Donald Trump plays on racist fears of terrorised suburbs to court White voters

In recent weeks, as the president’s poll numbers have tumbled, some of his advisors have told Donald Trump to try to convince a sceptical nation that he has been effective in managing the virus crisis and is taking it seriously

The New York Times July 30, 2020 08:12:19 IST
Donald Trump plays on racist fears of terrorised suburbs to court White voters

Washington: President Donald Trump vowed on Wednesday to protect suburbanites from low-income housing being built in their neighbourhoods, making an appeal to white suburban voters by trying to stir up racist fears about affordable housing and the people who live there.

In a tweet and later in remarks during a visit to Texas, Trump painted a false picture of the suburbs as under siege and ravaged by crime, using fear-mongering language that has become something of a rhetorical flourish in his general election campaign against the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden.

Trump said on Twitter that “people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream” would “no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighbourhood.” The president was referring to the administration’s decision last week to roll back a Barack Obama-era program intended to combat racial segregation in suburban housing. The programme expanded provisions in the Fair Housing Act to encourage diversification and “foster inclusive communities.”

“Your housing prices will go up based on the market, and crime will go down,” he wrote, even though there was no evidence that the program led to an increase in crime.

The tweet, sent from aboard Air Force One as Trump travelled to Texas, was the latest example of the president stoking racial division as he seeks to win over voters in his bid for reelection. White suburban voters, particularly women, were key to his victory in 2016 but are slipping away from him.

The remarks also came just days after aides had convinced the president that his best reelection strategy was to demonstrate that he was focussed on a comprehensive response to the surging coronavirus pandemic. In recent weeks, as the president’s poll numbers have tumbled, some of his advisors have told Trump to try to convince a sceptical nation that he has been effective in managing the virus crisis and is taking it seriously.

Last week, Trump resuscitated the White House briefings focused on the pandemic, keeping them shorter and more focussed than the ones he conducted in March, when he often rambled in his comments, sparred with the news media and engaged in fanciful speculation, including that injecting disinfectant into the human body could help fend off the virus.

He also changed his stance on face masks, calling it “patriotic” to wear one and even appearing in public with one on. On Monday, Trump promoted what he claimed was quick progress on a vaccine during a trip to North Carolina to visit a plant working on one.

But since he took office, Trump’s presidency has unfolded along two tracks: the scripted one, which he sticks to for hours or sometimes days at a time, and the one guided by his own instincts, often revealed on Twitter. Trump has been more eager to talk about culture wars and draw attention to images of unrest on the streets of cities led by Democratic politicians than to stay focused on the virus.

And his tweet Wednesday was further evidence that he inevitably reverts to his instinct to play to his base when campaigning under pressure.

During his remarks in West Texas later Wednesday, Trump bragged again that he had ended a government program that tries to reduce segregation in suburban areas.

“People fight all of their lives to get into the suburbs and have a beautiful home,” he said. “There will be no more low-income housing forced into the suburbs.

“It’s been hell for suburbia,” he added, before telling the audience to “enjoy your life, ladies and gentlemen.”

Trump has also invoked the suburbs to try to increase apprehension about Biden. Last week he provocatively tweeted directly to “the Suburban Housewives of America,” warning, “Biden will destroy your neighbourhood and your American Dream.”

Andrew Bates, a spokesman for Biden, the former vice-president, accused Trump of trying to further divide the country.

“Instead of finally leading, Donald Trump is yet again attempting to distract from his catastrophic failed response to the pandemic by trying to divide our nation,” Bates said. “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.”

The Biden campaign said that as president, Biden would reinstate the program expanding provisions in the Fair Housing Act.

Trump and his father, Fred Trump, were sued by the Department of Justice in the 1970s for their company’s practice of discriminating against Black tenants.

Trump’s view of the makeup of the American suburbs also appears to be frozen in time. In 2018, support from suburban voters helped Democrats retake the House of Representatives. The following year, they helped Democrats win governorships in reliably red states like Kentucky and Louisiana.

Trump’s support among women and among independent voters have both suffered as he has repeatedly made divisive entreaties based on race or retweeted inflammatory Twitter posts. His mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic has also contributed to his falloff in the polls.

Earlier this year, the Trump campaign poured tens of millions of dollars into television commercials highlighting the administration’s focus on criminal justice reform, which was as much an attempt to convince white suburban voters that the president was not racist as it was to expand Trump’s appeal among voters of color.

Since then, however, Trump’s own rhetoric and the actions of his administration appear to have undone any inroads those advertisements may have made. He has demonized protesters in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in the custody of white police officers. Vice President Mike Pence has refused to say “Black Lives Matter,” insisting in an interview that “all life matters, born and unborn.”

Trump has said that Black Lives Matter is a “symbol of hate,” despite the fact that a majority of voters support the protests that have taken place nationally.

The president also has openly defended the Confederate flag, scolding NASCAR when it banned it from its races, and he has tried to conflate peaceful protesters with a smaller group who have more aggressively sought to tear down statues of Confederate generals.

Jef Pollock, a Democratic pollster, said that Trump is recycling a political playbook from an era that’s long gone.

“Trump is playing old New York politics from the 1990s,” Pollock said. “The reality is that more and more suburban voters have embraced diversity as a positive thing for their community. They support the Black Lives Matter movement, and from an aspirational perspective, they want their children to grow up in a more tolerant and less divided country. What’s scary to them is the constant division and intolerance that Trump is promulgating.”

Annie Karni and Maggie Haberman c.2020 The New York Times Company

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