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Washington Post Op-ed: Why does Donald Trump demonize cities? Because they work

First Published      Last Updated Mar 18 2017 05:21 pm

President Donald Trump is a big-city guy. He made his fortune in cities and keeps his family in a Manhattan tower. But when Trump talks about cities, he presents a fearsome caricature that bears little resemblance to the real urban landscape.

"Our inner cities are a disaster," he declared in a campaign debate. "You get shot walking to the store. They have no education. They have no jobs." Before his inauguration, in a spat with Atlanta's representative in Congress, he tweeted: "Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested)." He makes Chicago sound like an anarchic failed state. "If Chicago doesn't fix the horrible 'carnage' going on, 228 shootings in 2017 with 42 killings (up 24% from 2016), I will send in the Feds!" he warned. His executive order on public safety claimed that sanctuary cities, which harbor undocumented immigrants, "have caused immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our Republic."




With this talk, Trump is playing to his base, which overwhelmingly is not in cities. Party affiliation increasingly reflects the gulf between big, diverse metros and whiter, less densely populated locales. For decades, like-minded people have been clustering geographically — a phenomenon author Bill Bishop dubbed "the Big Sort " — pushing cities to the left and the rest of the country to the right. Indeed, the bigger, denser and more diverse the city, the better Hillary Clinton did in November. But Trump prevailed everywhere else — in small cities, suburbs, exurbs and beyond. The whiter and more spread out the population, the better he did.

He connected with these voters by tracing their economic decline and their fading cultural cachet to the same cause: traitorous "coastal elites" who sold their jobs to the Chinese while allowing America's cities to become dystopian Babels, rife with dark-skinned danger — Mexican rapists, Muslim terrorists, "inner cities" plagued by black violence. He intimated that the chaos would spread to their exurbs and hamlets if he wasn't elected to stop it.

Trump's fearmongering turned out to be savvy electoral college politics (even if it left him down nearly 3 million in the popular vote). But it wasn't just a sinister trick to get him over 270. He persists in his efforts to slur cities as radioactive war zones because the fact that America's diverse big cities are thriving relative to the whiter, less populous parts of the country suggests that the liberal experiment works — that people of diverse origins and faiths prosper together in free and open societies. To advance his administration's agenda, with its protectionism and cultural nationalism, Trump needs to spread the notion that the polyglot metropolis is a dangerous failure.

The president has filled his administration with advisers who oppose the liberal pluralism practiced profitably each day in America's cities. "The center core of what we believe," Steve Bannon, the president's trusted chief strategist, has said, is "that we're a nation with an economy, not an economy just in some global marketplace with open borders, but we are a nation with a culture and a reason for being." This is not just an argument for nationalism over globalism. Bannon has staked out a position in a more fundamental debate over the merits of multicultural identity. Whose interests are included when we put "America first"?

When Trump connects immigration to Mexican cartel crime, he's putting a menacing foreign face on white anxiety about the country's shifting demographic profile, which is pushing traditional white, Judeo-Christian culture out of the center of American national identity. "The ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty," wrote Michael Anton , now a White House national security adviser, is "the mark of a party, a society, a country, a people, a civilization that wants to die." Bannon has complained that too many U.S. tech company chief executives are from Asia.

The Census Bureau projects that whites will cease to be a majority in 30 years. Suppose you think the United States — maybe even all Western civilization — will fall if the U.S. population ever becomes as diverse as Denver's. You are going to want to reduce the foreign-born population as quickly as possible, and by any means necessary. You'll deport the deportable with brutal alacrity, squeeze legal immigration to a trickle, bar those with "incompatible" religions.

But to prop up political demand for this sort of ethnic-cleansing program — what else can you call it? — it's crucial to get enough of the public to believe that America's diversity is a dangerous mistake. If most white people come to think that America's massive, multicultural cities are decent places to live, what hope is there for the republic? For Christendom?

The big cities of the United States are, in fact, very decent places to live. To be sure, many metros have serious problems. Housing is increasingly unaffordable, and the gap between the rich and poor is on the rise. Nevertheless, the American metropolis is more peaceful and prosperous than it's been in decades.

Contrary to the narrative that Trump and his advisers promote, our cities show that diversity can improve public safety. A new study of urban crime rates by a team of criminologists found that "immigration is consistently linked to decreases in violent (e.g., murder) and property (e.g., burglary) crime" in the period from 1970 to 2010. What's more, according to an analysis of FBI crime data, counties labeled as "sanctuary" jurisdictions by federal immigration authorities have lower crime rates than comparable non-sanctuary counties. The Trump administration's claim that sanctuary cities "have caused immeasurable harm" is simply baseless. Even cities that have seen a recent rise in violent crime are much safer today than they were in the early 1990s, when the foreign-born population was much smaller.

Yes, cities have their share of failing schools. But they also have some of the best schools in the country and are hotbeds of reform and innovation. According to recent rankings by SchoolGrades.org, the top 28 elementary and middle schools in New York state are in New York City; Ohio's top four schools are in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Youngstown and Columbus; and the best school in Pennsylvania is in Philadelphia. "The culture of competition and innovation, long in short supply in public education, is taking root most firmly in the cities," according to the Manhattan Institute researchers who run the site.

And it gets things exactly backward to think of unemployment as a problem centered in cities.

Packing people close together creates efficiencies of proximity and clusters of expertise that spur the innovation that drives growth. Automation has killed off many low- and medium-skill manufacturing jobs, but technology has increased the productivity, and thus the pay, of highly educated workers, and the education premium is highest in dense, populous cities. The best-educated Americans, therefore, gravitate toward the most productive big cities — which then become even bigger, better educated and richer.

Meanwhile, smaller cities and outlying regions with an outdated mix of industry and a less-educated populace fall further behind, displaced rather than boosted by technology, stuck with fewer good jobs and lower average wages. The economist Enrico Moretti calls this regional separation in education and productivity "the Great Divergence."

Thanks to the Great Divergence, America's most diverse, densely populated and well-educated cities are generating an increasing share of the country's economic output. In 2001, the 50 wealthiest U.S. metro regions produced about 27 percent more per person than the country as a whole. Today, they produce 34 percent more, and there's no end to the divergence in sight.
Taken together, the Great Divergence and the Big Sort imply that Republican regions are producing less and less of our nation's wealth. According to Mark Muro and Sifan Liu of the Brookings Institution, Clinton beat Trump in almost every county responsible for more than a paper-thin slice of America's economic pie. Trump took 2,584 counties that together account for 36 percent of the nation's gross domestic product. Clinton won just 472 counties — less than 20 percent of Trump's take — but those counties account for 64 percent of GDP.

The relative economic decline of Republican territory was crucial to Trump's populist appeal. Trump gained most on Romney's 2012 vote share in places where fewer whites had college degrees, where more people were underwater on their mortgages, where the population was in poorer physical health, and where mortality rates from alcohol, drugs and suicide were higher.

But Trump's narrative about the causes of this distress are false, and his "economic nationalist" agenda is a classic populist bait-and-switch. Trump won a bigger vote share in places with smaller foreign-born populations. The residents of those places are, therefore, least likely to encounter a Muslim refugee, experience immigrant crime or compete with foreign-born workers. Similarly, as UCLA political scientist Raul Hinojosa Ojeda has shown, places where Trump was especially popular in the primaries are places that face little import competition from China or Mexico. Trump's protectionist trade and immigration policies will do the least in the places that like them the most.

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