The story over the weekend was of anti-Donald Trump protestors, particularly young students from UIC, forcing Trump to cancel one of his beer-hall rallies taking place on their campus. Trump’s people either feared a terrible scene (going so far as to lie about the police telling them to cancel) or were hoping to provoke one. Either way, they got what they want, as violence broke out when livid Trump supporters turned on the protestors. It was a watershed moment in this increasingly-terrifying campaign, as brutality has become part and parcel of Trump 2016.
As for the protests themselves, ideas are mixed. Charlie Pierce thinks that they should stay outside and not give the Trump people what they want, and Digby, taking the logic a step further, argues that the media will coalesce around these images, in a bout of “both sides are bad” idiocy. Already, as she points out, the right is muddying the waters, and if there is one thing the Republican party can coalesce around, it is painting themselves as victims of the elite (in this case defined as college students).
That leads us our main question: we’ve had days of asking who the anti-Trump people are, but not enough of asking who the huge contingency of pro-Trump people in Chicago are. It was satisfying to see that what worked in some cities didn’t fly here, but that didn’t mean no one showed up. Leaving aside the mix of the celebrity happy and addled curious, who in this Democratic city came to see this authoritarian blowhard? The answer can be traced to a former alderman and career crook* named Eddie Vrodolyak.
*yes, I know: “but I repeat myself.”
Vrodolyak, a street-smart Croat hustler, has always been known as Fast Eddie, that being one of two nicknames available to an Edward, and “easy” would not have been an accurate way to describe him. He is a hard man with a switchblade mind and a genuine connection to the white ethnics in his 10th ward, on Chicago’s far south side. Those that were left, anyway. In his time, his ward was clinging to a long-standing white majority. It had long been a blue-collar ethnic neighborhood, but was slowly being overrun by “undesirables”. Many of his people had already moved further west, to Cicero or to white enclaves by Midway Airport like Bedford Park. Those that had stayed- many of whom had originally moved from the near South Side when the Black Belt started expanding in the 20s and 30s, were furious.
Fast Eddie understood this in his bones. He believed it as well. He wasn’t one of those politicians who just appropriates anger. He had it in him. If he wasn’t a product a product of the Bungalow Belt, he knew exactly what they felt. His whole political career was an attempt to keep the mostly-racist Democratic Machine exactly that. He first entered City Hall in 1968, a fortuitous year for someone who knew how to appeal to The Silent Majority.
That was Eddie’s main tune. He was a local politician, sure, obsessed with deals, machine-greasing, and potholes, but he played to fears that were overtaking the nation and concentrated in his neck of the woods. Retirees from James T. Farrel novels were his constituency, people floundering and afraid in a new America where it seemed privilege was being overturned and the worst elements (blacks, the educated, liberals, sex fiends, dope hustlers etc) were taking over.
Chicago still seethed into the 1980s, and when Harold Washington was elected as the city’s first black mayor in 1983, Fast Eddie saw his chance. He led the “Group of 29”, in the Council Wars; this was a group of 29 (out of 50) aldermen sworn to defeat Mayor Washington and block any of his progress. This wouldn’t be so notable in politics except that they were all Democrats, save for two independents. In Vrodolyak’s Chicago, racial solidarity trumped even loyalty to the party (which is to say: the city’s real religion).
In his excellent history of the time, Fire on the Prarie, historian Gary Rivlin gives a portrait of a city divided, and one that seems oddly familiar. It is a pretty stunning book to read. It seemed both really distant- Chicago has changed- and extremely current, and not just because a lot of players then are players now (Burke, Mell, Tillman, Gutierrez). Save for a few details, this could easily be a book about Obama. The way the opposition treated Washing- absolute intransigence, a seething hatred, rushing to the media to be shocked and offended when he acted like a politician, saying that he was the real racist, etc- was a playbook for today. They stirred up raw panic among whites that they were going to be raped and then blamed Harold because whites didn’t trust him. They blocked good legislation because it might benefit Harold, with Dick Mell even admitting that while it might be good governance, even better governance was not letting Washington have a victory. On Washington’s side, the disappointment by the radicals who were part of his coalition when he didn’t turn the world upside down on his first day in office was a dead echo. Save for the names, it was today’s headlines. And it has, in its own way, led to Trump.
Fast Eddie’s City Today
Ed Vrodolyak seems like a gruesome fiend of a distant era, and in some ways he is. He’s still around, though, working as lawyer, going to jail– normal stuff. Moreso, though, his city remains. A look, any day, through the comment pages of the Chicago Tribune show a city still rent by racism and violence. It isn’t just the stories, but the reactions. People have it coming to them. The gangs are the fault of the Dems who coddle black people, ignoring that this coddling has led to inhumanely bad living conditions. We’re a city where the only people who can protect themselves are the gangsters. We’re the next Detroit, etc.
It’s not just on the internet, where you expect such attitudes. It’s in bars in Bridgeport on the South Side and Edison Park up north, where suburban kids move to the “city” and pick up slight accents and coppish attitudes on race. It’s in the Gladstone Park bars where union guys hang out and down in Bridgeview and Oak Park and Skokie. It’s in Evergreen Park where a Muslim cemetery is repeatedly desecrated. It’s even in Evanston, the bastion of Chicago liberalism, where two Northwestern students vandalized a chapel with swastikas, slurs, and pro-Trump messages.
It isn’t universal, nor is it even majoritarian, but it’s there, and it has ramped up over the last 8 years, even as the economy has recovered from disaster. It’s the remanents of white flight- sometimes literal, sometimes their children- empowered by the internet and emboldened by Trump to come to rallies and attack dissenters. It’s the people who were mobilized by Fast Eddie and inspired by his “standing up” to Mayor Washington. Its people who don’t consider themselves motivated by race, not as Eddie would play it, but out of an inchoate sense that the world is being unfair to them, and is somehow being more fair to those on the lowest rungs of society. That it doesn’t make sense hardly matters. The rage, and the solidarity that comes with calling yourself “the silent majority” (wrong, this time, on both counts), is what matters.
It’s notable that Fast Eddie eventually went Republican, after Harold won a second term and he realized that his constituents, whose rightward drift terrified the old Mayor Daley, had already gone that way. He followed the “Wallace to Reagan” line. The people at the Trump rally are his spiritual heirs, old Democrats who found a home in the Republican party, and have now found a true leader in Trump. He gives voice to something that we pretend doesn’t exist but can be heard every Sunday in every barroom in the vastness of Cook County when a black wide receiver does a touchdown dance, with a hint of accents faded through generations of immigration, flight, and prosperity. The old ways are never dead. They just wait for a grotesque piper to play the song. Somewhere, Fast Eddie Vrodolyak is smiling, and conniving a way to get royalties for composing the tune.