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By David Mislin

One line from Donald Trump’s speech announcing the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement has received particular attention. “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” the President declared.

Over the last week, most attention has focused on the “Pittsburgh” part of that phrase. For good reason: Pittsburgh is overwhelmingly Democratic; in the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton won the city by a 3-to-1 margin. The city’s economy is driven by high-tech industry, and Pittsburgh is a long way from its days as a center of heavy industry. Quite simply, the Pittsburgh that Trump imagines himself to represent is not the Pittsburgh of 2017.

Less attention has been paid to the “Paris” part of Trump’s remark. Observers have put it in the context of the president’s foreign trip and his meeting with Emmanuel Macron. And commentators have recalled the French alliance during the Revolutionary War, suggesting that the U.S. had suddenly stabbed its oldest friend in the back.

But there’s another history of “Paris” in American rhetoric, and this history explains Trump’s comment. Barely a moment after the Revolution ended, France – and Paris in particular – came to represent everything that many people, especially elites, did not want the U.S. to become. In setting up Paris and Pittsburgh as opposites, Trump invoked a very old idea in American politics.

This idea emerged at the end of the 18th century. Despite the initial enthusiasm in the U.S. for the French Revolution when it began in 1789, many Americans grew concerned about events across the Atlantic during the 1790s. In large part, this stemmed from the increasingly egalitarian rhetoric of the revolution and the effort to remake French society on a more democratic basis.

In the U.S., the dominant Federalists – the party of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams – argued that the French revolutionaries wanted to give too much power to ordinary people. They favorably contrasted what they considered to be the restrained, moderate American Revolution with the destructive excesses occurring in France. As the historian Gordon Wood has written, “it became impossible for Americans to think of one revolution without the other—if only to contrast what many Americans described as their sober and conservative Revolution with the radical and chaotic French Revolution.”[1]

Less than a century later, another set of revolutionary events rocked France. In 1871, the French government collapsed after its humiliating defeat at the hands of what became Germany. The citizens of Paris established a new government in the city, the Paris Commune. During its short life of just over two months, this experimental government instituted what at the time were radical policies: universal public education, cooperative employment, and a strong social safety net.

But the Paris Commune was also marked by considerable violence. Tens of thousands of people were killed during the months of the Commune’s existence. The instigators of violence were often supporters of the ousted government. But that detail was lost on Americans. Instead, observers in the U.S. linked the violence in Paris with the social experiment there, and especially with the expansion of rights to the working class. Throughout the late nineteenth century, Americans used the Paris Commune as justification for efforts to restrict worker’s rights to unionize and strike.

As had been the case during the 1790s, Americans argued that innovation and experimentation in France had gone too far. The stability and conservatism of the U.S. was offered as a favorable alternative to French upheaval.

Of course, contrasts between the U.S. and France have persisted much closer to the present as well. In the months before the second Iraq War in 2002-2003, as France emerged as a leading critic of Bush administration policy, many Americans again invoked a longstanding cultural distinction.

This episode is best remembered for the decision of restaurants throughout the U.S. – including Congressional dining rooms – to rename “French Fries” “Freedom Fries.” But the explanations for this shift highlighted a desire to emphasize difference. The self-sacrificing American desire for “freedom” was contrasted against “France’s self-serving politics.”

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These clear-cut contrasts all overlooked obvious realities. In both the 1790s and 1870s, many in the U.S. sought just the sort of society that people in France were trying to create. Lots of Americans in 2003 were more sympathetic to the skepticism of the French than to their own government.

And, based on early polling, when it comes to climate science, most Americans are with Paris, not Pittsburgh.

[1] Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 177.

[2] Nell Irvin Painter, Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 1877-1919 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1987), 18-20.

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