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Trump’s Incredible Ignorance of Suburbia

The president sees suburban America as a bastion of white affluence—an outdated view that could cost him the election.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

It says a lot about President Trump’s misunderstanding of the suburbs that the Republican National Committee has designated Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the Midwestern couple who two months ago pointed guns at peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters marching in front of their house, to represent beleaguered white suburbanites this week at the Republican National Convention.

The McCloskeys are indisputably white and, according to a devastating profile in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, they have a rich litigious history. But they aren’t suburbanites. Their gated community, Portland Place, sounds suburban, but it’s located inside St. Louis, a jurisdiction that Trump isn’t even trying to win. The “house” the McCloskeys defended is no Dutch colonial out of Leave It to Beaver. It’s an ersatz Medici palazzo with ceiling frescoes, silk damask wall coverings, walnut carvings edged in gilt, and pissing putti—a habitat more suited to the sultan of Brunei than to Ward Cleaver.

But the McCloskeys fit the cartoonish and outdated stereotype of suburbanites that Trump, a city boy, has been courting all summer. On Twitter last month, he declared that Joe Biden wanted to “Abolish Suburbs,” warning the “Suburban Housewives of America” that the Democratic nominee would “destroy your neighborhood and your American Dream.” In a tweet on Saturday, the president made his racist subtext more clear. “Why would Suburban Women vote for Biden and the Democrats,” he queried, “when Democrat run cities are now rampant with crime … which could easily spread to the suburbs, and they will reconstitute, on steroids, their low income suburbs plan!” The women in question were presumptively white, the criminals and beggars presumptively black, and the threat to feminine honor best left to the imagination.

Trump isn’t the only person misreading the suburbs’ role in this election. It’s an accepted political cliché that the 2020 contest will be won or lost in the suburbs. That isn’t wrong, exactly, but it’s misleading because almost every presidential election is won or lost in the suburbs. That’s been true at least as far back as 1992 when the 1990 Census revealed that for the first time more Americans lived in suburbs than in urban or rural areas. (A plurality then, suburbanites today represent a 52 percent majority.)

The 1990 Census scared the bejeezus out of Democrats because the suburbs were then solidly Republican. No Democratic presidential candidate had won the suburbs since Lyndon Johnson’s landslide in 1964. The suburbs were full of white country club Episcopalians out of a John Cheever short story—the kind who rode the commuter train, wore lime-green pants, and sipped double martinis. Since the 1960s, they’d been joined by white blue-collar and professional-class families fed up with urban crime and decay. Both groups voted Republican.

“Notwithstanding Johnson’s 1964 victory and Democratic claims of a new middle-class majority following, suburbia and Great Society social programs were essentially incompatible,” Kevin Phillips, then a young Nixon aide, wrote in his influential 1969 book, The Emerging Republican Majority. “Suburbia did not take kindly to rent subsidies, school racial balance schemes, growing Negro immigration or rising welfare costs.” Phillips subsequently moved well to the left, but in 1992 The Emerging Republican Majority was still the political class’s roadmap. A truism oft-repeated that year was former Johnson aide Horace Busby’s conclusion that suburban growth in the Sun Belt gave Republicans a lock on the Electoral College. Why even bother to run a Democrat for president?

The political class was proved wrong when Bill Clinton, a Democrat, won the presidency that year by tacking to the center. Fourteen years later, Barack Obama, a Democrat, won without tacking very much to the center. In three of the four presidential elections that Clinton and Obama won, they won the suburbs, too. Mitt Romney won the suburbs in 2012, just as Gerald Ford had won them in 1976. But otherwise, through the past half-century, every candidate who won the suburbs won the election. The suburban vote has become a better predictor of who will enter the Oval Office than the popular vote.

What everyone was slow to notice, though, and what Trump seems still not to understand, is that as the suburbs have grown more important electorally, they’ve lost their political identity. Big cities remain reliably Democratic. Rural areas, which are shrinking as suburbs encroach on them, are ever more reliably Republican. But the suburbs aren’t reliably anything. Once solidly Republican, today they’re perhaps a whisker more Republican than Democratic and completely unpredictable from one election cycle to the next.

To call suburbanites a swing constituency wouldn’t be right because that would imply they’re a distinctive group. They aren’t. The suburbs have no consistent political allegiance because they’ve become too diverse. They vary now by region, by proximity to the city (closer-in suburbs are more Democratic), and by race and ethnicity (having become, to varying degrees, much more Black and Latino). This is exactly what you should expect when a subculture expands to encompass a growing majority. Since America is a big, diverse nation, the majority of its population now residing in the suburbs is big and diverse, too. To generalize about the suburban vote is almost as useless as generalizing about the political character of people with ten fingers and ten toes.

Much was made two years ago of the inroads congressional Democrats made among Trump’s suburban supporters. But winning suburban seats represented no particular novelty for Democrats. The majority of Democratic House seats had been suburban for most of the previous decade. (The majority of Democratic presidential ballots have been suburban for about as long.) The Democrats’ real triumph in 2018 wasn’t that they started moving into the suburbs but that they flipped Trump districts. The suburbs were practically the only place there was to go.

Trump, a child of the 1950s, appears to think that nothing has changed since Kevin Phillips wrote his manifesto in 1969. “The crime and chaos in Democrat-run cities have gotten so bad that liberals are even getting out of Manhattan’s Upper West Side,” Trump wrote in an August 16 Wall Street Journal op-ed that he co-authored with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. He sounded like a down-market Mr. Sammler. Has Trump been to the Upper West Side lately? The only liberals leaving are the ones who can no longer afford sky-high housing prices in a neighborhood that went upscale four decades ago.

The bulk of the op-ed was devoted to defending regulations. That might seem strange coming from a president who has himself declared war on regulations. But those were regulations to prevent industry from polluting the air and water or from exploiting workers and so on. The regulations that Trump and Carson favor are local zoning rules that limit real estate developers to building single-family dwellings. Conservatives have traditionally loathed such rules and fought them. As recently as 2018, even Trump and Carson’s own HUD complained that “in the suburbs, NIMBYism (Not in My Back Yard, or resistance to unwanted development in one’s own neighborhood) may have worsened,” exacerbating “an already serious affordability problem.” But the Trump administration was already moving to shore up suburban NIMBYs and exacerbate the affordability problem further.

The Obama administration pushed very gently against local zoning plans in 2015 with its Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) Rule. That directive made it easier for fair housing advocates to challenge zoning rules in court as a violation of the 1968 Fair Housing Act. It didn’t make it all that much easier. Fair housing advocate Jonathan Zasloff of the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law condemned the Obama rule recently as “almost comically weak.” But even a weak challenge to exclusionary suburban zoning was too much for the Trump administration, so in 2018 Carson suspended it, and last month he announced he’ll terminate it.

Biden says he’ll revive the AFFH, which is why Trump has lately been saying Biden will “destroy” the suburbs. It’s race-baiting in code, straight out of George Wallace’s 1968 playbook. Even in 1968, though, Wallace’s dog whistle couldn’t win him any states outside the South. Today the strategy is useless because that suburban world no longer exists. Suburbia is no longer dominated by Episcopalians in lime-green pants (and anyway, a lot of them became Democrats as the GOP moved further right). The families fleeing big cities today aren’t doing it because big cities are failing; they’re fleeing because those cities are succeeding so spectacularly that only the wealthy can afford to live there. The very word “urban,” which for decades was a euphemism for “low-income Black,” is becoming a euphemism for “rich and white” because low-income families are leading the exodus out of cities. It’s simply wrong to think today that the majority of America’s poor live in rural hollers or urban slums. They live in the suburbs. And they don’t waste much time worrying that Joe Biden will destroy the suburbs by encouraging high-density construction there.

Mark and Patricia McClosky aren’t suburbanites, but they’ll do as well as anyone to represent Trump’s vision of suburbia for the simple reason that this suburbia no longer exists. If Trump keeps insisting it does, he’ll lose the suburbs—and the election—for sure.