The common thread in these twin confrontations is that they pit Republican officials who rely on support primarily from exurban, small-town, and rural voters against major metropolitan areas that favor Democrats. In the process, these Republicans—Trump in particular—may be hoping to rally their nonurban voter base by defining themselves explicitly in opposition to the cities. Trump is likely to underscore that message in his White House speech this afternoon on “combating violent crime in American cities.”
Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes: Nothing can justify the attack on Portland
In deploying federal forces, Trump appears to be trying to provoke clashes with protesters, which he can use to convince white suburban voters that he’s the last line of defense between them and the chaos allegedly incubating in cities, Rahm Emanuel, the former Chicago mayor, told me. Referring to the street battle between construction workers and anti-war protesters in Manhattan in 1970, Emanuel said, “Trump is trying to create his own hard-hat riot, and they are wearing [law-enforcement] helmets.”
The political risk for Republicans in that strategy, many political observers told me, is not only that it could provoke more opposition from residents in the city centers, but that it could also accelerate the shift toward Democrats in the large, well-educated, and more and more diverse inner suburbs around the major cities. Over time, the “larger denser suburbs” have become “like cities and throw in with the cities”—they don’t identify as much with the less-populated areas, says Robert Lang, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program and a co-author of the upcoming book Blue Metros, Red States.
The two conflicts between cities and Republican leaders represent the culmination of long-running trends. Tensions between GOP-controlled state governments and Democratic-led cities notably intensified after the 2010 midterm election, which delivered to Republicans unified control of the statehouse and governorship in about two dozen states. Since then, states have moved much more frequently than before to overturn city policies, such as those establishing paid sick leave, regulating gun sales, and imposing rent control.
These disputes generated national headlines when the Republican governor and state legislature in North Carolina approved legislation known as the “bathroom bill” in 2016, overturning a Charlotte city ordinance meant to guarantee equal rights for trans individuals. While Democratic states have occasionally overturned local actions, Briffault wrote in a 2018 analysis, the “preponderance of … preemptive actions and proposals have been advanced by Republican-dominated state governments.”
From the start, the response to the coronavirus outbreak in many of the states with GOP governors has followed this pattern. In some northern states, including Ohio, Maryland, and Massachusetts, GOP governors moved quickly to lock down the economy. Elsewhere, that didn’t happen: In Florida, Georgia, Texas, and Arizona—among others—Republican governors rejected pleas in March from big-city mayors to shut down the economy as the virus spread, and agreed only after Trump reluctantly acknowledged the need for closures.