The Trump administration’s decision to send militarized federal police to Portland, Oregon — and to threaten to do the same in other cities, including Baltimore — represents, in its fascist perversity, the first bold display of urban policy by a Republican president in 50 years. The previous was Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs.
Indeed, there’s not much besides the bellicose on the Republican ledger when it comes to cities, and little of long-term good.
So, while it’s shocking to see what’s happening now, in the Donald Trump presidency, I can’t say it represents a great divergence. Republicans, and many conservatives generally, tend to see certain cities as dystopian hell holes, and they issue their barbs and calls for law-and-order across one of the country’s historic divides: The one between urban centers with racially diverse populations and the mostly white suburbs and exurbs that have come to ring them over the last half-century.
Trump has never missed an opportunity to be divisive and create distractions. Therefore, the current spectacle, while repugnant, should not be shocking: An unstable president and complicit appointees forming a secretive posse to vanquish “violent anarchists” in the midst of a civil rights uprising, claiming a desire to save American cities (or, at least, their federal buildings and monuments).
Let’s be clear: There is nothing earnest or honest about this. Like many of his followers, Trump only cares about cities if he can ridicule them and the Democrats who run them. (A year ago this month, he called Maryland’s 7th congressional district, comprising a large piece of majority-Black Baltimore, “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.”)
A New Yorker, Trump might be a fully urban man, but cities give him little electorally.
They do, however, serve nicely as backdrops for campaign commercials. The scenes from Portland make great footage for Trump’s troupe of hucksters in their argument for his reelection: The law-and-order president will save the country from domestic terrorists.
Forget the pandemic that has killed more than 140,000 Americans, ruined small businesses and left millions unemployed. Forget police brutality and the most robust, widely supported uprising in the cause of civil rights in 50 years. Donald Trump will use his powers to save the country from Black Lives Matter demonstrators and graffiti artists.
His supporters cry, “It’s about time,” and cheer Trump’s dispatch of cops in camouflage to Portland and his threat to deploy more in other cities. But why the sudden interest in cities?
Ever since the Freddie Gray uprising in Baltimore in 2015, I have had to explain to numerous suburbanites that Republicans have had nothing to do with big, diverse, problem-plagued cities for more than half a century. The snipers in the ‘burbs like to say it’s time for a change, that Democrats have run Baltimore into its current sorry state. But I don’t see hordes of Republicans moving into the city to try and make a difference here. There hasn’t been a Republican mayor since the mid-1960s, and Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin was an old-school moderate.
The record is very clear here and elsewhere: The statutory end of segregation, the federally-funded interstate highway system, the surge of new single-family home construction backed by federal mortgage guarantees — all of that contributed to suburban growth. Democratic and Republican lawmakers both supported policies that contributed to white flight, but Republicans saw opportunity — indeed, a resurgence of their party — in the shift.
After the passage of the Civil Rights Act and President Lyndon Johnson’s trouncing of Republican Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election, the GOP embarked on a new strategy that would appeal directly to the white voters who were fleeing cities and, to some extent, the Democratic Party. By the time Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, the lines had been drawn: Democrats could have urban America and all its problems — declining industry, poverty, abandoned neighborhoods and blight, drug addiction and increasing crime, increasingly segregated schools — while Republicans focused on cutting income taxes for the wealthy and building power in the suburbs, the exurbs and rural areas.
The Reagan years saw significant reductions in federal aid to cities, slowing the redevelopment that Baltimore, for instance, started to see in the 1970s and early 1980s. A study published in the Journal of Urban Affairs found that cities “had to significantly reduce service deliveries to urban residents and significantly expand regressive taxing policies.” That’s a big part of the Reagan legacy.
After the Freddie Gray unrest in 2015, Maryland’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan, had a chance to chart a new course for his party — right through Baltimore and other cities. Looking to the future, emerging Republican leaders like Hogan could drop the old Reagan mantra, later rebooted by the tea party, that government is ineffective and offer to take on urban problems that Democrats have been unable to solve. That did not happen.
Hogan claims that he “saved” Baltimore by sending the Maryland National Guard here to restore order in 2015. But he blew his opportunity to truly stand out as a new kind of Republican when he withdrew state support for two major projects that would have given the city he claimed to love a big lift.
The war on drugs, sending in the National Guard, ordering a posse of militarized federal police to Portland and possibly other cities — that pretty much sums up Republican urban policy of the last 50 years.