It’s time we talked about Philadelphia. Not the Philadelphia in Pennsylvania where the Democratic Party largely avoided a schism within their ranks and affirmed their place as the only one of the two major political parties to have even a passing interest in offering up policy solutions and appealing to the better angels of our nature. No, I’m talking about the Philadelphia in Mississippi—a town that may be unknown to many voters, but will forever remain etched in the minds of Americans of a certain age as the place where the bough of Jim Crow finally broke under the weight of the dead bodies of civl rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, all of whose brutal murders at the hands of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan were covered up by law enforcement and government officials.
This past Tuesday, amidst the massive media scrum around the Democratic National Convention, Donald Trump Jr. quietly made his way down to Philadelphia, Mississippi to represent his father at the Neshoba County Fair. Outside of the local and statewide outlets in Mississippi, Trump Jr.’s visit barely registered a blip in the broader media landscape, but it is worth examining as it fits with the Trump campaign’s open courting of the white working class both through dog whistle politics and overt support for themes that resonate with white supremacist groups and ordinary, run of the mill whites harboring racial animus.
On the surface, it seems strange that Donald Trump would send his son to campaign on his behalf at a county fair in one of the reddest counties of a solidly red state. It’s been two decades since a Republican candidate for President failed to get more than 70% of the vote in Neshoba County and the last Democrat that Mississippi voted for in a presidential election was Jimmy Carter in 1976. But, as I wrote about back in March, the Neshoba County Fair took on greater meaning when Ronald Reagan made it one of his first post-convention stops during the 1980 election. In giving a speech that stressed the primacy of states rights and the need for cutting down the size of the Federal government in a town that was home to one of the most grotesque lynchings of civil rights workers in recent memory, Reagan made a very clear statement to white Southern voters that his interpretation of the constitutional maxim that all men were created equal was in lockstep with theirs. In his visit to the Neshoba County Fair, Donald Trump Jr.’s intentions were no different.
Philadelphia, Mississippi—and by extension Neshoba County, where it’s located—is about as deep as the deep south gets. Like most of the deep south, Neshoba County is beset by intense poverty, dismal health outcomes, low educational attainment and racial inequities that are closer to 1964 levels than they would like to admit. Neshoba County ranks near the bottom of most economic and public health measurables in a state that is so notorious for having poor development that the phrase, “Thank God for Mississippi” is a common refrain among residents of other states with less than encouraging development numbers.
In a state that was ranked 49th in overall health nationally in 2015—only the 3rd time they’d made it out of dead last this century—and 50th in terms of the premature deaths of its residents, Neshoba County was 65th out of 82 Mississippi counties in health outcomes and 77th for premature deaths. With regards to education and income, the 13.8% of Neshoba County residents who have a bachelors degree or higher is less than half the national average and, at $18,888, Neshoba County’s per capita income was only two-thirds of the national average and 10% lower than the state of Mississippi, which again clocked in at 50th in the nation. For the black residents of Neshoba County things are even worse as their per capita income is a miserly $13,182, nearly half that of their white counterparts.
One would think that the residents of Neshoba County would be leery of the carpetbagging son of a New York City billionaire coming down to try and court their votes, just as it would have been safe to have assumed back in 1980 that these same Mississippians would have held a similar suspicion towards a California movie star-turned-presidential candidate aiming to do the same. But, in the case of both Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump Jr., their status of “outsiders” or “elites” was pretty much ignored and both men were embraced by the fairgoers, primarily because their whiteness and their willingness to play to the region’s white supremacist past superseded any differences in class or geography.
Whereas Reagan spoke to his audience’s racial animosities in the coded language of “states rights” and the tyranny of the Federal government, Trump Jr. took a more direct route, defending the use of Mississippi’s current state flag, which prominently features the stars and bars of the Confederacy on it. “I believe in tradition,” Trump Jr. said to the assembled Mississippi media when asked about the flag. “I don’t see a lot of the nonsense that’s been created about that.” The fact that it was a tradition firmly grounded in four centuries of enslavement and oppression of African Americans in this country was left unsaid, but it was inherently understood, even if Donald Trump Jr. and the crowd at the Neshoba County Fair weren’t consciously aware of it.
But, as much as the folks at the Neshoba County Fair might’ve loved hearing Donald Trump Jr. speak, he wasn’t speaking to them, just as Ronald Reagan wasn’t speaking to their parents and grandparents back in 1980. No, he was speaking to whites all across the country who are increasingly frightened at the multicultural nature of modern American life and who feel as if they’re being left behind in a globalized economy that needs their labor less and less with each passing year. When Donald Trump sent his son down to speak at the Neshoba County Fair, he was sending him as an ambassador of white hegemony. All of the Islamophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric—the othering of President Obama and the calls for law and order—these things are designed to speak to a visceral desire among disenfranchised and disillusioned whites for a return to a time when they had the power. To make America great again. To make America theirs again.