Why Trump’s Blunt Appeals to Suburban Voters May Not WorkHistorians in the News
tags: segregation, urban history, Fair Housing Act, suburban history, Fair Housing
President Trump’s latest campaign ads warn of left-wing mobs destroying American cities. His recent White House comments have depicted a rampage of violence and a “radical movement” to dissolve the police. His Twitter feed has sounded alarms over an Obama-era fair housing rule he has framed as a threat to “The Suburban Housewives of America” and the “Suburban Lifestyle Dream.”
It all amounts, with little subtlety, to a play on the perceived fears of suburban voters. But there are several reasons to believe that a strategy that worked for Richard Nixon on the heels of urban unrest in 1968 is less likely to be effective for Donald Trump in 2020.
For one, these are not the American suburbs of the 1960s (and they have a lot fewer housewives). The scale of urban violence and the threats to that suburban lifestyle are a faint echo of that time. And while polling shows that suburban voters disapprove of the president’s job in general, they disapprove even more of his handling of the very issues he is trying to elevate.
For white suburban voters who do still live in segregated communities, the historian Matthew Lassiter said that threats today to suburban exclusion are much weaker than they were when President Nixon was elected. At the time, busing was still on the table. So was the possibility that desegregation plans might send students across city lines to neighboring school districts. Courts were still considering whether it was constitutional for wealthy districts to spend far more on education than poorer ones, or for suburban municipalities to keep out low-income housing.
“The threat of comprehensive restructuring of suburban privilege was real in the late ’60s and early ’70s because it was coming from the courts, and it was coming from civil rights litigants who had a federal judiciary that was going to go all the way with them,” said Mr. Lassiter, a professor at the University of Michigan.
That was true until President Nixon put four justices on the Supreme Court, who together killed many of those remedies to racial and economic segregation. Today, it’s simply less effective to warn that anyone is coming to destroy the “Suburban Lifestyle Dream” of advantaged schools and single-family neighborhoods because a previous generation of politicians and white voters were so successful at protecting it.
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