The ascendancy of Donald Trump has historians and journalists looking for political figures from the past who embody Trump’s political profile: the authoritarian strongman who offers himself as a hero to rescue America in a time of great danger.

I know of such a man, from the not- too-distant past – and close to home, too.

Frank L. Rizzo.

Rizzo, who was mayor of Philadelphia from 1972 to 1980, was a formidable figure. Standing at nearly 6-foot-3, weighing in at 250 pounds, no one would ever accuse him of having small hands. His meat hooks were massive, and he wasn’t afraid to use them. He dominated every room he entered, radiating machismo.

While Trump, the scion of a successful real estate developer, was to the manner born and raised, Rizzo was a product of the streets of South Philadelphia: a high school dropout who followed his father, an Italian immigrant, into the police force at age 23, rising over time to become police commissioner. Along the way, he earned a reputation as a tough cop, unafraid to wade into disturbances and equally ready to use his blackjack. “The way to treat criminals,” Rizzo once said, “is scappo il capo” – Italian for “crack their heads.”

By the time he ran for mayor, Rizzo was perfectly aligned with the fears of white, ethnic Philadelphians who were distressed by the deterioration of their city, fearful of its rising black population and looking for someone to halt the tides of change.

If you missed Philadelphia in the 1970s, consider yourself lucky. For a century, the city was secure in its niche as “Workshop of the World,” with a diverse industrial base that employed hundreds of thousands. In the early ’50s, 45 percent of all jobs in Philadelphia were in manufacturing and the city’s population topped at nearly 2.1 million.

Then began the decline. Industries left town, whites fled for the newly developed suburbs. Between 1960 and 1970, the city lost 149,000 white residents, while the black population rose by 124,000 to 653,000 (it remains close to that figure today).

To get a sense of what it was like, look at almost any of what one writer called the “urban crisis cinema” of the ’70s, a list that includes The French Connection, Taxi Driver, Serpico, Mean Streets and Death Wish. In their own way, they each captured the zeitgeist of the era. Cities were vile pits of dirt, graffiti and decay, where criminals roamed – preying on the weak, impervious to society’s feeble attempt to restore order. Even the cops were corrupt.

The epitome – or nadir – was the hellish vision offered by Fort Apache, The Bronx, a Paul Newman movie where police at a forgotten precinct station in the South Bronx fight fitfully against the dark forces outside the door. The movie’s poster put it this way: “No Cowboys, no Indians, no cavalry to the rescue.
Only a cop.”

Rizzo was the cop for Philadelphia. In the fall of 1971, he easily defeated Republican Thacher Longstreth, a bowtie wearing Princeton grad. Running as a Democrat, Rizzo got 84 percent of the white vote and 22 percent of the black vote, which was low for a Democrat. His share of the black vote would go down in subsequent elections, culminating in a 1978 referendum where he sought to change the City Charter so he could run for a third term. Ninety-seven percent of the blacks who voted cast a “No” vote on that idea.

Unlike Trump, Rizzo was restrained in his first campaign. He let his reputation do the talking. His mantra was that he would be “firm, but fair” as mayor – leaving it to the listener to decide exactly what that meant. On Election Night, after the votes were counted, Rizzo visited The Inquirer pressroom on North Broad Street to watch the “Rizzo Wins” papers roll off the presses. In a moment of exuberance, surrounded by admiring pressmen, he exulted: “I’m going to make Attila the Hun look like a faggot!”

Like his fifth-century warrior idol, Rizzo was good at conquering but bad at governing. After years of glowing reports in the media, the newspapers began to criticize his appointments (which included a number of hacks) and his actions (which included an early endorsement of Richard Nixon for re-election). As it turned out, Rizzo also had thin skin, and a penchant for spying on his enemies. Early in his first term, the Philadelphia Bulletin revealed that he had assigned a squad of 31 police officers to shadow Richardson Dilworth, a former mayor who was president of the school board, and George Schultz, the president of City Council.

Nixon may have put his enemies on a list; Rizzo kept dossiers on his. The police maintained extensive files on local radicals, politicians and reporters.

Rizzo also was hurt by bad timing. This was an era of high inflation; the city’s unions demanded (and got) double-digit raises. Philadelphia continued to lose population, led by white flight. The number of white residents dropped by 294,000 during the ’70s; the number of jobs fell by 102,000 to a new low of 781,000.

All of this had a predictably destabilizing effect on city finances, but Rizzo was loath to raise taxes, knowing it would be political poison. In 1975, he campaigned for re-election, using billboards that included his face and the legend: “He held the line on taxes.” The line crumbled after he was re-elected. The city enacted the largest tax increases in its history, including a hike in the wage tax from 3.3 percent to 4.3 percent.

Still, it was not enough. Rizzo used federal money to keep trash collectors on the job. He also could not stop himself from giving generous contracts to city workers. “He talked tough,” one former city official recalled. “But he was a pussycat at the
bargaining table.”

It was left to his successor, William J. Green III, to clean up after the Rizzo parade had passed. Green faced a deficit of $285 million – the equivalent of $835 million today. Early on, he went on TV to address Philadelphians and spell out the difficulties ahead. “Santa Claus,” he said, “doesn’t live here anymore.”

Green had to lay off more than 1,000 city workers, including police and firefighters – and sanitation workers, once the federal money went away. During his four years as mayor, Green had to become “Mayor No”: no to employee raises, no to old political deals. In his first year in office, he cancelled a 10 percent raise for teachers, a move that sparked a 55-day strike.

In the end, Rizzo was powerless to stop the economic and social forces at work in the city. He was a man who faced the past – the days when whites ruled and jobs were plentiful. He was unable to live up to his promise to put a stop to change. In retrospect, it was a hollow promise, made for political gain.

The unintended consequence of the Rizzo years was to empower the black community. In the Rizzo years and the decades prior, black politicians were not only a minority, but acted like it. They curried favor to get their people a slice of the pie. They were a step up from beggars. 

Energized by opposition to Rizzo, a group of young, Philadelphia-born blacks organized voters. They sidestepped or tossed out the old party and ward leaders. They realized that as a bloc, blacks had great potential. Why settle for a slice when you can be the one who cuts the pie? For blacks, it was the dawn of a new era. Real change was about to happen.

But not to Rizzo: He never stopped running for mayor. After serving the two consecutive terms set by the City Charter, he ran again in the 1983 Democratic primary and lost to Wilson Goode, who went on to become the city’s first black mayor.

In 1987, this time running as a Republican, he lost to Goode again.

In 1991 he won the Republican primary and was due to face Democrat Ed Rendell, but he died of a heart attack that July. He was 70 years old.

Rizzo’s brash populism had lost its luster. The city moved on without him.

Like Rizzo, Trump resolutely faces the past and promises to deliver unto us those glory days once again.

Like Rizzo, Trump uses his macho swagger to imply that only he can stop the changes that push and pull at us.

Like Rizzo, Trump’s promises are appealing but hollow. Neither he nor Frank Rizzo nor anyone can stop the future. It will arrive with or without us.