Aug 15, 2020 - Politics & Policy

President Trump's suburbs

Photo illustration of a 1950's housewife serving a MAGA hat on a plate.

Photo illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call.

President Trump cast an outdated vision of "the 'suburban housewife'" as he swiped this week at Joe Biden's newly minted running mate Kamala Harris — building on his months-long play to drive a wedge through battleground-state suburbs by reframing white voters' expectations.

The big picture: As he struggles to find an attack that will stick against the Biden campaign, Trump for a while now has been stoking fears of lawless cities and an end to what he's called the “Suburban Lifestyle Dream.” It’s a playbook from the ‘70s and ‘80s — but the suburbs have changed a lot since then.

What they're saying: “I think what he’s trying to do is conjure up in people’s minds their idea of what suburbia was, which was white middle class, the woman stayed at home, they lived in a single-family home, two dogs and a car,” says demographer William Frey, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.

  • “Suburbs are now a microcosm of America, in terms of rich and poor, Black and white and Hispanic,” Frey says. Today, if you tell someone you live in the suburbs, “You’re not really telling them anything.”

Driving the news: After George Floyd's killing prompted national, multiracial street demonstrations over systemic racism and police brutality, Trump's ads and public statements have highlighted images of violence in Portland and other cities.

  • “They want to indoctrinate our children, defund our police, abolish the suburbs, incite riots and leave every city at the mercy of the radical left,” Trump said last month.
  • “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 going on for years, I've seen conflict for years. It’s been hell for suburbia.”

Fast forward to this week. The day after Biden announced his running mate as Harris, Trump tweeted that “the ‘suburban housewife’ will be voting for me” because “they want safety & are thrilled that I ended the long running program where low income housing would invade their neighborhood.”

  • Harris, 55, does not fit the stereotype of Trump's suburban housewife. She's Black and Asian American, the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India. She's also a U.S. senator from California and a former prosecutor and state attorney general.

Between the lines: There’s a racial undertone here.

  • The suburbs were two-thirds white as of the 2010 Census, down from 81% the decade before, and since then the suburbs have continued to diversify.
  • By 2010, Frey said, the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. counted more Black residents in the suburbs than the cities. For Latinos, that shift happened even earlier.
  • Suburban diversification took place along with population growth. By the end of 2016, the Pew Research Center says, about 175 million Americans lived in suburbs and small metro areas — more than the 98 million in urban cores and 46 million in rural counties.

“He’s not talking to people in their twenties,” Frey says of Trump. “Close to half the people in their twenties are racial minorities themselves.

  • "He’s talking to people in their 50s, 60s and 70s, maybe non-college white women. And he may be talking to the men, too. Everything’s changing around them and ‘Trump’s going to save them from this.’ He tries to conjure up this past that people sort of embrace.”

Reality check: Although the suburban population still outnumbers urban and rural America combined, cities — not suburbs — are in some places taking back the mantle of opportunity.

  • "Compared with 2000, suburban populations are now less engaged in the labor market, experiencing declining household incomes and seeing housing stock value that has not kept pace with that of the central cities," a recent Pew report says.

What’s next: Watch for Trump to test different messages aimed at dividing suburban voters by race, ethnicity and gender — targeting Democrats in general and Biden and Harris specifically.

  • In addition to the "suburban housewife" tweet, Trump welcomed Harris to the arena with gender- and race-baiting, repeatedly calling her "nasty" and "angry" and mispronouncing her name.
  • If the dynamic continues, it may put Harris in a human-shield position, absorbing stereotyped insults from Trump and giving Biden the opportunity to defend her and contrast himself with Trump in the process. “We need to have her back,” Biden said in his first joint appearance with his running mate. “All of us are going to stand up for her.”
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