The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What Trump’s authoritarian push on homelessness is really about

(Richard Vogel/AP)

If you want to find an emblematic policy tale of the Trump presidency, you can’t do much better than the president’s newfound interest in homelessness.

He just discovered a problem that has existed for decades. His administration has been actively making the problem worse. His ideas about it are driven by his disturbing psychological quirks. The solutions he’s considering are authoritarian and unconstitutional. He wants to use it as part of a reelection campaign based on hatred and division.

And the whole thing started because of some lurid segments he saw on Fox News.

Sounds like a perfect recipe for sound policy formation and sensible decision-making, doesn’t it?

Here’s a summary of what he’s up to:

President Trump has ordered White House officials to launch a sweeping effort to address homelessness in California, citing the state’s growing crisis, according to four government officials aware of the effort.
The planning has intensified in recent weeks. Administration officials have discussed using the federal government to get homeless people off the streets of Los Angeles and other cities and into new government-backed facilities, according to two officials briefed on the planning.
But it is unclear how they could accomplish this and what legal authority they would use.

Yes, the president wants to send federal officers into major American cities to round people up and relocate them to some kind of government facility, though one official told The Post, “We’re not rounding people up or anything yet.” Yet.

Though it shouldn’t need to be said, the federal government has no authority to do that. And who’s going to carry out this forced relocation of thousands of people? The FBI? Federal marshals? The military?

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Let’s back up for a moment. Homelessness is a long-standing and extremely challenging problem, and although the overall number of homeless people is slightly lower than it was a few years ago, there are cities that have seen significant increases in recent years. The main culprit is housing costs, which in many places make it unaffordable to live unless you’re earning a high salary. For example, the median rent on a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is a ludicrous $3,600 a month, or more than $43,000 a year just for rent. A job making the California minimum wage of $12 an hour would make you about $24,000 a year before taxes or any other expenses.

What has the Trump administration done about this problem? If the answer was “nothing,” that would be a blessing, because the truth is that the administration’s policies amount to a concerted effort to push more people toward homelessness.

They have tried to sabotage the Affordable Care Act and throw poor people off Medicaid. They have proposed huge cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which would have included cutting funds for repair of public housing along with raising rents for those living there. They have waged a multi-pronged effort to slash safety net programs that keep people from falling into desperate poverty, of which homelessness can often be a consequence. They have attempted to kick immigrant families out of public housing.

So it isn’t as though the Trump administration decided it needed to address homelessness everywhere in the country, and this was what it came up with.

Instead, this is very personal to Trump, in a couple of key ways. The first is that, as with many of the ideas he has about the world, it came from Fox News.

As the liberal group Media Matters for America has documented, a few months ago Fox News began airing segment after segment about homelessness, focused on portraying certain cities as repulsive hellscapes:

The network has painted a grim picture of American cities as “almost Third World in their decay,” facing “a complete breakdown of the basic needs of civilization,” and filled with “drugged-out zombies chasing barefooted babies.” Fox has largely focused on the issue in cities on the West Coast — mostly focusing on cities in liberal California, with a few segments on Denver; Seattle; and Portland and Eugene, OR. Every city Fox highlighted has at least one thing in common: Democratic leaders.

This coincided with Trump’s attack on Baltimore as “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess,” which was also prompted by a Fox News segment.

In July, Trump gave an interview to Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, who has aired many of these segments on his show, in which Carlson prompted him by saying many American cities have “a major problem with filth.” Trump responded, “It’s a phenomena that started two years ago,” an utterly baffling assertion, then claimed even more bizarrely, “You know, I had a situation when I first became President, we had certain areas of Washington, D.C. where that was starting to happen, and I ended it very quickly.” No one could figure out what he was talking about.

In an interview aired on Fox News on July 1, President Trump said that homelessness in U.S. cities is “a disgrace” and that his administration “may intercede.” (Video: Reuters)

But “filth” has a particular resonance with Trump and many of his supporters, and not only because those supporters view cities as someplace alien and threatening, a view Trump encourages despite having lived in New York all his life. Trump is a self-professed germaphobe who hates shaking people’s hands and will banish aides from his presence if they show even the barest signs of having a cold. He also has a long history of expressing disgust at women’s bodily functions.

As Trump may or may not be aware, in recent years a growing body of research links political views with such feelings. In short, conservatives tend to have much stronger reactions to stimuli meant to invoke disgust, like bodily fluids or insects. Disgust also tends to be associated with foreigners and other out-groups. When Trump describes immigrants “infesting” America, he’s activating this response among his supporters: Not only should we hate and fear them, but we should also be revolted by them and the prospect that they might come and contaminate us.

This is the political purpose behind Trump’s new push to find some kind of authoritarian solution to homelessness, but only in Democratic-run cities. He wants to rile up his supporters, to get them feeling angry and disgusted so they’ll get to the polls and return him to office as a way to maintain the purity of the country and the places they live. Don’t mistake it for anything else, especially not any kind of concern for those who don’t have housing.

Read more:

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