“I’m very embarrassed by what I see in some of our cities,” Trump said at a news conference last week in Osaka, Japan. “When you look at Los Angeles, when you look at San Francisco, when you look at some of the other cities — and not a lot, not a lot, but you don’t want it to spread. And at a certain point I think the federal government, maybe, has to get involved. We can’t let that continue to happen to our cities.”
For Trump, a native New Yorker who has one of the most urban biographies of any U.S. president, the anti-city rhetoric offers an especially stark contrast between his personal history and the kind of voters he is banking on to win reelection.
In an interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson that aired Monday night, Trump said that filth in certain cities is causing police officers to fall sick while walking the beat and that he had personally intervened to clean up parts of Washington. He added that he may soon “intercede” to deal with homelessness and other problems in cities such as San Francisco, without offering any specifics.
“This is the liberal establishment. This is what I’m fighting,” he said in the interview. “It’s a terrible thing that’s taking place.”
The White House did not respond to a request for evidence for Trump’s claims about police officers becoming sick or details about his plan for interceding in any urban areas.
The president’s comments fit into a long pattern of focusing special attention on cities — usually ones where voters overwhelmingly rejected him — for criticism, and Democrats charge it is part of an effort to divide Americans using false information about urban areas.
But these attacks could be effective in shoring up support among rural voters who dislike some of Trump’s policies but share his disdain for aspects of urban living, said Robert Wuthnow, who teaches sociology at Princeton and wrote “The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America.”
“In the case of the rural-urban divide, we know from reporting that people in rural areas, especially farmers, are kind of looking and saying, ‘Well, is he really for us?’ in terms of what the tariffs and the trade agreements are doing,” he said. “If he’s having a hard time saying ‘Hey, I’m really helping you out,’ then he can instead drum up fear about ‘those bad guys in the city.’ ”
Trump campaign officials have said they plan to use a well-
funded data operation to target infrequent voters — including those from rural communities — who can be convinced to turn out for Trump in 2020. With several of the Democratic presidential candidates hailing from major coastal cities, the Trump campaign has seized on their records and policies on issues including immigration, taxes and regulation.
“President Trump is right — liberal policies have completely destroyed cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, which have experienced double-digit increases in homelessness, the advent of flea-borne diseases, and streets filled with trash and needles,” said Trump campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany. “This is an unacceptable status quo for citizens of these cities, who deserve better than the liberal policies that have left their cities in ruins.”
Democrats have countered that most major cities have actually seen declining crime rates and increasing economic growth in recent years.
“The attack from the president on cities seems to be pure politics and rhetoric,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler (D). “It’s frustrating because I know that when the president speaks these untruths, a lot of people across the country actually believe it.”
Since taking office, Trump has taken to Twitter to attack several U.S. mayors from cities including Chicago; New York; Oakland, Calif.; and San Juan, Puerto Rico. He usually describes their cities as crime-ridden and poorly run. The president also has criticized two of the mayors running to oust him from office for how they have run their cities.
After New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his presidential campaign in May, Trump recorded a video message from Air Force One to slam his candidacy.
“If you like high taxes, and if you like crime, you can vote for him,” Trump said. “But most people aren’t into that.”
In the Democratic presidential primary, de Blasio has been among the most forceful in pushing back against Trump’s attacks on the policies and values that urban dwellers have embraced. He and other candidates have described Trump as a racist and anti-immigrant president who stands opposed to the kind of diversity most common in major cities.
“We’re not being honest about the division that’s been fomented in this country,” de Blasio said during the first round of presidential debates in Miami last week. “American citizens have been told that immigrants somehow created their misery and their pain and their challenges.”
Trump has long believed that his path to reelection runs through parts of the country far removed from the cosmopolitan population centers where residents tend to be more highly educated and wealthier — the “elites” the president rails against at political rallies.
Most of Trump’s political rallies have been held outside of major cities, in places such as Montoursville, Pa., and Mosinee, Wis.
The president regularly shows visitors to the Oval Office a map of the United States depicting the counties he won in 2016 colored in red and those he lost colored in blue. Because much of the U.S. population in concentrated in major cities, the map appears to show a country awash in Trump voters, stretching across the Great Plains and the South.
In reality, while Trump won more counties than Hillary Clinton, he lost the popular vote by almost 3 million votes.
The president has criticized the living conditions in many of the coastal cities where he is unpopular, often exaggerating the real problems of homelessness and pollution.
“I finally agree with @Cher!” Trump said on Twitter in April, copying a tweet from the singer, who said that Los Angeles should take care of the “50,000+Citizens WHO LIVE ON THE STREETS” before “Helping struggling Immigrants.”
Trump has constantly criticized “sanctuary city” policies in areas that don’t actively cooperate with federal immigration officials. He has tried to link those policies with increased crime rates, though officials in those cities have pointed to research indicating that immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans.
“We’re fighting against the same far-left politicians that ravage our great cities and crush the dreams of the African American middle class, the same people who threw open our borders and allowed drugs, gangs and illegal labor to devastate our poorest American communities,” Trump said during his reelection kickoff rally in Orlando last month.
In April, Trump said he was considering releasing thousands of undocumented immigrants into sanctuary cities. Last month, Trump said his administration would be conducting immigration raids in major cities to deport “millions” of undocumented immigrants.
He has not yet followed through on either threat.
Critics say the president is just playing politics.
“I think he is appealing to his base,” Adler said. “But in doing that, in demonizing cities, he is using his playbook, which is to create enemies and demons around which he can rally his supporters. But there’s a real price and cost that comes with that.”