David Dudley is the executive editor of CityLab. He is the former editor in chief of Urbanite magazine and a former features editor for AARP: The Magazine.
Trump’s RNC acceptance speech aimed to terrify Americans about their own urban areas.
Donald Trump name-checked the city of Baltimore twice in his speech Thursday night accepting the Republican nomination for president, which must be some kind of record. The local media in my hometown perked its ears up accordingly: The Baltimore Sun opened its coverage with the candidate’s reference to the city’s recent homicide spike; later in the speech, Trump proclaimed, “Every action I take, I will ask myself: does this make life better for young Americans in Baltimore…?”
My city probably hasn’t enjoyed such a prominent role at a Republican gathering since it last hosted one, in 1864. Baltimore, along with Chicago, Detroit, and the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, seem to be the places that spring into Trump’s mind whenever he wants to invoke the tide of chaos that his political opponents have allegedly loosed upon Real America, which is often.
These cities also came up in Trump’s NATO-busting conversation with New York Times reporters, as part of his explanation for why he could be relied upon to go easy on the world’s authoritarian regimes. “When the world looks at how bad the United States is, and then we go and talk about civil liberties, I don’t think we’re a very good messenger.” Going further back, Trump once blamed immigrant gangs of “really bad dudes” for street violence in Baltimore, a claim that baffled Maryland officials. (Baltimore, like many shrinking
But whatever. As Trump says, all press is good press, and I hope all of us here in Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, and Ferguson can capitalize on the branding opportunity and visibility that the RNC has gifted us. Urban America in general came in for a thrashing in Cleveland, where cities were mentioned mainly as places that riot, shoot cops, harbor illegals and terrorists, and suck up other Americans’ tax dollars. In his vision of a nation engulfed in lawlessness, the newly self-appointed law-and-order candidate requires an axis of evil, and apparently we’re in it.
Those who fact-checked the nominee’s incantation of terrors revealed the usual abundance of cherry-picking, mendacity, and “truthful hyperbole.” American cities aren’t descending en masse into anarchy, despite legitimately alarming homicide spikes in D.C., Baltimore, and Chicago. So far this year, homicides are down in a little over half of the 63 cities reporting to the Major Cities Chiefs Association, and violent crime in general is a fraction of its rate during the Reagan and Bush I administrations. The degree to which Americans perceive a domestic crime wave lapping at their driveways is worthy of a separate discussion—in New York magazine, the sociologist Alex Vitale speculates that one reason a majority of people since 2000 estimate (wrongly) that crime has gone up since the year before is that so many of us no longer have “direct experience with crime.” Instead, we are transfixed by TV crime dramas and media reports of spectacular-but-relatively-infrequent events. In other words, we’ve grown so safe that merely consuming real or imagined depictions of urban mayhem—and hearing our leaders shrieking warnings of it—is enough to terrify us.
Historically, the Republican party has of course long used the woes of Democratic-leaning cities to feed the resentments of those rural and suburban voters who balk at mass transit spending and other suspiciously city-fied projects. This year’s GOP platform calls out the Obama administration for pursuing “an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit” and warns darkly that “[i]ts ill-named Livability Initiative is meant to ‘coerce people out of their cars.’”
Such open hostility to the most innocuous of efforts—and to “livability” itself—may not be a long-term strategy for political success, given the number of younger voters who choose to call these dense, walkable hellscapes home. But it’s a key part of this campaign’s worldview, one that is endeavoring to make urban America a shorthand for everything that keeps suburban America awake at night.