The urban president who hates cities

  • >>Ginia Bellafante, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-07-26 16:47:46 BdST

U.S. President Donald Trump walks past a US map of reported coronavirus cases as he departs following a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) news briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., July 23, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Several days ago in Central Florida, three close friends set out for a nighttime fishing expedition on a lake in the small town of Frostproof and wound up beaten and shot to death on a dirt road. In a news conference, the local sheriff, Grady Judd, described the aftermath as one of the worst crime scenes he had ever encountered — a massacre.

Three suspects were quickly apprehended in trailers in the woods. Judd identified the accused ringleader, a 26-year-old white man from the area named Tony “TJ” Wiggins, as someone with 230 felony arrests on his record, 15 convictions and two stints in state prison — “evil in the flesh.”

President Donald Trump has not called out Frostproof or the surrounding area of Polk County — where he beat Hillary Clinton by a margin of 55% — as a hellhole lost to lawlessness and carnage. That is the language he reserves for America’s urban quarters — even as he has continued to profit from the cities he has lived in so imperially.

His reelection effort now has him both expanding the rhetorical war against cities and realizing it. Indeed, some crime has risen since the beginning of the pandemic. Gun violence has spiked in New York. Fourteen people were shot this week in a drive-by shooting in Chicago. Asked during a Fox News interview with Chris Wallace last weekend what might account for these unsettling changes, the president did not consider the toll of COVID-19, or that the police might be staging a slowdown in response to criticism over the handling of protests in the name of ending sanctioned brutalities.

“I explain it very simply,” he answered instead, “by saying they’re Democrat-run cities. They are liberally run. They are stupidly run.”

Following the contested deployment of federal agents in combat fatigues to quell ongoing protests in Portland, Oregon, the president announced on Wednesday that the Justice Department would “surge” hundreds more federal agents into Chicago; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and other cities to deal with the crime he maintains that progressive mayors, under a trance of anti-police sentiment, cannot manage.

This is unlikely to go well. On Wednesday, federal agents in Portland had tear-gassed a group of demonstrators that included the city’s mayor, Ted Wheeler, who called the tactics of “urban warfare” an “egregious overreaction.”

It was at roughly the same point in his campaign four years ago that Trump reverted to stringent law-and-order-ism, portraying metropolitan life as an unsafe, ugly dystopia, when the real hazard was a lacquered prosperity that continues to put it out of reach for so many working people. New York had become the world of “Succession,” but he seemed to keep streaming “Taxi Driver” in his head.

Crime in major US cities was, and remains, at historic lows. In 2015, the murder rate in New York stood at a quarter of what it was in 1990. While urban areas had been getting safer, by 2018, in contrast, the violent crime rate in rural areas had surpassed the national average for the first time in a decade.

But the idea that US cities were under siege by malevolent forces — illegal immigrants, chief among them — held steady. Once in office, Trump went after urban communities as the country’s bastions of weakness. Five days into his tenure, he signed an executive order to block federal funding to “sanctuary cities,” those places that limited the ways local law enforcement could engage with federal agents around unauthorized immigration. Various lawsuits challenging the order followed.

The irony of the president’s enmity toward both the urban and the urbane, of course, is that he was made in New York, incubated in a particular brand of ambition and hucksterism extending from eastern Queens to Fifth Avenue.

Is there another American president whom it is harder to imagine in the wild? It was important to George W. Bush, a man of Houston and Yale, to forge a political identity that had him connected to the land, so he would chop wood at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, in the 100-degree heat, for reporters to observe. Mountain biking was also a passion. His father liked to fish off the coast of Kennebunkport in Maine on his boat, The Fidelity. Some of the most enduring images of John F. Kennedy are those of him at the helm of a sailboat off Hyannis, Massachusetts.

Alternatively, the current president spends his leisure hours either in Palm Beach, Florida, or a golf club that bears his name, 40 miles west of Manhattan, in Bedminster, New Jersey.

In the Trumpian worldview — one certainly shared by other real estate developers — cities are not configured of neighbourhoods and ecosystems and a broad constellation of creative aspirations and complexities; they are sales shelves from which to market luxury apartments, ultimately occupied by people who don’t deeply embed in them so much as pass through.

It is a notion largely out of step with how the world has evolved. The country has become increasingly urban. Between 2010 and 2013, according to the census, eight new cities were created in the South, three of them in Texas alone. Cities are home to nearly two-thirds of the population in this country. Do the people living in them want men in camouflage or better schools?

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