contested ground

Trump’s Racist Urban Myth Hides His Suburban Failures

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

President Trump has blamed nearly everyone but himself for his loss in Georgia in November, the first time a GOP presidential candidate has ceded the state to a Democrat since 1992. But beyond his feud with local Republicans, he has repeatedly — and without evidence — focused his ire on alleged fraud and corruption in Atlanta. The fact that a more decisive rebuke of his presidency came from the suburban counties around the city caps off a campaign marked by its demagoguery against Black urbanites — and a misreading of the suburbs that probably didn’t help his odds but did provide an easy racist scapegoat and so will outlast his defeat.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, Trump tweeted that “Biden did poorly in big cities (Politico), except those of Detroit (more votes than people!), Philadelphia, Atlanta and Milwaukee, which he had to win. Not surprisingly, they are all located in the most important swing states, and are long known for being politically corrupt!” As has been widely analyzed, the president homed in on these metropoles not just because they were among the biggest sources of anti-Trump votes but because they contain large Black populations (Atlanta and Detroit are both majority Black) and so fit a timeworn narrative of Black fecklessness and criminality. He telegraphed this approach long before the election. As protests against police violence roiled cities and towns over the summer, Trump cast them as emblematic of urban misrule that was poised to invade, and ultimately destroy, the suburbs. If the racial subtext wasn’t evident then, it became so when Trump started using an integrationist federal housing policy as his main example. “Sleepy Joe Biden has pledged to abolish Suburban Communites [sic] as they currently exist by reinstating Obama’s radical AFFH [Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing] Regulation,” Trump tweeted on September 8. “There goes Suburbia!” Two days later, he added, “If I don’t win, America’s Suburbs will be overrun with Low Income Projects.”

As I’ve written before, the Atlanta metro area seemed, on its surface, like an ideal testing ground for such appeals. Counties like Gwinnett developed over the second half of the 20th century as clusters of white-flight suburbs — products of white Atlantans fleeing integration in the city and transplants from elsewhere moving there to avoid it. For years, the politics of their residents reflected this backlash against the civil-rights movement. They became some of the state’s most reliable conservative strongholds and the source of a large share of its Republican votes. Their feelings toward Atlanta proper, which for many became a rhetorical punching bag, was apparent in the remarks of the politicians they elected. “Suburbanites have invested their lives in their houses, and they don’t want to see them ruined,” said Ben Blackburn, who represented Georgia’s Fourth Congressional District, east of Atlanta, until 1975, warning against “the welfare mother with her numerous kids” moving out from the inner city. According to Kevin Kruse’s history of the region, White Flight, which explores the links between white backlash against desegregation and the rise of modern conservatism, this was also the environment that, by the turn of the 21st century, had produced some of the right’s leading lights, like Newt Gingrich. Most of them trafficked in a rhetoric of contrast rooted in stereotype: Atlanta — understood by then as a Black city — was a chaotic, violent metropolis full of welfare loafers and layabouts, while its suburbs housed the region’s responsible citizens and hard workers.

It’s a short trip from viewing Atlanta this way to conceptualizing its voting power as fundamentally illegitimate. Trump’s endorsement of this view is obvious, but its failure to deliver him victory can be attributed to its narrowing applicability. The tremendous population growth experienced by the city’s metro area over the last three decades has not only been concentrated in suburban counties like Gwinnett but included more Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Asian American migrants than in the past, dramatically changing its complexion. In a late-November appearance on ABC News, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver noted the folly of understanding the term suburban as synonymous with white nowadays, using as an example that most of Atlanta metro’s core counties are majority nonwhite. It was these suburban areas and others that resemble them in key ways — surrounding big cities in swing states, marked by growing nonwhite and/or white college-educated populations — that swung more dramatically away from Trump than any of the major cities at their cores. (Five of the region’s most populous counties — Fulton, DeKalb, Cobb, Gwinnett, and Clayton — added more than 200,000 votes this year to the 2016 Democratic presidential margin.) Whether Biden’s improvement over Hillary Clinton’s showing meant expanding on her wins or narrowing her margins of defeat, voter backlash against Trump was starkest in suburbs where, until recently, the electoral landscape was friendlier to his brand of revanchism.

But the president did not reckon with these shifts, in part, because his rhetoric was never meant to reflect reality. The notion of innate Black defect was and remains a fictional device to scare up political support. Trump’s conception of the suburbs was a direct appeal to voters who prefer their housing segregated — whether or not such voters constitute a large enough bloc to shift election outcomes. (Though an inordinate share of suburbs remain segregated, even as they become more diverse.) This extends to Trump’s particular demonization of Atlanta. His notion of the city as a hotbed of corruption and fraudulent votes is not his alone, but has tacitly been affirmed by allies indulging his denialism about losing the election, such as Georgia senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. Most notably, it reflects the longtime machinations of the local GOP. According to an American Public Media investigation, the 2018 midterm elections in Georgia saw Republicans enact “all five of the most common voter suppression tactics” in the U.S.: “voter ID laws, proof of citizenship requirements, purges, cuts in early voting, and polling place closures.” These are transparent strategies to negate Black voting power in a state where race is often a proxy for partisan affiliation. And just as they predate Trump, these tactics will endure long after he exits the political stage. That they didn’t work out to his advantage this time surely holds lessons for future would-be deployers. But their failure to do so does not mean their appeal is gone, simply that it may require a better-considered target and a slightly less despised communicator.

Trump’s Racist Urban Myth Hides His Suburban Failures