The President Just Went Beyond a Dogwhistle With His Suburbs Doomsday Talk

Jack Holmes
Photo credit: Alex Wong - Getty Images
Photo credit: Alex Wong - Getty Images

From Esquire

It's hard to shake the feeling that his complete mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the few things the president couldn't squirm out of. Donald Trump has never enjoyed the support of a majority of the American people—in fact, his approval rating has rarely soared beyond 43 percent. But this era has also proven that a big chunk of the public does not care about, say, corruption: the president is blatantly monetizing his office, as his businesses continually take money from people who may seek changes in public policy from the government he leads. It never much moved the needle. Did the family separations have any long-term affect on Trump's standing? The tax cut for corporations and the rich? The attempt to strip people of their healthcare with no replacement? Without the pandemic failure, he would probably still be the favorite to win re-election thanks to our incredibly dumb mechanism for electing presidents. After all, no one even pretends he might win more citizens' votes.

More than that, These Times have reinforced the power of racist appeals in American life. Take, for instance, the president's new push to generate a racial panic in The Suburbs now that he's hemorrhaging support there. Trump has been banging on about how Joe Biden is a puppet of the socialist left, a theory related to his hints that Biden has lost a step. (There's some merit to this, but it's offset by the fact that Trump now spends his time bragging that he passed a dementia test.) He's now taken to suggesting Biden will destroy the suburbs, which is something between a dogwhistle and a wolf howl. Trump rolled this out once again during a Facebook "telerally" on Tuesday night.

Related video: A history of Donald Trump’s obsession with pseudoscience

This is not even subtext. "A beautiful suburb of Iowa" will be destroyed by Cory Booker, a Black senator from Newark—not to mention Obama—who will bring Certain People in to destroy property values and "increase crime substantially." This is just out-and-out racism, the not-in-my-backyard impulse all 'roided up. It's tied to Biden's support for policies that would ease the stranglehold of single-family zoning, which keeps property values artificially high and ultimately proves exclusionary, limiting social mobility. Normally, proponents of the status quo would focus their arguments on protecting the character of our neighborhoods or claiming that Biden wants to build a hi-rise next to your picket fence. Trump, as usual, says the quiet part out loud.

But perhaps the most disturbing part is how effective this might be if voters did not have far more pressing concerns—like, say, the global pandemic that's killed 150,000 Americans on Trump's watch, or the accompanying economic cataclysm, or the mass movement for racial justice following the killing of George Floyd, a movement which enjoys strong majority support among the public. But that's the thing: white folks have broadly jumped on board with fighting racism in policing and the criminal justice system, which is good, but it does not require much sacrifice in how they live their individual lives. It is, believe it or not, the easier part. The harder thing is changing the structures under all of this.

And that's why this rhetoric may still work, to some extent. Because it's not just conservatives who like the current system of housing—and, inevitably, school—segregation. (In 2018, 50 years after the Fair Housing Act, the Washington Post found residential segregation persists, falling particularly hard on Black Americans, though the suburbs had begun to diversify.) There are plenty of "I'm-as-liberal-as-can-be" white folks who talk like this when the doors are closed, and who make decisions in their personal and political lives based on it. It's the strain of white liberalism that Jordan Peele brought to an absurd and horrifying extreme with Bradley Whitford's Dean Armitage in Get Out.

This is another chapter in the book very few people actually want to read: Confronting Systemic Racism Will Not Be Fun and You Will Probably Have to Make Real Sacrifices in Your Personal Life. Long title, I know.

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