The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump tries to win over ‘Suburban Housewives’ with repeal of anti-segregation housing rule

President Trump, seen speaking during a coronavirus briefing at the White House on July 22, 2020, is accusing his rival Joe Biden as a threat to “the American way of life.” (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump moved Thursday to repeal a fair housing rule that he claimed would lead to “destruction” of the country’s suburbs, continuing an aggressive push that coincides with his campaign’s attempt to paint Democrats as angry mobs on the brink of upturning peaceful, mostly white neighborhoods.

Trump had telegraphed the Housing and Urban Development Department’s move against the Obama-administration rule in recent tweets and comments that made thinly veiled appeals to a key electoral constituency that has drifted away from him over the past four years: suburban white voters.

Trailing Democrat Joe Biden, the presumptive presidential nominee, in the polls just over 100 days before the election, Trump has shed much of the subtlety behind his pitch to skeptical voters. Increasingly, he is portraying himself as the only barrier between them and chaos.

“The Suburban Housewives of America must read this article,” Trump wrote Thursday on Twitter, linking to a New York Post op-ed by former New York lieutenant governor Betsy McCaughey that argued that Biden would ruin the country’s bedroom communities.

“Biden will destroy your neighborhood and your American Dream. I will preserve it, and make it even better!” Trump said in his tweet.

Political strategists say the overt appeals to racial fear and grievance are politically precarious at a time when much of the country is trying to reckon with issues such as systemic racism and discrimination.

“There seems to be a complete lack of understanding why he’s been getting drubbed in the suburbs,” said Brendan Buck, who was a top aide to Republican officials including Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) when Ryan was House speaker. “Educated suburban voters are not interested in — and are actually repelled by — his fearmongering and these racial dog whistles.”

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President Trump’s approval rating peaked in early 2020, but has dropped after two crises hit the nation. (Video: The Washington Post)

Republicans lost control of the House in 2018 as millions of suburban voters repulsed by Trump abandoned the party to vote for Democrats, a trend Trump’s reelection campaign has sought to combat ahead of November by painting Trump’s opponents as extremists.

That strategy has recently shifted to focus on housing, the latest issue on which Trump has seized as he tries to define Biden as a threat to “the American way of life.

But by promising to defend suburbia and restore a bygone era of suburban homogeneity, Trump may be on a futile mission to recapture the support of longtime Republican voters who say his presidency has driven them away from the party, said Amy Walter, national editor of the Cook Political Report.

Amid a deadly pandemic that has decimated the economy and in the wake of mass protests for racial justice, those voters are not likely to be moved by Trump’s promises to defend the suburbs from outsiders, said Walter, whose organization has shifted its predictions for several suburban congressional races toward Democrats in recent weeks.

“These voters have all but closed the door on Donald Trump,” she said. “His response to covid-19 and to the George Floyd protests really pushed them over to the other side. And he’s not going to win back those suburbs of Houston, Dallas, Philadelphia or Orange County that Republicans lost in 2018.”

The Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule that Trump moved to eliminate Thursday was proposed by President Barack Obama in 2015 in a bid to combat housing discrimination and segregation by requiring cities and towns to scrutinize their housing patterns for racial bias, publicly report the results and set goals for reducing segregation.

Conservatives slammed the rule as federal overreach, and the Trump administration largely halted its implementation.

The president thrust the largely dormant issue back into the headlines in recent days as he pushed a “law and order” message that critics say is reminiscent of the appeals to racial fear that were embraced by 1960s presidential candidates Richard M. Nixon and George Wallace.

During a “tele-town hall” aimed at Wisconsin voters this month, Trump said that Democrats could “eliminate single-family zoning, bringing who knows into your suburbs, so your communities will be unsafe and your housing values will go down.”

At a recent White House event, he said: “People have worked all their lives to get into a community, and now they’re going to watch it go to hell.”

Shaun Donovan, Obama’s first HUD secretary, who is running for mayor of New York City, said Trump’s approach to housing is part of “a very racist appeal” in the months before November.

“Like so many things with Trump, he really is bringing racism to the surface in a way that nobody would,” he said.

Defending the Obama-era rule, Donovan said that for decades there were efforts to implement a provision in the 1968 Fair Housing Act that specifically used the phrase “affirmatively further fair housing” to mean that communities receiving federal dollars from HUD had to do more than just refrain from discriminating. They had to take steps to promote integrated neighborhoods, he said.

“The goal wasn’t just racial integration. It wasn’t enough to say we need to create diverse neighborhoods. We needed to create neighborhoods of opportunity — to really focus it for the first time on race and opportunity,” he said. “Part of this is, if you build more affordable housing in good neighborhoods, that means the suburbs have to open up.”

The AFFH applies to every community, not just the suburbs, but Donovan said Trump is harking back to a time when white families feared that black families moving to the suburbs would lower their property values.

Although the AFFH rule has not been implemented in the past three years, some conservatives have seized on Biden’s recently released policy platform in which he pledges to enforce it and other measures. In some cases, they have made direct references to the political benefit Trump could reap by actively opposing the rule.

A June 30 National Review article headlined “Biden and Dems Are Set to Abolish the Suburbs” circulated among Trump’s allies in recent weeks as they tried to make their case to suburban swing voters.

The article’s author, Stanley Kurtz, a conservative scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, wrote that a presidential focus on suburban housing policy “just might be enough to tip the scales this November.”

The New York Post op-ed Trump cited in his tweet Thursday also referred to the potential electoral benefits of making suburban housing policy “a key issue in the election.”

“The president won the suburbs in 2016, but polls show Trump trailing in the suburbs largely because of opposition from women,” wrote McCaughey, who was New York’s lieutenant governor in the late 1990s. “They need to focus on what’s at stake for their families.”

McCaughey slammed the Obama-era housing rule because it encouraged towns to make it easier for “for low-income minorities to choose suburban living.”

Polling indicates that suburban voters, particularly women, largely disapprove of Trump’s performance in office. Many who voted for him in 2016 have soured on his presidency and have become key targets for Biden.

There’s little evidence that repealing a five-year-old housing policy will do much to improve Trump’s standing in suburbia, said Walter, who also said the president appeared to be running a base-focused campaign from “a very different time period.”

Trump’s use of the term “Suburban Housewives” in his tweet was mocked by many of his critics as being anachronistic and out of step with how couples run their households today as opposed to 40 years ago.

Ken Zimmerman, a housing policy expert who served as a senior adviser to Donovan and helped craft the AFFH rule, said Trump’s understanding of the regulation is “untethered to its reality.”

Zimmerman said that communities had started to use the rule to take up the challenge of overcoming barriers to integration but that these efforts were in their infancy when Trump’s HUD secretary, Ben Carson, “pulled the legs out from under it.”

Zimmerman called the decision “a transparent form of racial dog whistling.”

Biden’s campaign slammed Trump as pursuing divisive policies to “distract” from his “catastrophic, failed response to the pandemic.”

“Turning Americans against each other with total lies is unacceptable for a commander in chief at any time, but it’s especially heinous to do so in a moment of worsening crisis,” Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement.

The Trump campaign has continued to amplify Trump’s message that a Biden presidency would be disastrous for large portions of the American populace accustomed to peace and stability. The campaign recently released an ad that depicted an elderly white woman being victimized during a home break-in by a shadowy figure. The phrase “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America” flashes across the screen as the woman is attacked.

Trump campaign adviser Katrina Pierson pushed back against accusations that the recent focus on the suburban housing policy was a form of political race-baiting.

“The President’s decision has nothing to do with who lives in the suburbs, rather it’s a question of what localities can be forced by the government to build,” she said in a statement that slammed Biden’s record on race. “President Trump’s policies have always been focused on improving the lives and economic situations of every American.”

Carson said the Obama-era rule was scrapped because “we found it to be unworkable and ultimately a waste of time for localities to comply with, too often resulting in funds being steered away from communities that need them most.”

But fair housing and civil rights groups condemned the decision.

“The government helped create entrenched, pernicious residential segregation and has an obligation to undo it,” Nikitra Bailey, executive vice president at the Center for Responsible Lending, said in a statement. “By rejecting the Fair Housing Act’s mission to dismantle segregation and the inequity it created, this Administration is eschewing its responsibility and will be on the wrong side of history.”

In its statement announcing the rule change, the White House specifically referred to the suburbs as “diverse and thriving,” noting that large numbers of minorities live in suburbia.

But Julián Castro, Obama’s second HUD secretary, who oversaw the finalization of the fair housing regulation, said Trump was barely concealing his racial animus with “code words,” stereotypes and old tropes.

He said it was ironic that Trump would choose to reverse a rule intended to help solve racial injustices just as Americans’ eyes are being opened to the realities of the country’s racist history and persistent inequity.

“It’s my hunch that this is a mark of desperation. He believes his best play, his best play is identity politics, stoking racial resentment and fear that dark-colored-skin people will ruin your neighborhoods,” Castro said. “That’s what he has turned to for his last possible tool to get reelected.”

David Weigel contributed to this report.