What Trump Doesn’t Understand About the Suburbs

The original “suburbs” were seen as dens of iniquity, not the placid avatars of decency as in the Trumpian imagination.Camerique Archive / Getty

President Donald Trump is rarely subtle with his racist dog-whistling, and his latest appeal to suburban voters is no different. On Wednesday, Trump tweeted, “I am happy to inform all of the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood.” He continued, “Your housing prices will go up based on the market, and crime will go down. I have rescinded the Obama-Biden AFFH Rule. Enjoy!” Trump was referring to an Obama-era law regarding the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing provision, which seeks to reduce racial segregation in the suburbs.

This declaration follows a tweet last week in which Trump shared a New York Post op-ed by the former New York lieutenant governor Betsy McCaughey, arguing that presidential challenger Joe Biden’s proposed housing policies threaten the “value of their new home, the size of their property tax bill and the character of the town they now call home.” Trump proclaimed, “The Suburban Housewives of America must read this article. Biden will destroy your neighborhood and your American Dream. I will preserve it, and make it even better!”

The political play here is not hard to decipher. Trump feels he needs to portray “the suburbs” as under an imminent threat to provoke racist fears among white voters. That threat, he implies, would come about from the diversification of neighborhoods encouraged by the Fair Housing Act, the provisions of which Biden has pledged to expand. And by couching the issue in terms of “the Suburban Lifestyle Dream,” Trump plays into a caricature of an idealized homogenous past, a white-bread Leave It to Beaver image of 1950s suburbia. That image was always a lie, but it is instructive to see how the very words suburb and suburban have served historically as a kind of palette for painting racial, ethnic, and economic divisions on the American landscape.

Ironically enough, the original “suburbs” were seen as dens of iniquity, not the placid avatars of decency as in the Trumpian imagination. The word suburb goes back to medieval times, when it developed a highly pejorative connotation to refer to areas outside the walls of London or other cities, where unseemly institutions—gambling holes, bordellos, slaughterhouses, and the like—were relegated. As the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, the words suburb and suburban early on were associated with “immoral or licentious practices.” In the 17th century, expressions such as suburb lechery and suburb sinner (meaning a prostitute) were common.

For Londoners, the “suburbs” didn’t start becoming more reputable until the early 19th century, when upwardly mobile city dwellers began to move to houses in the surrounding semirural regions. With the arrival of these social strivers, suburb and suburban began developing new associations of respectability, though that respectability was often portrayed as close-minded and complacent.

The view of suburbia as characterized by homogeneity and monotony became even more pronounced in the United States after World War II. As Ian Bogost recently observed in The Atlantic, the scorn toward suburbia was illustrated throughout popular culture, as in the 1962 Malvina Reynolds song “Little Boxes,” about the cookie-cutter nature of suburban housing developments: “Little boxes on the hillside / Little boxes made of ticky-tacky / Little boxes on the hillside / Little boxes all the same.” (The song was repopularized in the late 2000s as the theme music for Weeds, the TV series about a white suburban mom selling pot.)

The homogeneous appearance of the American suburbs stood in stark contrast to the diverse cityscapes and their significant populations of people of color. The “white flight” phenomenon that populated the suburbs encouraged a view of them as a kind of refuge from the big, bad cities. But as the journalist Eugene Scott recently argued in The Washington Post, whatever racial and ethnic homogeneity the suburbs may have had in the past has been decidedly transformed. And the economic picture is shifting too, as suburban regions become home to more and more low-income residents.

For Trump’s dog-whistling to work, however, all of this complex demographic history must be erased in favor of a simplistic view of “the suburbs” as a safe harbor from whatever chaos is imagined to be filling city streets these days, as protests against police brutality continue. It is a worldview predicated on the bluntest kind of “There goes the neighborhood” perspective on the racial diversification of suburban communities. That diversification becomes Trumpified into an existential threat to “your neighborhood and your American Dream,” and anxious white voters are the obvious addressees of this message.

But Trump’s racist rhetoric is a mismatch for our current political situation, since polls show that suburbanites have not been supportive of the administration’s handling of the Black Lives Matter protests and race relations in general. In Portland, Oregon, images of the “Wall of Moms” facing down tear gas complicate any tidy racial dichotomization of the type Trump seeks to promulgate. And on Election Day, the reality of those living “the Suburban Lifestyle Dream” may put an end to Trump’s “suburban” fiction.

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