President Donald Trump has failed to build a physical wall between the U.S. and Mexico, but now he wants to build another wall—between America’s cities and their suburbs. In recent weeks, he’s sought to stoke white resentment with inflammatory rhetoric directed at white suburbanites. But so far, they don’t seem to be buying what Trump is selling.
In a speech on the White House’s South Lawn on July 16, Trump warned that if Joe Biden is elected president, he will “totally destroy the beautiful suburbs. Suburbia will be no longer as we know it.” Biden and the Democrats, Trump claimed, want to “defund and abolish your police and law enforcement, while at the same time destroying our great suburbs.”
The next day, in a televised “rally” with supporters in the key battleground state of Wisconsin, Trump said that Democrats wanted to “eliminate single-family zoning, bringing who knows [sic] into your suburbs, so your communities will be unsafe and your housing values will go down.” It was a statement that clearly played on racist fears.
On July 23, Trump tweeted a message targeted to what he called “The Suburban Housewives of America.” He warned that “Biden will destroy your neighborhood and your American Dream. I will preserve it, and make it even better!”
He doubled down in two tweets on July 29: “I am happy to inform all of the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low-income housing built in your neighborhood,” he ranted. “Your housing prices will go up based on the market, and crime will go down. I have rescinded the Obama-Biden AFFH Rule. Enjoy!”
That last tweet referred to his decision to throw out an Obama administration rule, adopted in 2015, called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH). The policy had given muscle to the Fair Housing Act, which Congress passed in 1968, by requiring local governments to demonstrate that local policies—like zoning rules and the allocation of housing subsidies—don’t exclude low-income housing or exacerbate racial segregation.
Of course, the real purpose of Trump’s statements was not to inform Americans about some little-known, technical housing policy but to tell his political base that he opposes government efforts to address racism in any form. It banked on the idea that his statements would whip up fear among white suburban voters that, unless they reelect him in November, they will confront a massive invasion of Black and Brown people into their communities. These statements were not a subtle dog whistle. They were a blast from a megaphone.
Trump’s decision to send federal troops into Portland, Oregon—and threats to do the same in other cities run by Democratic mayors and city councils—is part of the same strategy. He’s trying to persuade suburbanites to vote for him to maintain “law and order” and protect them from what he describes as the violence and chaos perpetrated by out-of-control “radical left anarchists.”
But polls show that Trump’s efforts have backfired. Support for the Black Lives Matter movement has grown dramatically among white, Black, and Latino Americans since the recent wave of protests about racial justice and police abuse began after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop in May. In 2017, 38 percent of Americans said they supported the BLM movement; in April of this year, that number had increased to 42 percent, but by June it had spiraled up to 53 percent.
According to a recent ABC News/Ipsos poll, conducted July 29 and 30, over half of white Americans (55 percent), and clear majorities of Black Americans (92 percent) and Latino Americans (72 percent), disapprove of Trump’s combative response to the nationwide protests. The numbers aren’t much better among Trump’s supposed base. Among white non-college-educated Americans, only 42 percent believe that the presence of federal agents improves the situation. Over a third (37 percent) of this group think that Trump has made the situation worse. Moreover, 66 percent of Americans believe that Trump has mishandled the COVID-19 crisis, up from 54 percent in March.
Part of Trump’s problem is that his ideas about suburban America are anchored in the white experience of the 1950s and 1960s, not contemporary America.
After World War II, moving to the suburbs was a key component of the American Dream of upward mobility. The 1950s TV image of suburbia — seen in shows like “Leave It to Beaver,” “My Three Sons,” and “The Donna Reed Show”—reflected reality at the time: Suburbs were mostly white and middle class. Fathers commuted to the city to work. Mothers stayed at home with the kids or worked part time. The proportion of Americans who live in suburbs has increased from 23 percent in 1950 to 55 percent today, while the demographic and economic characteristics have changed dramatically.
Although Trump tailored his message to “suburban housewives,” the reality is that most suburban women now work outside the home. And polls suggest the president is in trouble with these voters. A Fox News poll conducted July 12-15 asked likely voters who they intended to vote for in November. Among suburbanites, Biden led Trump by a 47 percent to 38 percent margin, but among suburban women, Biden’s margin was even wider—55 percent to 32 percent.
Today’s suburbs are more economically diverse than they were in the second half of the 20th century. There are wealthy suburbs, middle-class suburbs, and working-class suburbs. A growing number of suburbanites, including those considered middle class, struggle to make ends meet, and many more live in poverty. In 1960 only 17 percent of the nation’s poor lived in suburbs. But in each decade since, the proportion of America’s poor living in suburbs has increased. By 2013, for the first time, the number of suburban poor was larger than the number of poor people living in cities. In 2018, of the nation’s 38 million people defined by the federal government as “in poverty,” 44 percent lived in suburbs, 40 percent lived in cities, and 16 percent lived in rural areas, according to the most recent Census data. More suburbanites today commute to other suburbs than to cities.
Suburbs have also become much more racially diverse. Since the 1990s, many Latino and Asian immigrants have bypassed cities and moved into suburban areas. There are now fewer all-white suburbs than there were in the 1950s, when white families began moving to the suburbs, subsidized by federal mortgage and highway subsidies and tax breaks for homeowners. The white share of the suburban population declined from 93 percent in 1970 to 68 percent in 2010. Today only 5 percent of white Americans live in all-white areas.
In fact, although suburbs are still racially segregated, they are less segregated than cities. There are suburbs with a majority of people of color and even suburbs with a majority of Black, or Latino, or Asian residents. There are suburbs in which immigrants make up the majority of the population. Some suburbs—such as Mitchellville and Kettering, Maryland; Hillcrest, New York; Lithonia, Georgia; and Baldwin Hills, California (a suburban area within Los Angeles)—are mostly made up of middle-class Black professionals.
Meanwhile, some suburbs have become highly concentrated districts of both poor and Black residents—but not because these municipalities revised their zoning laws to welcome more low-income Black and Brown residents. Instead, these suburban enclaves of color are the result of longstanding discriminatory practices by banks, home builders and landlords, as well as the zoning practices of wealthier suburbs, to keep Black and Brown people out. These suburban areas now struggle with problems that President Trump often attributes to big cities, including unemployment (especially among young men) and crime. These suburbs often have inadequate schools and public services, including public transportation to areas with good jobs, isolating residents from economic opportunity. One such suburb is Ferguson, Missouri, where more than one-quarter of residents are below the poverty line. In 2014, the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old Black man, by a Ferguson cop triggered an upsurge of protest.
Suburban hostility toward poor people, African Americans, and immigrants is hardly new. President Richard Nixon stoked fears about school busing and fair housing laws by opposing what he called “forced integration.” Affluent suburbanites who oppose low-income housing claim that they simply want to preserve the “character” of their communities. Some justify such NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) attitudes because they are worried about declining home values. Trump has sought to seize on these sentiments. Contrary to his fear-mongering, however, studies reveal that the presence of low-income housing in middle-class neighborhoods does not lower homeowners’ property values.
What’s more, because of the skyrocketing cost of housing, the nation’s homeownership rate has fallen since its peak of 69 percent in 2004. Not surprisingly, the number of suburban renters has been growing dramatically. These suburbanites are not worried about their homes’ declining property values. They are more concerned about rising rents.
The federal Fair Housing Act, which Congress adopted in 1968 and which has been amended several times, says that developers, real estate agents, banks, and landlords cannot discriminate on the basis of race. But studies show that they still do. Banks provide fewer mortgages to Black and Brown families than to white families with similar incomes and credit ratings. Real estate agents steer Black and Brown families looking to rent or buy homes into predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods, even when they say they prefer a racially diverse area. A recent Newsday investigation, for example, found widespread racial discrimination among real estate agents in suburban Long Island, where half of the Black population lives in just 11 of its 291 communities. Landlords with vacant apartments are more likely to turn down applications from Black and Brown renters than white renters. And local suburban governments use zoning laws to prohibit or limit rental housing, especially projects with rents affordable to low-income families.
The Obama AFFH rule that Trump repealed was designed to reduce local governments’ intentional or unwitting complicity with these and other unlawful practices.
Trump would be very familiar with fair housing rules; he and his father Fred Trump frequently ran afoul of those laws.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the New York City Commission on Human Rights and other fair housing organizations and activists documented the Trumps’ routine practice of turning away potential Black tenants. One New York state investigation in 1967—later reported by the New York Times — discovered that there were only seven Black families living in the 3,700-unit Trump Village complex in Brooklyn. Black families in New York knew that they were unwelcome in Fred Trump’s apartment buildings, according to the Times. They were typically told that his buildings had no vacancies, even when they knew that white tenants had no problem finding apartments in the same properties.
In 1973, the U.S. Department of Justice did its own investigation and sued Trump Management for violating the Fair Housing Act for discriminating against African Americans. The government named both Fred Trump, the company’s chairman, and Donald Trump, its president. Donald called the allegations “absolutely ridiculous,” the Times later reported, and said the government was trying to force him to rent to “welfare recipients.”
At the suggestion of his attorney Roy Cohn, Donald Trump sued the Justice Department rather than settle the case. The assigned judge dismissed the countersuit, but two years later, the Trumps reluctantly signed a consent decree that required them to desegregate their apartment buildings, including a mandate that Trump Management provide the New York Urban League, a civil-rights group, with a weekly list of all its vacancies. In 1978, however, the Justice Department accused the Trumps of violating the consent decree. “We believe that an underlying pattern of discrimination continues to exist in the Trump Management organization,” a DOJ lawyer wrote. But the Trumps outlasted the government’s efforts. Before the DOJ could gather enough evidence to take Trump to court, the original consent decree had expired.
Although Trump has a misleading image of today’s suburbs, he views suburban voters as key to his reelection effort. In 2016, Trump beat Hillary Clinton by a close 49-45 percent in suburbs, while Clinton gained a 60-34 percent victory among voters in cities. Because suburbanites now represent a majority of all voters, the 2020 contest will depend not only on whether Joe Biden can increase turnout in cities, but also whether Biden can win more suburban voters than Clinton did four years ago.
The trends don’t look good for Trump. In the 2018 midterms, voters delivered the House to the Democrats, mostly by flipping Republican seats in the suburbs. According to an analysis by Dan Balz of the Washington Post (which I updated to include California’s contested 21st Congressional District), Democrats won 38 of the 69 suburban districts that had been held by Republicans. The Democrats not only picked up seats in the densely populated suburbs adjacent to cities but also in the more sparsely populated suburbs, according to an analysis by Geoffrey Skelly of FiveThirtyEight. In both cases, these are suburbs that include low-income people, people of color, and middle-class professionals of all races.
For example, Lucy McBath, an African-American woman and liberal Democrat, flipped a Congressional seat in an overwhelmingly white suburban district outside Atlanta. In fact, all nine African Americans who were elected to Congress for the first time in 2018 represent predominantly white and mostly suburban districts.
Once-traditionally-suburban areas have become more friendly to Democratic candidates. All six Congressional seats that represent Orange County in California—once a bastion of the right-wing John Birch Society—are now held by Democrats. In 2018, four Democrats – Katie Porter, Gil Cisneros, Harley Rouda and Mike Levin — defeated Republicans to join the two Democrats (Lou Correa and Alan Lowenthal) who already represented parts of the county.
In 2016, a majority of voters in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, which includes Richmond’s suburbs, supported Trump while electing Tea Party Republican David Brat to Congress with 58 percent of the vote. But two years later, Democrat Abigail Spanberger unseated Brat by a close 50-48 percent margin. Last November, Democratic sweeps in three Virginia suburban counties—Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William—handed the party control of both houses of the state legislature.
In the Philadelphia suburbs last November, Democrats won their first majority on the Bucks County Board of Commissioners since 1983 and their first-ever majority in Chester County.
In 2016, Trump won landslide victories in significant majorities in Kentucky’s suburban Campbell County (winning 63 percent) and Kenton County (64 percent), across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. But last November, Democrat Andy Beshear unseated Republican Gov. Matt Bevin in part by winning more votes in those middle class two counties. Beshear blasted Bevin for shredding the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), including pushing 31,000 Kentuckians off Medicaid and the state’s children’s health insurance plan, which has become increasingly popular in the state. Trump traveled to Kentucky the day before the election to campaign for Bevin and denounced Obamacare. “Radical Democrats are going totally insane,” Trump ranted at a rally, claiming that Democrats want to “destroy anyone who holds traditional American values.” It didn’t help. Beshear outpolled Bevin in Campbell County with 52 percent of the vote and in Kenton County by a 49.5 percent to 48.4 percent margin.
According to a recent New York Times/Siena College poll, 14 percent of voters in six battleground states (Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona, and North Carolina) who supported Trump in 2016 say they won’t likely support him again this year. They are mostly suburbanites.
Like most Americans, suburbanites want a president who will address the COVID-19 pandemic, expand health care coverage, improve the economy with more good-paying jobs, deal with the impacts of climate change, provide more funding for both K-12 schools and higher education, restore respect for the U.S. around the world, and deal with Americans’ common problems rather than stoke division. Polls show that more Americans trust Biden than Trump to effectively tackle these concerns.
It appears that Trump’s campaign to build a wall between America’s cities and suburbs may well be no more successful than his efforts to put a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border.
An earlier version of this article appeared in Talking Points Memo.