It’s no secret that Atlanta is not one of Donald Trump’s favorite places. But now the former president is upping the stakes in his yearslong battle with the place that likes to call itself the City Too Busy to Hate. He hopes to bust it up. Seriously.
Trump made his feelings about the city clear just before he took office in 2017, when he took a shot at Representative John Lewis, who had represented the Atlanta district for more than three decades. Trump was miffed at the civil-rights leader, who died three years later, because he’d announced he would not be attending Trump’s inauguration — so Trump sent a pair of nasty tweets.
“Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results,” Trump said. “All talk, talk, talk — no action or results. Sad!”
Memories of this insult were fresh a few weeks later when Trump’s favorite NFL team, the New England Patriots, faced the Atlanta Falcons in the Super Bowl. “Lewis was being beaten for voting rights while Trump was avoiding Vietnam,” Atlanta-based sportswriter Jason Kirk observed at the time. Kirk pointed out that Atlanta has lots of new business and residential structures, plenty of corporate headquarters, some great neighborhoods, and not at all unusual crime levels. It probably didn’t help local feelings when Trump’s team won in a heartbreaker. Less than a year later, the 45th president showed up at the College Football National Championship game in Atlanta between the University of Alabama and the University of Georgia; his security forced the closure of some gates at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and left a lot of fans waiting in freezing rain to occupy their insanely expensive seats. When Trump sauntered onto the field at halftime, the Alabama fans cheered lustily. On the Georgia side of the stadium, there were as many boos as cheers. The famously touchy president surely noticed.
Atlanta got some revenge in 2020 when the city and its inner suburbs delivered huge margins for Joe Biden and turned Georgia blue in a presidential election for just the second time since Jimmy Carter was in the White House. And a few months later, Atlanta again delivered for Democrats in dual runoffs that gave the party control of the U.S. Senate; two Atlantans (Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff) won seats in the chamber, humiliating Trump, who campaigned personally for their Republican opponents.
The following year, a campaign emerged to have Buckhead, Atlanta’s richest and whitest area, secede from the rest of the city; as far as we know, Trump originally had nothing to do with the effort. Making Buckhead, which was first annexed by the city in 1952, a separate municipality would cripple Atlanta’s revenue base and remove a fifth of its population. The ostensible reason for the secession push — led by a New York businessman and GOP fundraiser named Bill White, who moved to Atlanta in 2018 — was rising crime; the idea was an independent Buckhead would hire a lot more cops and some vicious judges to crack down on the criminal element. Under Georgia law, such secessions require an authorizing act from the state legislature and a victory in a local referendum of voters in the area seeking recognition as a city. White rural Republican legislators, who have been bashing Atlanta daily for generations, loved the idea, and it looked for a while as though the referendum would be called for 2022.
Soon, however, Atlanta’s powerful business community began to mobilize opposition to the Buckhead secession effort, and White damaged his own cause with a series of racially offensive comments and conspiracy-theory claims. In early February, the two Republicans who run the Georgia legislature, Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan and House Speaker David Ralston, announced they opposed the enabling legislation for the referendum, basically killing it, while indicating they wanted to give newly elected Atlanta mayor Andre Dickens a chance to roll out some anti-crime initiatives. The fear of simultaneously alienating corporate donors and looking more nakedly racist than usual was probably the big motivation; Duncan in particular (who is retiring after mocking Trump’s election-fraud lies) is associated with efforts to broaden the base of the GOP. Republican Governor Brian Kemp, whom Trump considers an enemy, was conspicuously quiet.
Then, as the clock ticked down to the official demise of the secession effort, a thunderbolt came from Mar-a-Lago in the form of a statement on this extremely local issue. Trump said on February 26:
What is happening in the City of Atlanta is nothing short of disgraceful. It’s national news and a regional embarrassment. The good people of Buckhead don’t want to be a part of defunding the police and the high crime that’s plaguing their communities. However, RINOs like Governor Brian Kemp, the man responsible, along with his puppet master Mitch McConnell, for the loss of two Senate Seats and 2020 Presidential Vote, Lt. Governor Jeff Duncan, Speaker David Ralston, and State Senators Butch Miller, Jeff Mullis, and John Albers always talk a big game but they don’t deliver. What good is having Republican leaders if they are unwilling to fight for what they campaigned on? Every RINO must go! Let the voters decide on the very popular City of Buckhead proposal!
Duncan immediately and sardonically assessed Trump’s weird intervention as an effort to find a new culture-war campaign issue for his gubernatorial candidate, David Perdue (the same man who lost one of those Senate seats), as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. “As David Perdue’s campaign continues to flounder, his supporters are desperately deploying a spaghetti-on-the-wall approach, which, as usual, is devoid from any semblance of reality,” Duncan said.
Perdue has not only stuck with the Buckhead secession cause; he’s doubled down on it, telling the big CPAC clambake in Florida last month that it’s just like Ukraine’s resistance to Russia. (Yes, really.) “We have to defend our way of life. It’s just that simple,” he said. “If self-determination and freedom are going to abound and flourish in the rest of the world, we have to defend it here at home.”
Despite the former president’s power among Republicans in Georgia and elsewhere, he can’t save the Buckhead bill from its scheduled death (Duncan would have to agree to any resurrection, and that isn’t happening). So Trump and his candidate have tossed a racial hot potato into an already dangerously divisive GOP primary for no reason other than nastiness. In the cold war between the 45th president and Atlanta, the city will win this latest skirmish.
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