The idea of a Democrat giving a speech like that — let alone one speech after another, and putting it in TV ads, and bringing it up over and over again in interviews — is preposterous. Yet that’s just what President Trump is doing right now, as he makes the supposed mayhem in “Democrat cities” the centerpiece of his campaign for reelection. Or as a tweet that Trump retweeted to his 85 million followers on Sunday put it, “Leave Democrat cities. Let them rot.”
But don’t think this is anything new. Trump may be a uniquely divisive figure, more enthusiastic about setting Americans against one another than any politician in memory. But as with so much about his political project, it’s just an intensified version of what Republicans have been doing for decades.
“A lot of people are looking at what’s happening to these Democrat-run cities and they’re disgusted,” Trump said before he traveled to Kenosha, Wis., where he walked in front of rubble to illustrate the destruction.
The scene, he would have you believe, is the same everywhere Democrats are in charge. “Portland has been burning for many years, for decades it’s been burning,” he claimed, which would be news to the city’s residents, who somehow manage to get from their small-batch locally sourced kombucha cafe to their artisanal bike shop without being engulfed in flames.
And it’s not just Kenosha and Portland, Ore. “There is violence and danger in the streets of many Democrat-run cities throughout America,” Trump said in his convention speech, decrying “liberal hypocrites” who “drive their cities into the ground while fleeing far from the scene of the wreckage.”
Or as he said in Kenosha on Tuesday, “It’s all Democrat, everything’s Democrat. All of these problems are Democrat cities,” decrying how “rioters, looters and criminals” are allowed to run free. The solution is the imposition of force from outside, in the form of the National Guard or other heavily armed federal officers.
In truth, America is experiencing something of an urban renaissance, a long period of falling crime and increased housing values in cities (which brings its own problems). And as Emily Badger of the New York Times points out, “Numerous studies suggest that the partisanship of mayors has limited effect on much of anything: not just crime, but also tax policy, social policy and economic outcomes.”
But facts are irrelevant here; what matters is creating anger and fear. And the only difference between Trump’s rhetoric and what we’ve heard from Republicans for a long time is that the implied and the explicit have been reversed. Trump talks constantly about the nightmare of “Democrat” places but leaves out the flip side that Republicans usually emphasize: the superiority of small towns and rural areas and the people who live there.
Those places, Republicans have always told us, are where virtue resides, where people help one another and love their country. Or as Sarah Palin famously said, “We believe that the best of America is in these small towns,” which she described as “the real America.”
Palin was echoing a hundred Republican candidates claiming to have “North Carolina values” or “Alabama values” or “Wyoming values,” while their Democratic opponent’s values are alien and sinister — they come from somewhere or other, but not here.
It’s all fed by resentment toward the “elite” — not the overwhelmingly Republican economic elite, but the cultural elite of Hollywood and academia — and those big cities where people look down their noses at folks like us.
Which produces one of the ironies of Trump’s support. Just as evangelical Christians gravitated toward this thrice-married adulterer who couldn’t cite a Bible verse if his life depended on it, it is voters with the greatest resentment of big cities who love Trump the most, despite the fact that he’s a lifelong New Yorker whose greatest dream was to make it from Queens to Manhattan.
The reason is the same in both cases: Trump may not be one of them, but he hates who they hate.
And like him, they’re always on the lookout for slights from liberals. Which is why Democrats tiptoe around the denizens of the “heartland,” bending over backward to show how much they honor and respect them.
Not only that, Democrats also try desperately to alleviate inequities in places governed by Republicans; witness the fight over whether red states would accept the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid to insure their poor citizens.
If a Democrat ever talked about Republican states the way Trump does about “Democrat cities” — let alone built a campaign on it — it would be such a scandal that we’d never hear the end of it. Every time a Democrat says something that contains even the barest whiff of condescension toward the denizens of the “heartland,” Republicans pretend to be outraged, and the media (always eager to show they’re not coastal elites) tut-tut them for losing touch with the good people who make up America’s beating heart.
That double standard shows no sign of disappearing. But at least we can understand Trump’s strategy for what it is: not just a despicable attempt to sow fear and divide Americans from one another, but a page right out of the Republican playbook.