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Cities have no silver bullets to fight Trump

American cities risk having global connections that are lambasted by those on the outside, and a growing insularity that separates them from their states.

Max Holleran
20 January 2017
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Donald J. Trump at Marriott Marquis NYC September 7th 2016. Michael Vadon. Flickr via Creative Commons. Some rights reserved. In the weeks since the election of Donald J. Trump there has been a desperate search for silver linings. Urbanites are particularly aggrieved by the Trump/Pence partnership because 'alt-right' nationalism threatens the lives of city dwellers with a bewilderingly antiquated vision of American life that seeks to roll back globalization, feminism, immigration, and gay rights. Amidst the grieving, some have already come out to insist that, while Trump’s victory bodes well for those nostalgic for a supposedly rosy past, there is a path to the future and it runs through cities.

New York’s moderate Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, and New York City’s left-wing mayor, Bill de Blasio, have insisted that Trump may not be that bad because, as a real estate developer and native son of Queens, he “gets” cities. Most teary-eyed New Yorkers see these statements for the conciliatory lies they are: Trump likes cities to the degree he can extract tax incentives from them. Yet, many urbanites endorse the wider message of cities as safely progressive blue zones within the red-stained 2016 national electoral map.

Progressives woke up on 9/11 and embraced a “city strategy” not out of a belief in government devolution, like their libertarian counterparts, but because of a lack of other options. Cities, and possibly a handful of deep blue states like Massachusetts and Vermont, seem like the only level of government to defend basic rights like abortion, environmental protection, and a fair minimum wage. Yet, the concept of “save the cities, forget the rest” has been a popular one in the era of globalization and has had dramatic economic effects when one looks at the income gap between London and Northern England or Washington, DC and nearby West Virginia. The politics of American cities have often revolved around strange bedfellows of international finance, professionals, and people of colour – in other words, the coalition that did not come through for Hillary Clinton.

The Democratic coalition is co-located in places like San Francisco, Austin, and Denver but they do not mix easily. Supporters of the Democratic Party who are people of colour feel that they have lost both cultural and economic status in cities, where they have not arrived for possibilities but are trapped by disadvantage. But all these groups are bound to cities culturally and they frequently view the Republican opposition as residents of rural areas locked into the culture of the past and, frequently, beholden to dying economic sectors as well.

Yet, Trump supporters are just as likely to be suburban women in non-Southern states, as men in rural Alabama. Despite this, the left continues to use rurality as a shorthand for conservative values. Put nicely, one speaks of heartland values. Less charitably, urban Democrats call their opponents “rednecks” living in flyover states where concern over gender equality, gay rights, climate change, and separation of church and state are stymied by backwardness. But this critique cuts both ways: many Trump supporters already view Democrats as having an urban strategy, and by that they mean one of smug elitism or, more frighteningly, a “cosmopolitan” lack of national patriotism and grounding religious and civic values.

Less charitably, urban Democrats call their opponents “rednecks” living in flyover states where concern over gender equality, gay rights, climate change, and separation of church and state are stymied by backwardness. 

The anti-urbanism of Jefferson still exists in the US to the extent that urban life is seen as an opportunity to gain money and status via the density of connections in places like Manhattan and Palo Alto. The ability and privilege to live in an urban area in the US is often depicted as a princely status made possible by access to huge amounts of money. But the US is a large country: there is no single Rome where all power resides and beyond the gates are hinterlands ruled like conquered territories. The US has always been a multi-polar country with intense rivalry between urban areas: first Philadelphia, Boston, New York, and Chicago, and today, San Francisco, DC, New York, and Los Angeles. Different places specialize in different businesses and are defined by unique varieties of power: financial, cultural, political, and technological. However, there is still the idea that outside of cities people live very different lives bereft of opportunity and access to cultural life, but somehow more genuine and morally upright.

This was long a marker of the Democratic and Republican divide and a reason why candidates like Ted Cruz were inclined to trot out critiques of wicked “New York values”. But, as the new electoral map shows, this jibe doesn’t work any more. No one seemed too concerned about Donald Trump’s Queens origins or, for that matter, the fact that Bernie Sanders is a Jewish socialist from Brooklyn. The larger divide is not between town and country but cities that are winning, such as San Francisco and Boston, and cities that are losing like Gary, Indiana and Flint, Michigan.

In the early 1990s, the sociologist Saskia Sassen began to argue that cities were not in fact losing their importance due to globalization and technology but that certain cities were becoming even more powerful because of their roles as “command and control centres” of the global economy. While regions became less vital because of offshore manufacturing, cities like New York and London grew in importance due to their corporate headquarters that coordinated global production. This sparked a renewed interest in being in successful cities to access the nuclei of decision-making and the highest paid jobs in ascendant industries. In turn, this created property booms and burgeoning service industries catering to urban elites. One only needs to revisit the pages of Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, in which ruthless financial über-achievers battle for status while contemplating long lists of trendy restaurants to visit, in order to see the patina of cultural prestige sprinkled over the unabashed shark tank of Wall Street.

While some cities boomed with new non-manufacturing industries, Midwestern cities that were dependent on industrial production lost jobs and were only steadied by state and federal grants. To this day, the US is defined by a small handful of cities that can “go it alone” in terms of financial support and logistical know-how to create unique local policy. The vast majority of cities are dependent on federal block grants in good times and, in bad times such as the recent flooding in Baton Rouge or water contamination in Flint, they desperately need federal assistance.

The new breed of successful cities that Democrats are counting on are often defined not by regional power bases (New York never profited much from being in non-urban New York State) and sometimes not even from the strength of their national governments (think Singapore and Taipei). Rather, cities in the era of globalization began to look a lot like the merchant Italian city states of the early Renaissance (the original era of globalization). They were somewhat disconnected from the lands around them and more focused outward on the wider world. As firms merged and globalization progressed in the 1990s, winning cities took on new powers, while wealth was further concentrated in a new group of urban Medicis who inspired both awe and distrust. The relationship of cities with the wider world led to criticism of disloyalty for making personal fortunes on the backs of non-urban fellow citizens.

While Italian Renaissance cities reached out to the rest of the Mediterranean and often became places of productive exchange – in financial, cultural, and scientific – terms, they were also a reaction to the insular cities of the Middle Ages that existed before them. The Medieval model was often little more than fortified monasteries where simple trade of agricultural and artisan goods took place. Unlike the polyglot mixed-economy city-states that provided sanctuary to foreigners and were rewarded with richer cultures and new ideas, hill towns were xenophobic and wary of outsiders. Yet, rightfully so. These cities were a last resort against hostile lands of angry impoverished people who were periodically ravaged by plague. Today, American cities risk both the fate of the interconnected Renaissance city and the walled hill town of the Middle Ages: profitable global connections that are lambasted by those on the outside of the moat and a growing insularity that separates cities from their states and countries in terms of policy, but more importantly, civic culture.

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Donald Trump, Colorado Springs, July 2016. Ninian Read. Flickr via Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved. An urban focused anti-Trump strategy has some key advantages: large cities are incubators of innovation and are attuned to both progressive cultural and political ideas as well as new economic trends. These cities have built effective coalitions that represent elite interests as well as offering support to the economically disadvantaged, even if it often doesn’t feel that way. Cities are refuges for immigrants and LGBTQ people: their unique laws and values afford some protection against the coming storm. At the same time, large cities should not stand alone and further isolate themselves in the coming Trump era. Many people who voted for Trump are not a caricature of rurality and traditional values: they are from the cities that are losing. They lost jobs; they had environmental problems thrust upon them disproportionately. And, perhaps most of all, they lost a feeling of having a seat at the table and saw their economic interests and cultural proclivities belittled by Democrats unwilling to respect a NASCAR aficionado or, more importantly, all too willing to strip unions out of the party’s base.

The centre-left should not pretend that cities are the future of the party for two reasons: the first is ideological and the second is strategic. There is already a feeling that many Democrats are living in citadels of privilege stocked by a costly global supply chain and with little regard for those who do not embrace Gay Pride marches and organic quinoa. Cities go green and urbanites self-righteously chastise drivers, even when some of those drivers are trucking their goods from afar, offsetting their pollution and carbon footprint onto others. Some have already begun to talk about tax revolts in which wealthy cities hoard their funding from the federal government and embrace local control (a famous Republican tag line used both to defund social problems and to stall civil rights).

That strategy may well work in the short term but in the long term it’s disastrous because it will exacerbate regional inequality and decrease the scale of problem solving on issues like the environment and transportation, leading to inefficiency at best but, more likely, paralysis.

Strategically, further burrowing into the cosy left-wing politics of places like Portland, Oregon and Boulder, Colorado is a negation of the true electoral map. Trump did not win the election with rural counties in Louisiana or Texas, he won by flipping the Rust Belt. Liberals who want to deny the creeping red that stretches down the Great Lakes will be doomed to another loss and will not find solace in the Masadas of Seattle or Providence. The Obama maxim of “no red states, no blue states, just the United States,” seems like a delusional assault on the ears, but that’s the strategy needed to truly address American problems and to win.

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