When the coronavirus pandemic first hit America hard, there were grounds to suspect the president and his allies would make the suffering of blue states, where infection rates were high, just another reason to fear them as alien places — as opposed to the Real America. Here’s how Ron Brownstein put it in mid-March:
At yesterday’s White House press briefing, Deborah Birx, the administration’s response coordinator, said half of the nation’s cases so far are located in just 10 counties. The outbreak’s eventual political effects may vary significantly depending on how extensively it spreads beyond these initial beachheads.
If the virus never becomes pervasive beyond big cities, that could reinforce the sense among many Republican voters and office-holders that the threat has been overstated. It could also fuel the kind of xenophobia that Trump and other GOP leaders, such as Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, have encouraged by labeling the disease the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan virus.”
We now know, of course, that the pandemic has not respected some sort of geopolitical cordon sanitaire. In fact, the most recent hot spots have been in red states, particularly those that took the president’s advice and hastened the loosening of initial restrictions on business activities and large gatherings.
It appears Trump and his allies are adjusting by shifting their divisive messaging from an interstate to an intrastate context, demonizing Democratic-governed cities on a wide range of issues, beginning with COVID-19. Here’s what Brownstein is saying now:
Republican governors, especially but not exclusively across the Sun Belt, have repeatedly blocked mostly Democratic local leaders from locking down their communities, despite exploding caseloads in cities from Atlanta to Phoenix. These orders represent a new crest in a decade-long wave of actions by Republican state officials to preempt decisions made by local Democratic governments.
Georgia’s Brian Kemp is the poster boy for this attack on city coronavirus management, issuing an executive order invalidating municipal mask orders and going to court to seek an injunction to stop Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms from even complaining about it.
We are seeing similar intrastate red-blue fights over school reopening plans. Even more visibly, Trump has built on the law-and-order campaign he launched during the George Floyd protests to claim there is a wave of anarchy and violent crime sweeping the nation’s cities. And he has personified the struggle by sending his own administration’s paramilitary DHS force into Portland to protect federal property and hassle and intimidate (or worse) protesters. What’s the intended audience for this federal attack on Portland? White suburbanites everywhere, says Brownstein:
In deploying federal forces, Trump appears to be trying to provoke clashes with protesters, which he can use to convince white suburban voters that he’s the last line of defense between them and the chaos allegedly incubating in cities, Rahm Emanuel, the former Chicago mayor, told me. Referring to the street battle between construction workers and anti-war protesters in Manhattan in 1970, Emanuel said, “Trump is trying to create his own hard-hat riot, and they are wearing [law-enforcement] helmets.”
At the same time, Trump is bringing back ancient conservative talking points about the barbaric cities and their lawlessness. As he did in 2016, he is manufacturing — from cherry-picked data and anecdotes — some sort of vast urban crime wave that could soon spill over into the suburbs (yes, gun violence is up sharply in many cities, but overall crime, including violent crime, is down in most of them).
And Trump isn’t ignoring the hoariest and most visceral demagogic appeal of all: the idea that fair housing regulations will let those people move into suburbs and depress property values, among other pathological effects, as NPR reports:
[Trump] has targeted an Obama-era fair housing regulation, promising to sign an executive order halting it.
The 2015 regulation deals with racial segregation of housing and requires local municipalities to address historic patterns of it. But Trump warned last week that it would “destroy” the suburbs.
“Your home will go down in value and crime rates will rapidly rise,” he said. “People have worked all their lives to get into a community, and now they’re going to watch it go to hell. Not going to happen, not while I’m here.”
There’s no question that Trump is targeting the right demographic in seeking to reverse the adverse trend that was so obvious during the 2018 midterms, in which his party lost a lot of ground in the suburbs and among the college-educated white voters who are so abundant there. But it’s not so clear the old racist anti-urban appeals of yore still work in such areas, notes Brownstein:
[S]ince the 1990s, more suburbanites have concluded that their political views align more with the diverse, cosmopolitan cities nearby than with the more culturally conservative, preponderantly white, and Christian smaller places far from the urban core. Under Trump that process has intensified: He’s precipitated a significant shift toward the Democrats in white-collar suburbs that fueled the party’s sweeping gains in the House in 2018. Though Republicans once could count on big margins as soon as they crossed a city’s boundaries, Lang notes, now, in most places, “the line for Republicans has moved outward further” in the metro, he says.
Sure, demonizing the cities may help energize voters in rural, small-town and exurban areas that are already Trump country. But ratcheting up the volume on this messaging — and real-life modeling in places like Portland — may simply alienate swing voters who have already had it with Trump’s divisive lies.