Donald Trump was supposed to speak at the Peabody Opera House here in St. Louis at noon on Friday. Armed with tickets, I arrived with a friend a few hours early, confident that we’d get in. We stood in line for more than two hours, only to be told the venue was full. Many had arrived the night before and slept on the street. I didn’t exactly leave empty-handed though.
Wearing a Cardinals jacket and camo, I did my best to blend in with the crowd that had gathered outside the rally. I did a pretty good job. Looking around, I saw a crowd that was almost exclusively white with a decidedly blue-collar flavor. Mixed in with the Trump apparel, I saw gear for local St. Louis teams and clothes fresh off the rack from Walmart.
Outside the venue, I overheard Trump fans trashing Black Lives Matter, defending racism as a natural human instinct, and bemoaning our modern PC culture. But it’s what wasn’t said that spoke the loudest.
The St. Louis region has been decimated over the last few decades by deindustrialization, bad trade deals, and a declining standard of living. Take my family as one example. In the early 1980s, my father, an uncle, and a grandfather all worked at Combustion Engineering in North St. Louis. The closure of that plant hit our family like a natural disaster.
When I looked at the middle-aged men in the crowd, I thought of my father. He grew up near Ferguson in the industrial northern suburbs of St. Louis. The first handful of African-American students entered Riverview Gardens High School as he was graduating. The school now is virtually 100 percent African-American. After growing up with white privilege in a unionized blue-collar area of segregated St. Louis County, he entered an increasingly diverse workforce.
Racial tensions flared up at factories across St. Louis, triggered by union elections and a thousand other incidents. During this same time, public schools were integrating, and older white working-class communities such as Ferguson were undergoing massive demographic changes.
Then the factories and companies closed. First it was the small ones, companies you’ve never heard of. Then bigger ones like TWA, Ford, and Chrysler. The companies that managed to stay open significantly cut back the number of employees—like McDonnell Douglas, after it was bought by Boeing. More recently, after decades of job losses and wage-stagnation, the housing crisis came and further exacerbated the economic downturn. It’s been followed by a heroin epidemic that has hit the St. Louis area particularly hard.
Life in America is supposed to improve from generation to generation. That’s the narrative we’re raised with. But instead of that bright American future, many St. Louisans have been left broke and short on answers in the most dangerous city in America.
In this former Jim Crow city—still one of the most segregated in America—African-Americans have often found themselves the scapegoat for every imaginable ill in the region. For decades, people of color have been disproportionately affected by the deterioration of this town. And then, in the summer of 2014, an unarmed black teenager named Mike Brown was shot and killed by a police officer named Darren Wilson in Ferguson, and a movement was born.
While people around the world have been inspired by the resistance they saw in Ferguson and the commitment to justice displayed by protesters, many white St. Louisans felt differently. Rather than seeing a movement for justice in the streets, many locals instead saw the last vestiges of the white-dominated social order being ripped away. The local response was ugly. It tore apart friendships and even families.
Enter Donald Trump. Here is a candidate promising to return jobs to America, get tough on China, bomb the shit out of ISIS, round up undocumented immigrants, and build the Great Wall of America. And he cusses just like us! No wonder his message is music to the ears of the disgruntled white population of St. Louis. It speaks to their hearts and stokes their demons in a way that progressives wish Bernie Sanders would reach their better angels.
That’s the Trump welcome party. But there is another St. Louis—one whose African-American population erupted in protest after the police killings of Mike Brown, Kajieme Powell, and Vonderrit Myers. It’s a city with a rapidly growing Latino population. It’s a city that has become a hub for Muslim refugees, including the largest Bosnian community in America.
These two cities came together face to face on Market Street while Trump spoke inside. Pushing, shoving, shouts, and name-calling ensued. The two populations are incompatible. The future that Trump fans see as championed by their fearless leader doesn’t include those who don’t look like them, love like them, pray like them, or even live like them.
In this climate, honed by 17 months of protests since the killing of Mike Brown, Trump never got more than a few minutes to speak without interruption. The disruptions were constant. As the protesters were ejected from the building, they were greeted by a mixture of boos and cheers in the street. At last count, 32 were arrested. All protesters.
St. Louis proved to be tough for the Donald. He grew more and more testy as his rambling speech went on. Trump yearned for the good old days when protesters could be roughed up, stated police should be tougher and less “politically correct,” and blamed protesters for the decline of America.
Trump left St. Louis a weakened man, like a fighter who endured a lot of punishment in the early rounds. Chicago was the next stop. Thousands showed up to protest Trump at the UIC-Pavilion, and in the end Trump tapped out and refused to speak. Trump submitted to the protesters in Chicago in the way that Conor McGregor tapped to the rear-naked choke of Nate Diaz just days earlier.
St. Louis and Chicago were a lot less friendly than the town halls of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and the SEC primary states. A wounded Trump leaves the Midwest before the March 15 contests. But it remains to be seen whether the Trump character and brand will be permanently weakened, or if he’ll prove, once again, that nothing can sink his giant ego-powered ship.