The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s ham-handed attempt to scare white suburbanites would have worked better 50 years ago

President Trump attends an event on excessive regulation on the South Lawn of the White House on Thursday. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Not for the first time, President Trump on Thursday strayed a bit from the ostensible focus of a White House event to riff on other things that came to mind. He was supposed to be talking about excessive regulation; he ended up talking about the elimination of suburbs.

“The Democrats in D.C. have been and want to, at a much higher level, abolish our beautiful and successful suburbs by placing far-left Washington bureaucrats in charge of local zoning decisions,” Trump said. “They are absolutely determined to eliminate single-family zoning, destroy the value of houses and communities already built, just as they have in Minneapolis and other locations that you read about today. Your home will go down in value, and crime rates will rapidly rise.”

“What will be the end result,” he added a bit later, “is you will totally destroy the beautiful suburbs. Suburbia will be no longer as we know it. So they wanted to defund and abolish your police and law enforcement while at the same time destroying our great suburbs. The suburb destruction will end with us.”

How? Well, Trump reiterated a reference he first made on Twitter at the end of last month: He’d be revisiting an administrative rule known as AFFH, which stands for Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing. His administration has already begun the process of overhauling the rule, in fact, with the Department of Housing and Urban Development publishing a proposed change in January.

What is AFFH? HUD describes it as a rule that “provides an effective planning approach to aid program participants in taking meaningful actions to overcome historic patterns of segregation, promote fair housing choice, and foster inclusive communities that are free from discrimination.” In short, it’s aimed at encouraging the diversification of housing as stipulated in the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

Trump’s focus on the rule is obvious in two ways.

The first is that he portrays the idea of encouraging diverse communities as a threat.

“People have worked all their lives to get into a community, and now they’re going to watch it go to hell,” Trump said of the rule Thursday. “Not going to happen, not while I’m here.”

The second is that it’s entirely and obviously an effort to win votes from suburbanites.

Trump’s politics are thoroughly transactional — and explicitly so. He regularly touts how much he’s done for his Republican, conservative political base, conflating delivering for them with success more broadly. And when he targets a particular demographic with which he hopes to do better, he does so obviously. His campaign’s clunky outreach to black voters was as obvious as it was ineffective. His efforts to win over suburbanites are just as unsubtle.

There’s a reason he’s focused on them. In 2018, swings in suburban congressional districts powered the Democrats’ sweeping victory in the House elections. Of the districts that flipped from red to blue, as we reported then, the majority were identified as dense or sparse suburban by CityLab’s index of congressional district density.

In 2016, it was often suburban areas where the results were closest. We mapped this in January, showing how the precincts with the closest margins four years ago were often the ones situated between urban and rural areas. Here, for example, is northeastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, showing precincts where the margin between Trump and Hillary Clinton was less than 10 points. They’re heavily located just outside city boundaries.

The suburbs’ role as swing political territory is reinforced by approval polling. Americans living in rural areas have consistently approved of the job Trump’s doing, while those in urban areas have viewed him with disapproval. Suburbanites are somewhere in the middle, figuratively and literally.

Look what happens, though, when we superimpose the other point that Trump has been elevating by talking about the threat to suburbs: race.

White Americans are consistently more likely to view Trump with approval than nonwhites. But white suburbanites are right on the 50 percent mark, about as likely to view Trump positively as negatively.

Notice the data for nonwhite suburbanites, though. While white residents of urban areas are more skeptical of Trump than whites in the suburbs, nonwhite suburban residents view Trump’s performance as president about as poorly as do nonwhites who live in cities. The difference in opinions of Trump between whites in the suburbs and in cities has been about twice as wide over the course of Post-ABC News polling as the gap between nonwhites in cities and in the suburbs.

That suburban views of the president are so much higher overall despite nonwhite suburbanites viewing him so negatively is, of course, a function of the lower density of nonwhites in suburban areas. Using that CityLab data on congressional districts and overlaying census data, we can visualize that. About three-quarters of those in purely rural districts are white; about three-quarters of those in purely urban districts aren’t.

Notice those middle areas, though. In densely populated suburban areas, about half of residents are white and half nonwhite. In more sparsely populated suburbs, the ratio is about 2-to-1 white.

Those sparsely populated districts made up the plurality of the districts that flipped to the Democrats in 2018. Trump’s strategy is to bring them back by warning suburbanites that federal rules threaten to flood their neighborhoods with “diverse” populations that will cause crime rates to spike. If your dog just started barking, there’s a reason.

What Trump misses is that the suburbs are already more diverse than he seems to think. He often talks about the needs of black Americans by focusing on “inner cities,” but more blacks, about 4 in 10, live in congressional districts identified as densely or sparsely suburban than in more urban districts (about 1 in 5).

About 40 percent of Americans live in districts identified as suburban, according to CityLab’s rankings, and about 4 in 10 of them aren’t white. Some portion of them, it’s safe to say, benefited from HUD’s efforts to encourage more diverse communities, efforts that leveraged rules like AFFH. The Fair Housing Act of 1968, coupled with increasing diversity in the country, has resulted in the shifts shown above.

There’s an argument that Trump’s outreach to black voters was insincere. The idea is that his ostentatious insistences that he’s done more for black Americans than any president since Abraham Lincoln (an obviously false claim) are meant more to demonstrate to his base that he isn’t biased against nonwhites than to actually win black votes. By the same token, his focus on upending a rule meant to encourage diversity may be intended to send another message about his priorities as president, a message he also reinforced elsewhere this week.

Should Trump not win in November, this focus on eviscerating a rule meant to encourage housing diversity will serve as a neat coda to his career in public life. The first time Trump was a focus of national news coverage was in a 1973 New York Times report looking at allegations that the Trump family business was discriminating against blacks when renting out properties.

Donald Trump, then-president of Trump Management, was quoted.

“We never have discriminated, and we never would,” he insisted. “There have been a number of local actions against us, and we’ve won them all. We were charged with discrimination, and we proved in court that we did not discriminate.”

The federal government disagreed. The Trumps eventually settled.