undocumented Fears_smMy book Undocumented Fears is about my hometown. And I can say with confidence now that pride is what drove me to write it. Part of me knew this all along. At first, though, it felt like my pride was either backwards or upside-down. What I now call pride actually felt like the opposite in the beginning. Shame, perhaps.

I was not proud of what my hometown did, you see. Certainly not in the way we traditionally think about pride and place.

Back in 2006, Hazleton was getting national attention when it passed the Illegal Immigration Relief Act. This was a local ordinance meant to punish landlords and businesses who rented to or hired undocumented immigrants. It also made English the official language of the city.

The ordinance came at a time when Hazleton was going through some significant changes. The decent-paying, long-term manufacturing jobs that kept the city afloat for several decades were on their way out. Warehouses, distribution centers, and a meatpacking plant – with lower paying, temporary, and sometimes dangerous jobs – were on their way in.

With these economic changes came demographic changes. Many Latina/o immigrants relocated to Hazleton over a very short period. Ninety-five percent White at the time of the 2000 census, the city was approximately 36% Latina/o by 2006.

Change can be confusing. Sociologists have long known that in moments like this, communities tend to come together and try to make sense of it all. We grasp for explanations. We seek to redefine who we are.

I get it. The poverty appears starker each time I visit, and it breaks my heart to see my city and its people go through that. This is why I have been so committed to figuring out what is actually going on.

When I think of home – especially since learning more about Hazleton’s history – I think of anthracite coal. In its ‘heyday,’ European immigrants toiled in mines in and around Hazleton facing notoriously low pay, disturbingly high rates of disease and death, and mine bosses who mastered the art of pitting ethnic groups against one another. To me this legacy is central to who we are.

In 2006, however, politicians started warning about undocumented immigrants who were committing crime and draining all the resources. Following their lead, people started blaming immigrants for their troubles.

Chalk it up to ignorance if you’d like, but also keep people’s yearning for collective identity in mind. I describe in the book how debates over the ordinance introduced degrading myths about who ‘they’ supposedly were (e.g., illegal, lazy, transient, noisy) – stereotypes that Latina/os troublingly have to endure in their day-to-day lives. At the same time, these myths provided the established, predominately white community with a contrast against which they could articulate a fresh conception of ‘us’ (e.g., law-abiding, hardworking, rooted, quiet).

What prevailed was an image of Hazleton as ‘Small Town, USA’ – which, like the idea that Hazleton is being ‘invaded’ by undocumented immigrants, just plainly is not true.

This is not to say that Hazleton and its people are undesirable or unworthy of this designation. The point is that ‘desirability’ as it is presented here relies on demonization and is fed to us from above. We’re pointing our fingers in the wrong direction. We’re being told who we are rather than deciding that for ourselves.

The form of industry changed, but in Hazleton, and across the country, for that matter, there is a wide gulf between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’ It is as if the coal barons of yesteryear are still around today. They do not want us to know that, of course, for if we did we might carry on the legacy of our mining ancestors and rally against low pay, brutal working conditions, and unfair treatment.

The ‘pride’ we often see in nostalgic yearnings for the ‘good ol’ days’ in ‘Small Town America’ in this sense isn’t pride at all. It’s detachment. It’s a decoy….It’s a dream.

I learned something about my city while writing this book, and I learned something about pride. Real pride requires authenticity. It requires confrontation. Pride is what keeps you from backing down when someone challenges your identity.

I show off my pride today by choosing the gritty reality of a post-industrial city over idealized and racist myths offered by opportunistic politicians.

Don’t get me wrong: I’d prefer prosperity. But we can’t just close our eyes and imagine a time when it supposedly existed. We ought to see ourselves as poor and working people who are part of an ongoing struggle in which immigrants are allies, not enemies.

If we want our poverty to end, we need to know who is actually perpetuating it. Then we need to rally together across our differences and demand changes in the way we are treated. That would be something to be proud of.

Tycoon politics: Trump versus Berlusconi

This week in North Philly Notes, John Agnew, co-author of Berlusconi’s Italydiscusses ​”tycoon politics,”​ comparing Donald Trump ​to Silvio Berlusconi.

The world over, electorally based political parties are in trouble. Whatever their ideological roots or political goals, they increasingly fail to mobilize or they actually put off potential voters. In a globalizing world, national governments find it increasingly difficult to match the ambitions they set themselves. Borders are too leaky. If you say you’ll tax it, capital moves. Shocks from elsewhere no longer stay over there. As populations judge the failure of promise to match outcome, election turnouts are trending downwards everywhere that elections are held. The success of Donald Trump in the Republican primaries this year must be put in this context. But why should an obvious business tycoon be the instrument for what looks like a realignment of American politics around an appeal to populist themes about “being ripped off” by foreigners?

Berlusconis_ItalyIn 2008 we published a book about the influence of another tycoon-politician, Silvio Berlusconi, on Italian politics (Berlusconi’s Italy). The Trump-Berlusconi comparison seems to bear some weight. Beyond their similarities in campaigning it also suggests how Trump would rule. Berlusconi too was and is a businessman-media entrepreneur who emerged into prominence as a major political actor in a time of political crisis. In his case it was in the early 1990s when the principal existing Italian political parties were collapsing under the weight of either their corruption (the Christian Democrats and Socialists) or the end of the Cold War (the Communists). Berlusconi created his own political party, Forza Italia, named after the supporters’ cry for the Italian national soccer team. In the Italian electoral system without the institutionalized dominance of two parties as in the United States he did not need to force a takeover of an existing party. Like Trump he began his career as a wealthy man by building apartment blocks in Milan. He used political connections (and donations) to accumulate control over all the main national private television channels in Italy. These channels then broadcast a steady diet of soap operas and reality TV shows that would do Trump proud.  A consumerism for the masses based on the American model was at the heart of the messages disseminated by Berlusconi’s channels. To round out the comparison, Berlusconi was and is a shameless self-promoter. His masculinist posturing alongside such presidents as Putin and Sarkozy, notwithstanding the lifts in his shoes to make him seem taller than he is, broadcast a message of potency and competitiveness that many Italians found appealing. His infamous gaffes about various world leaders (the “tan” of President Obama being one of the most notorious) were always turned into negative commentaries about those drawing attention to them. His anti-Communism, even though the party of that name had disappeared, recalled both old disputes about whose side he was on (and who had won out) and suggested how much he was in favor of the Church and mainstream morality (Communism = anti-clericalism) even as bad publicity about his private life allowed him to wink at conventional mores.  A self-confessed “family man,” his history of trophy wives and girlfriends suggested something else entirely. Above all, however, he presented himself as the quintessential anti-politician, the outsider taking a broom to the Augean stables of established Italian politics.

The property tycoon Donald Trump’s surge to the top of the list of candidates for the Republican nomination for the 2016 US presidential election in national polls as well as in early primaries and caucuses has been interpreted in a variety of ways. He is appealing to the interests and prejudices of all those, particularly older white poorly educated men, who feel that they have lost out to women and minorities in an increasingly “politically correct” America. He is a blunt talker whose views on immigration, globalization and guns are free of the caveats that mar the politicians and party hacks he freely insults on the campaign trail. He is a strong leader whose personal history as a property tycoon and reality TV star offers a welcome relief from the professional politicians who pivot hither and thither on this issue and that. He is the most effective communicator with an audience that views “nuance” as implying a lack of faith in basic premises about the nature of reality. What these all have in common is not much evidence of policy savvy or even focus on what he might actually do if he were elected president but overwhelming emphasis on a leader picking up followers irrespective of what he does or says.

Elections are always about drama. But they are not usually entirely theatrical. Political candidates are usually judged as much by the campaign performances they give as by the policies they propose. As Charles Guggenheim who worked for Robert Kennedy once said: “people expect drama, pathos, intrigue, conflict, and they expect it to hang together as a dramatic package.” With his background in so-called reality television, on NBC’s The Apprentice, where he got to say: “You’re fired” to dozens of putative protégées, Donald Trump is cast perfectly for the role of a lifetime. But the Trump phenomenon is more than the typical electoral dramaturgy. As a TV protagonist, Trump is the Boss. He forces the viewer to line up on one side or the other in judging him. He will not allow you to be neutral. Show ratings depend on being as outrageous as possible. Nobody tunes in to watch a “reasonable” presentation. Like professional wrestling, it’s the fights that get the audience, however fake everyone knows it to be.

Not surprisingly the emphasis on performativity by the Trump campaign, even the Pope can become an attractive target for opprobrium for at least one news cycle, has attracted comparison to other leaders past and present with a penchant for over-the-top hyperbole and self-dramatization. Mussolini, Hitler, Charlie Chaplin playing Hitler, and former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin have all put in appearances in the press and on the Internet. The most popular comparison has been to Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister. This makes sense. Their emphasis on electoral dramaturgy is eerily similar. It is their shamelessness in bullying their opponents and boasting about their success about everything from their wealth and sexual proclivities to their self-evident charm and capacity to dominate the news without paying for it that sets them apart.

How far should the comparison be pushed? It does show how important the purely dramatic can be in a post-party and even post-truth (“Did I say that?”) era. But interestingly the comparison also shows the limits to Trump’s political possibilities – towards office and beyond. The reality is that given his control over the media (including most of the public TV channels when in office) and the lack of institutional constraints on his power while in office, Berlusconi as the central figure in a parliamentary system had far greater scope to achieve any goal he set himself than a President Trump would ever have with a potentially hostile Congress and Supreme Court to rein him in. Overall, Berlusconi must be considered a political failure notwithstanding his occupancy of political office for fully nine of the years from 1994 to 2011 (May 1994-January 1995, June 2001-May 2006, May 2008-November 2011). He created a “courtier regime” of lackeys and yes-men (and – women). He spent enormous political capital using his political office to protect his business (and personal) interests. He opened the door to the massive expansion of vitriolic and demonizing rhetoric about political adversaries. He left Italy’s economy in a shambles and a country without much of any respect at home or abroad. All told, Berlusconi did not exactly Make Italy Great Again.

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