Trump Is Determined to Split the Country in Two

He’s trying to rally red America by portraying blue cities as a threat, and then positioning himself as the human wall against them.

Donald Trump points a finger into the distance.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP / Getty

New offensives against major cities from President Donald Trump and GOP governors are pushing at the central geographic fault line between the Republican and Democratic coalitions.

On one front, Trump is taking his confrontational approach toward big cities to an ominous new level by deploying federal law-enforcement officials to Portland and potentially other locales over the objection of local officials.

On the other, Republican governors, especially but not exclusively across the Sun Belt, have repeatedly blocked mostly Democratic local leaders from locking down their communities, despite exploding caseloads in cities from Atlanta to Phoenix. These orders represent a new crest in a decade-long wave of actions by Republican state officials to preempt decisions made by local Democratic governments.

“We haven’t had issues that are so immediately pressing and so much involving public health and safety,” says Richard Briffault, a Columbia University law professor who has studied state preemption of municipal actions. While states moving to block cities from raising the minimum wage or declaring themselves an immigration sanctuary “are important issues … in the sense that these are pressing, in-the-moment decisions that are directly affecting the health and welfare of a lot of people, this is unique,” he told me.

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.”

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.

That muted the battle between blue cities and red states for a few weeks. But it immediately resurfaced in May when Republican Governors Greg Abbott in Texas, Ron DeSantis in Florida, Brian Kemp in Georgia, and Doug Ducey in Arizona became among the first to lift their lockdown orders, following Trump’s insistent calls for reopening.

As caseloads in the major metropolitan centers of these states ticked up through June, and then soared into July, local officials have grown louder in urging governors to restore greater restrictions on economic and social activity. But Abbott and Ducey, while giving ground on mask requirements and closing bars, have denied repeated requests from local officials in cities such as Houston and Phoenix to grant them authority to restore a broader lockdown. DeSantis has staunchly refused calls to issue a statewide mask requirement or close more businesses.

Kemp has taken the most aggressive posture. As cases have grown in Georgia, particularly around Atlanta, he’s not only refused to issue a statewide mask mandate or roll back his reopening, but also explicitly blocked Atlanta’s attempt to tighten its own restrictions on business operations. Last week, he asked a court to invalidate a mask requirement issued by Atlanta’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, and even bar her from publicly questioning his authority to make such decisions. Simultaneously, Kemp deployed the National Guard into Atlanta following the wave of protests and some violence there, over Bottoms’s explicit objections.

Brian kemp and keisha lance bottoms / AP

Kasim Reed, Bottoms’s immediate predecessor as Atlanta mayor, told me that Kemp’s open hostility toward the city is “nothing like what I’ve seen before. I served with a Republican governor, very conservative governor, Nathan Deal, and we never had these kinds of disagreements. We certainly never had that publicly.”

The next front in the confrontation between Republican governors and blue cities is coalescing around the reopening of public schools—another area where Trump has pushed governors to move aggressively. With varying degrees of coercion, many GOP governors have publicly pressed local school boards to reopen for full-week, in-person instruction. Amid the soaring caseloads in Texas, Abbott recently partially retreated, saying that districts could offer virtual instruction for at least the first few weeks of classes.

But in Florida, DeSantis has continued to urge wide-scale reopening; at a recent forum with South Florida officials, he responded to their concerns about safety by insisting that children should have a chance to play sports.

“What about having football season, things like that?” he asked. “We’ve got a lot of young kids who this is their ticket to be able to go to college through athletics … What happens to all those dreams?” On Monday, the Florida teachers’ union sued to block a state order that mandated in-person instruction (though the order vaguely suggested the possibility of exceptions if local health officials object).

Other fronts are rapidly flaring in this spreading GOP offensive against big cities. Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri has urged Attorney General William Barr to open a federal investigation into Kim Gardner, the chief prosecutor in St. Louis, who decided this week to charge a white couple who waved weapons at protesters passing their suburban home last month. The state’s GOP governor, Mike Parson, has already signaled that he will pardon them if necessary. (Barr has also filed suits to strike down limits on religious gatherings during the pandemic in Louisville, Kentucky, and Greenville, Mississippi.)

Yesterday, Trump rekindled yet another smoldering conflict when he ordered the Census Bureau not to count undocumented immigrants in its survey, a move that would diminish the legislative representation of big cities where most of them live. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who joined the lawsuit that in 2019 blocked Trump from adding a citizenship question to the census, said this action too would fail in the courts. “President Trump already lost in the Supreme Court trying to sabotage the census,” he told me. “This latest effort is even more flawed and transparent than that first one.”

Potentially even more explosive is Trump’s decision to send federal law-enforcement officials into Portland following sustained protests there, as well as his threat to deploy federal agents into other cities run by “very liberal Democrats,” including Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Oakland.

Both the deployment and threats have infuriated Democratic officials across the country. Becerra told me that although California prizes its partnership with federal law-enforcement agencies, if Trump “uses them to try to engage in what are the general police powers of a state, he is violating the Constitution” and the state will fight him in court. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot struck a similar tone yesterday when she said she would welcome federal assistance in combatting the city’s endemic gun violence, but oppose any effort to use federal personnel against protesters. Lightfoot joined 14 other big-city mayors in a scathing letter to Trump released this morning, which declared that “unilaterally deploying … paramilitary-type forces into our cities is wholly inconsistent with our system of democracy and our most basic values.” Philadelphia’s district attorney, Larry Krasner, even warned that he would seek to prosecute federal agents who “unlawfully” target protesters.

The politics of all these proliferating battles between Republican officials and Democratic cities may unfold at two levels. With Trump monumentally unpopular in urban centers but still strong in rural places, the most immediate political question is how suburban voters will respond.

Like other observers, Lang from Brookings notes that, historically, families moved to the suburbs explicitly because they wanted to separate themselves from the cities, and in many cases, from the large minority populations that they contained.

But since the 1990s, more suburbanites have concluded that their political views align more with the diverse, cosmopolitan cities nearby than with the more culturally conservative, preponderantly white, and Christian smaller places far from the urban core. Under Trump that process has intensified: He’s precipitated a significant shift toward the Democrats in white-collar suburbs that fueled the party’s sweeping gains in the House in 2018. Though Republicans once could count on big margins as soon as they crossed a city’s boundaries, Lang notes, now, in most places, “the line for Republicans has moved outward further” in the metro, he says.

The Atlanta area encapsulates this shift. As Reed noted, Cobb and Gwinnett Counties, the two giant suburbs immediately outside the city, were “the Republican base in the state” not long ago. But Hillary Clinton narrowly carried both of them in 2016, Stacey Abrams won them by much more in her close loss to Kemp in the 2018 governor’s race, and Joe Biden could expand those margins even more in November. “The inner suburbs aren’t moving—they are running,” Reed said. “Republicans are having to go further and further away from the city center in order to prevail.”

Trump’s alarms about “angry mobs” and “violent mayhem” in Democratic cities might allow him to recapture some Republican-leaning white suburbanites and energize his rural and small-town support, analysts in both parties told me. But as I’ve written before, his belligerent tone simultaneously risks hardening the opposition he’s facing from the many suburban voters who feel that he’s exposing them to more danger—both in his response to the policing protests and his unrelenting push to reopen the economy despite the coronavirus’s resurgence. In last week’s national Quinnipiac University poll, just over seven in 10 white voters holding at least a four-year college degree disapproved of Trump’s handling of both race relations and the outbreak.

The larger political implication of these battles is to deepen the sense that the nation is hardening into antagonistic camps separated by an imaginary border that circles all of the major population centers, dividing the metropolitan core within from the less densely settled places beyond.

Trump is determined to widen that trench. He is trying to rally red America by portraying blue cities as a threat, and then positioning himself as the human wall against them. Until now, Trump has advanced that divisive vision through rhetoric denouncing cities and through policies that cost them money and influence, such as eliminating the federal deduction for state and local taxes, trying to block Justice Department grants for cities that don’t fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities, and his renewed efforts to strip undocumented immigrants from the census.

But in these final months before the November election, Trump’s deployment of federal forces is transforming his political war on big cities into something much closer to the real thing. “It’s breathtaking in its danger,” said Emanuel, the former Chicago mayor. And if Trump wins a second term—especially if that victory relies on another rural surge to overcome massive opposition across the big metros—the chaos in Portland might look like only the preliminary skirmish for an even more incendiary collision to come.