Trump Is Using Racism To Appeal To “Suburban Housewives.” It’s Likely To Backfire.
The suburbs aren’t what Trump thinks they are.
All summer long, President Donald Trump has attacked Democrats’ fair-housing policies with racist dog whistles, painting them as a threat to “The Suburban Housewives of America” and the “Suburban Lifestyle Dream.” Like most of what Trump says, the idea that Joe Biden and the Democrats want to “Abolish Suburbs” is complete bullshit. But this desperate rhetoric is worth examining because of what it reveals about the huge gap between how American suburbs are commonly perceived both demographically and politically, and what they are actually like.
Just this morning, Trump tweeted, "The 'suburban housewife' will be voting for me," claiming they're "thrilled" that he ended "the long-running program where low-income housing would invade their neighborhood." Trump's tweet refers to his administration’s recent dismantlement of the Obama-era Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule, which required municipalities to fill out reports on barriers to fair housing in order to strengthen the Fair Housing Act of 1968. (Reportedly, few actually did so.) Trump’s claims that this rule had deprived people of the “American Dream” and had a “devastating impact” on suburban communities are not very credible, but they are an indication of his larger re-election plan: scaring white Americans into voting for him again.
Trump is also doing this by attacking Biden’s housing plan, which is more ambitious than what the Obama administration had instituted. Biden wants to end redlining and other policies that have historically excluded Black families from fair access to housing, and helped create the economically and racially segregated communities many people live in now. Biden also wants Congress to create a program that would require communities receiving certain Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Transportation grants to institute zoning changes that would increase neighborhoods’ affordability, diversity, and walkability. According to Trump, this is Biden’s grand plan to “abolish the suburbs.”
The problem is, Trump’s appeal to suburban voters who are terrified of an integrated reality is as horrifying and out-of-date as segregated water fountains. In 2020, suburbs have become more racially and economically diverse, diminishing the Republican vision of lily-white, Pleasantville-like cocoons. Then too, the concept of “housewives” is archaic (outside of perhaps Bravo TV), especially as a large voting bloc, considering that women now outnumber men in the American workforce.
While suburban voters are not a monolithic bloc, they are a powerful one — nearly half of voters live in the suburbs. It’s suburban voters in key swing states who helped Trump win office in 2016. But in 2018, it was also suburban voters who were instrumental in voting in the most diverse class of Democrats in history to gain control of the U.S. House of Representatives: 38 of the 41 districts Democrats flipped blue were suburban. Now, just when he needs it the most, Trump is steadily losing suburban support. Only 38% of suburban voters approve of Trump’s performance, while 59% disapprove, according to a New York Times/Siena College poll from June. Meanwhile, 65% have a favorable view of the Black Lives Matter movement. One in 10 suburban voters say they have participated in a protest, and their presence is felt in places like Portland, where a “Wall of Moms” led by a self-described “suburban wife” stood up to police. In that poll, Trump trails Biden by 16 points, 51% to 35%, in suburban areas. With the polls turned so resolutely against him, it’s no wonder Trump has been doing what he always does when he feels defensive: rambling, threatening, and fear-mongering, hoping that tricks from the ol’ reliable racist playbook will work if nothing else will.
“Trump is playing old New York politics from the 1990s,” Jef Pollock, a Democratic pollster, told The New York Times. “The reality is that more and more suburban voters have embraced diversity as a positive thing for their community. They support the Black Lives Matter movement, and from an aspirational perspective, they want their children to grow up in a more tolerant and less divided country. What’s scary to them is the constant division and intolerance that Trump is promulgating.”
Of course, racism is a feature of, not a bug in American society and it’s not exclusive to Trump voters. A lot of the suburban voters who support Black Lives Matter and have Biden signs on their lawns also oppose denser zoning, school redistricting, and defunding police departments. They have benefitted from and are quietly perpetuating a lot of the same racist policies that have existed since before the civil rights era, and have continued until now, where they occur in a “lite” format. But, as much as they may have profited from racism, they don’t like to be reminded of that fact — which is why Trump’s appeal to these voters doesn't work.
By pandering to a racist fantasy of American suburbs, Trump reveals not only the way in which his imagination is limited, but also how limited his abilities are as an effective campaigner with anyone other than his base. Unfortunately for Trump (if fortunately for America), if he wants to get the suburban vote, he’s going to have to accept a more complex reality than the one in his head. In the forthcoming book The Sprawl: Reconsidering the Weird American Suburbs, author Jason Diamond writes about the contradictions inherent to the suburbs, a place which still holds a unique position in the American imagination, aspirational and spiritually hollow all at once. Diamond said he found early on in his research that conservatives are “really obsessed” with the suburbs. It makes sense. The suburbs have long been presented in popular culture as the epitome of American greatness, the end point of the capitalist dream. But that dream was never meant to be for everyone.
“The suburbs represented something to us for so long,” Diamond told Refinery29. “It was like, ‘You can have this house. And you can have this front yard and this backyard and this driveway. These things are yours.’ And that was pretty revolutionary. But it was also only extended to certain people. You couldn’t get that if you were Black.”
Back in 2016, Trump’s unorthodox campaign tactics were novel, and they helped him win because he presented himself as being a respite from politics-as-usual. His base ate it up. But his fear-inducing tactics don’t seem to be working as well anymore — and that might be because people now have actual things to fear, rather than his made-up monsters. As we enter the sixth month of the horribly mismanaged coronavirus pandemic, it’s plain as day that Trump can’t actually protect Americans from those things that will really hurt us: a disastrous economy, massive unemployment, and rampant disease. Amid his failure to deliver even the basic form of security and public health standard, Trump’s rants about the suburbs are a transparent grab for attention, an indication that the thing he hates most is happening: He’s being ignored; he’s becoming irrelevant. And, not a moment too soon.