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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
David Smith in Philadelphia

Trump’s sledgehammer message to Philadelphia is light on facts, heavy on fear

Former US president and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event in Philadelphia.
Former US president and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event in Philadelphia. Photograph: Tom Brenner/Reuters

Crooked Joe or Sleepy Joe? Donald Trump wanted to know which nickname his supporters prefer. “That’s the first time Sleepy Joe has ever beaten Crooked Joe!” he said with surprise, after asking the crowd to make noise for each contender.

That, however, is not the branding exercise the former US president cares about most right now. On Saturday night he wanted his followers to go home with three words: Biden. Migrant. Crime.

A month after his audacious campaign stop in the Bronx, New York, Trump held his first ever campaign rally in Philadelphia, the birthplace of American democracy and another Democratic stronghold where Joe Biden won 81.4% of the vote in 2020.

He had come with a sledgehammer message: Biden’s open borders have allowed thousands of illegal immigrants to pour into America, leading to a surge of violent crime in its major cities, hurting Black and Hispanic populations the most. And in the grand tradition of “law and order” Republicans, only Trump could fix it.

“Few communities have suffered more under the Biden regime than Philadelphia,” he told thousands of supporters, many wearing “Make America great again” caps, at the event in a sports arena. “Under Crooked Joe, the City of Brotherly Love is being ravaged by bloodshed and crime.”

The rally was staged at Temple University, in a historically Black area. Trump won just 5% of the vote in precincts within a half-mile radius of Temple’s main campus in the last election, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper.

But encouraged by opinion polls, his campaign has made wooing Black and Hispanic voters, who make up more than half of Philadelphia’s population, a priority this cycle. Even small gains could make all the difference in the battleground state of Pennsylvania.

Several African American supporters were positioned behind Trump’s lectern in the Liacouras Center, against the backdrop of a gigantic Stars and Stripes. Attendees brandished signs with Trump’s police mugshot and the words “Never surrender”. An electronic sign flashed optimistically: “Philadelphia is Trump country.”

Trump painted a dystopian, often dishonest picture of “bedlam and death and terror”, a likely preview of his strategy for Thursday’s debate against Biden in Atlanta and the rest of his scorched earth campaign until November.

“Murders in Philadelphia reached their highest level in six decades,” he said. “Retail theft in Philly is up 135% since I left office. The convenience stores are closing down left and right. The pharmacies have to lock up the soap … You can’t buy toothpaste, you can’t buy a toothbrush, it takes you 45 minutes.” The crowd roared with laughter.

In April the Pew Charitable Trusts’ annual “State of the City” report found that violent crime in Philadelphia is at its lowest level in a decade. The city’s homicide rate dropped six percentage points in 2023, in line with other cities of similar scale. But the number of property crimes did rise sharply over the same period.

Crucial to Trump’s fear and fury election strategy is joining dots between crime and illegal immigration. It is a hot button issue after Republican governors in Texas and Florida chartered buses and planes to send thousands of migrants to Democratic-led cities. Mayors have felt a strain on their resources and growing backlash from voters.

Trump said: “Unbelievably Crooked Joe Biden is going around trying to claim that crime is down. Crime is so much up. First of all, we have a new form of crime. It’s called the Biden Migrant Crime, right? And all these millions of people that have come in, they’re just getting warmed up.”

In fact last year violent crime fell to one of its lowest levels in more than half a century. FBI statistics show steep drops in every category of violent crime in every region in the first three months of 2024 compared with a year earlier.

But at Saturday’s rally Trump, himself a convicted criminal, sought to turn reality on its head.

“The FBI crime statistics Biden is pushing are fake,” he said without evidence. “They’re fake just like everything else in this administration.”

The former president went on to use lurid, apocalyptic language to describe the alleged threat posed by undocumented immigrants. Many studies have found that immigrants are less likely to commit violent crimes than US-born citizens.

“Day after day, week after week, Joe Biden is releasing illegal criminals into our communities to rape, pillage, plunder and to kill,” he said. “Just this week, a 12-year-old girl in Houston, Jocelyn Nungaray, was tied up, stripped, and strangled to death after walking to a 7-Eleven.

“… Charged with Jocelyn’s heinous murder are two illegal alien savages that Joe Biden recently set loose into our country. They came across our border claiming they feared for their lives in Venezuela.”

At that a man in the crowd shouted: “Fuck Joe Biden!” – an ominous sign of how Trump’s rhetoric fires up his crowds. During his 85-minute speech, they shouted and shrieked and chanted “Build the wall!” and “USA! USA!”

The Republican National Committee recently launched a website called “Biden Bloodbath” that highlights anecdotal incidents involving migrants in eight US states, including electoral battlegrounds such as Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Trump went on to cite the case of Rachel Morin, a 37-year-old mother from Maryland allegedly murdered by an undocumented immigrant, and thanked members of her family for attending the rally. Telling another grim crime story in unsparing detail, he commented: “Like a scene from a horror movie.”

Trump deployed a similar tactic in 2016 and believes it could resonate again. An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll conducted in March found that only about three in 10 Americans approve of Biden’s handling of immigration. A similar share approved of his handling of border security.

Six people interviewed by the Guardian inside the arena in Philadelphia – all of whom were attending a Trump rally for the first time – expressed support for his proposed crackdown on border security and illegal immigration.

Jim Leedom, wearing a T-shirt bearing the words “We the people are pissed off”, said: “He’s definitely going to clean that up good. The atrocities that are going on down there, the little girls being raped, the women being raped, the drug cartel has control of the whole area – Biden doesn’t seem to give a shit.”

“None of that shit went on when Trump was in.”

Leedom, 55, who owns a small manufacturing shop, voiced support for Trump’s plan to carry out the biggest mass deportation of undocumented migrants in history.

In recent weeks Biden has imposed significant restrictions on immigrants seeking asylum in the US while also offering potential citizenship to hundreds of thousands of people without legal status already living in the country. But the measures cut little ice here.

Leedom, accompanied by his son Joseph, a 21-year-old engineering student voting in his first presidential election (he too will vote for Trump), commented: “He’s playing games. That doesn’t surprise me. He’s evil. There’s not enough water for a shower to wash the filth of Biden off.”

Michael Krug, 53, was sporting a red T-shirt that said “Keep America great” and “Trump” but had attached a piece of blue sticky tape to hide the word “Pence”. He also wore a badge that said, “God, guns and Trump”.

Krug, who works for a paint company, endorsed the “great replacement” theory that describes a supposed elite conspiracy to change the demographics of America, replacing and disempowering white people in favour of people of color, immigrants and Muslims.

“Why is it that we don’t have a border any more and people can come just right in and they can get benefits and they can take money and they can take social services away from our poor people or our people that maybe need it?” he asked. “They’re doing it for the Great Replacement. They’re doing it for voters. They’re also doing it to change our culture.”

Krug cited the false notion that undocumented immigrants are given voter registration cards, adding: “They’re prosecuting people for walking into the Capitol on January 6th, but they won’t prosecute people coming across the border, which is illegal. There’s a two-tiered system of justice, which is not the American way it’s supposed to be. It’s got to change.”

Jair Moly, 27, an African American man wearing a Maga cap, said: “You ain’t from here, don’t come here. You ain’t allowed here, don’t come here. Make America great again ’24. Let’s go!”

Asked why he intends to vote for Trump, Moly replied: “He’s real, he keeps it real. He’s not fake. There’s nothing fake about him. He keep it real and he pull no punches and that’s what we need, America, punch you right in the face.”

But Erwin Bieber, 71, a retired car salesman, suggested that a Trump defeat could lead to at least one case of reverse migration. “Initially I didn’t like the way he spoke years ago but I voted for him in 2016. I feel that the country is completely gone if we don’t put him into office. I think I’m going to leave America. If we get stuck with Biden, I’ll go to Mexico.”

Democrats set up posters, billboards and kiosks in Philadelphia and on the Temple campus to promote Biden’s policies, including his efforts to forgive student debt, as well as to criticise Trump’s record with the Black community.

State representative Malcolm Kenyatta said: “I represent the community in Philly where Trump is currently ranting and raving. I can authoritatively say, my neighbors aren’t in that arena listening to his lies. But a bunch did show up to protest him, so I guess there’s that.”

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