The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump and the populists see themselves at war with big cities

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The cover story in the Outlook section of The Washington Post's Sunday paper, written by Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center, asked and answered a powerful question: Why does President Trump demonize cities?

Despite his career as a New York City real estate mogul, Trump came to the White House on the back of a campaign that wooed many rural, white voters by directing their anger at the United States' big cities. In Trump's rhetoric, metropolises such as New York, San Francisco and Chicago were bastions of detached elites, and repositories of crime and carnage. They were cast as places shaped by the nation-destroying currents of globalism and havens for both undocumented minorities and liberal anti-patriots. They were anathema to “real” America.

Wilkinson shows how the dystopian vision of dangerous cities painted by the White House can't hold up to the reality: “The American metropolis is more peaceful and prosperous than it’s been in decades.”

But the weight of data and fact wielded by Wilkinson may fail to penetrate the ideological bubble surrounding the Trump administration. In its bid to force widespread deportations and crush “sanctuary cities,” it is at odds with the mayors of the country's most important urban centers. The White House's proposed budget calls for drastic cuts to programs that would disproportionately affect the poor in inner cities.

Trump's “populism” may ring true to millions of discontented, frustrated voters in red-state America, but it can't really represent the parts of the country that are actually driving the American economy. That is by design.

“There are people in New York that feel closer to people in London and in Berlin than they do to people in Kansas and in Colorado,” Steven K. Bannon, now the White House's chief strategist, complained at a meeting with European conservatives three years ago. “And they have more of this elite mentality that they’re going to dictate to everybody how the world’s going to be run.”

Michael Anton, a White House national security adviser who thinks diversity is weakness and has written extensively against the pluralism that defines American cities, made the subtext more clear in an essay last year: “The ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty,” he wrote, is “the mark of a party, a society, a country, a people, a civilization that wants to die.”

This kind of ethnonationalism or nativism is now a primal driving force in democracies on both sides of the Atlantic. And it has nothing to do with real egalitarian politics, as French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy wrote Friday, “but a mob inching ever closer to its moment of ultimate power while promoting an equality not of common interest but of complaints, indignities, grudges and corruption.”

Wilkinson summed up the ideas propagated by Bannon and his cadre more bluntly: “Suppose you think the United States — maybe even all Western civilization — will fall if the U.S. population ever becomes as diverse as Denver’s. You are going to want to reduce the foreign-born population as quickly as possible, and by any means necessary.”

But cities can be seen as a bulwark to the agendas driving the Trump administration and far-right populist movements in Europe. Sadiq Khan, London's first Muslim mayor, stands out as a guardian of the politics of inclusion and tolerance at a time when Britain is planning to detach itself from Europe. Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist mayor of Paris, is now one of the lead global figures in the fight against climate change.

Indeed, as my colleagues reported over the weekend, even within the White House, a civil war appears to be brewing between Bannon and his traditional conservative allies and a faction of “New York moderates” — a clutch of former Goldman Sachs executives close to Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The behind-the-scenes tussle here could go a long way to shaping the Trump presidency.

What doesn't change is the larger anti-cosmopolitan ethos embraced by the administration, which critics argue is a reflection of a fading political tradition.

“Increasingly, nation-states look parochial and backward, and cities are actually cosmopolitan and much more broad in their understanding,” Benjamin Barber, a globe-trotting academic and the author of “If Mayors Ruled the World,” said in an interview for a story I wrote last year about how cities are becoming more effective vehicles for global governance. He concluded: “The right-wing nationalism of the Trumps will become not so much toxic obstacles to history, but an increasingly obsolete expression.”

That might seem like the wishful thinking of liberals whose belief in the inevitability of globalization has been challenged by recent political events. But, as Wilkinson argued, what defines and divides the United States right now — and, arguably, some countries in Western Europe — are two competing ideas of identity. One is unquestionably better and healthier than the other, even if not inevitable. 

“Honduran cooks in Chicago, Iranian engineers in Seattle, Chinese cardiologists in Atlanta, their children and grandchildren, all of them, are bedrock members of the American community,” Wilkinson wrote. “There is no 'us' that excludes them. There is no American national identity apart from the dynamic hybrid culture we have always been creating together. America’s big cities accept this and grow healthier and more productive by the day, while the rest of the country does not accept this, and struggles.”

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