The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump vs. an America that works

In his column Friday taking to task President Trump and other immigration exclusionists, David Brooks writes: “For the life of me, I can’t figure out why so many Republicans prefer a dying white America to a place like, say, Houston.” By that we take it to mean that Trump glorifies the Rust Belt and rural America, the casualties in globalization and automation, but paints U.S. cities as dangerous. Trump’s policies in many cases seeks to wreak havoc (e.g., staging immigration raids, threatening city funding). His immigration raids are already causing economic disruption in construction and food service industries.

Well, Brooks answers the question for himself:

Houston has very light zoning regulations, and as a result it has affordable housing and a culture that welcomes immigrants. This has made it incredibly diverse, with 145 languages spoken in the city’s homes, and incredibly dynamic — the fastest-growing big city in America recently. (Personally, I wish it would do a bit more zoning — it’s pretty ugly.)
The large immigrant population has paradoxically given the city a very strong, very patriotic and cohesive culture, built around being welcoming to newcomers and embracing the future.

Put differently, Houston and other vibrant mid- and large-size cities, especially those in the Sun Belt, are a repudiation of Trump’s notions that we must keep foreigners out; “liberal elites” are unconcerned with the little guy; we’ve been “losing” at globalization; and that only he can “bring the jobs back.”

We don’t think it is a coincidence that in the election Trump lost the most economically productive areas of the United States. Brookings found, “The less-than-500 counties that Hillary Clinton carried nationwide encompassed a massive 64 percent of America’s economic activity as measured by total output in 2015. By contrast, the more-than-2,600 counties that Donald Trump won generated just 36 percent of the country’s output—just a little more than one-third of the nation’s economic activity.” To be clear, Clinton carried the most diverse, most cosmopolitan and most successful parts of America. (“Her base of 493 counties was heavily metropolitan. By contrast, Trumpland consists of hundreds and hundreds of tiny low-output locations that comprise the non-metropolitan hinterland of America, along with some suburban and exurban metro counties.”)

Follow Jennifer Rubin's opinionsFollow

On one level, this is hardly surprising since Trump’s message is aimed at Americans who are resentful, feel left behind and are both physically and culturally marginalized. The flip side of this, however, is that Trump either ignores or vilifies urban America, refusing to acknowledge that diversity is part of the formula for their success. And, moreover, the presence of vibrant cities not just on the coasts but also in the heartland suggests Trump’s base would greatly benefit by moving from dead and dying Rust Belt towns to more economically vibrant places. Some of that has already gone on as the population has shifted from the Northeast and upper Midwest to the South and West, but it seems we should not be filling Trump voters with the false hope that coal jobs are coming back, but rather encourage them to be like immigrants — go to where the work is.

Trump fails to understand that immigrants go to places that have work, or at least work better than what they left. Every immigrant who comes is a vote of confidence in America, a bet that there is economic prosperity available at the end of the journey. The same immigrant mentality should be encouraged among native-born Americans.

In that vein, Michael Strain has argued that we should “rethink the way unemployment benefits are provided and allow workers interested in moving in search of employment to receive relocation assistance in place of continued unemployment benefits.” He explains:

Labor market conditions vary quite a bit across America. …
It makes sense, therefore, to at least provide a long-term unemployed California worker with information about employment and earnings for his occupation and demographic group in different places, both in California and in other states. And it makes sense to help him to move to another state if he so chooses. This help could take the form of a grant (replacing potential unemployment benefits) to cover his moving expenses, a low-interest government-backed loan with repayment capped at a certain share of future earnings, or some combination of the two.

In sum, rather than leave Americans in Rust Belt isolation, with a shriveled job market, it makes sense to encourage and assist them to move to productive areas of the country, which in many cases means a more urban environment. There they might learn that immigrants aren’t out to steal their jobs or murder their kids. And they might find themselves reconnecting to their fellow Americans.