Tracing the roots of city boy Trump’s racist ‘suburban dream’ nonsense — all the way to Rush Limbaugh
It’s no surprise that the current occupant of the White House is running for reelection on racism. Given his track record, it would be a surprise if he weren’t. Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric has always centered on fearmongering around crime, going back not just to the start of his presidential campaign in 2015, but back to the 1980s. Now he’s at it again, this time with a focus on the suburbs and, in anachronistic language that evokes June Cleaver or Carol Brady, ”suburban housewives.”
Based on his rambling, Trump seems to think the suburbs are still filled with white women in aprons making their kids PB&J on Wonder BreadTM with the crusts cut off, dutifully fixing after-work martinis for their husbands. Trump thinks he can scare those white-lady aprons right off with tales of Black and brown criminals descending upon their neighborhoods, and present himself as the white (orange?) savior who will keep their neighborhoods safe by keeping them white. This particular dog whistle is not one Trump invented, of course. Among others, Rush Limbaugh has been blowing it for years.
Let’s start with Trump’s current campaign. On June 30, President Shitgibbon tweeted that he was “studying the AFFH housing regulation that is having a devastating impact” on the suburbs. He also claimed that his opponent, former vice president Joe Biden, wants to make things “much worse”—correction: “MUCH WORSE.” Trump added that he “may END!” the AFFH.
The AFFH refers to the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, enacted in 2015, under the Obama-Biden administration. Barack Obama’s AFFH rule updated a previous regulation governing discrimination in housing and real estate, which wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do as required by the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
What Obama did was mandate that local governments that received federal money to build housing must “identify and address patterns of racial segregation outlawed under the Fair Housing Act of 1968 by creating detailed corrective plans.” In other words, he simply wanted to make sure that cities and towns followed existing law. Radical, I know. To clarify, the AFFH would not destroy, abolish, or even fundamentally alter the nature of housing in the suburbs. It’s just a boogeyman Trump’s using because he thinks it will scare the white ladies of Westchester County and beyond into voting for him.
A few weeks after the initial tweet, on July 23, this appeared on Herr Twitler’s feed.
The Suburban Housewives of America must read this article. Biden will destroy your neighborhood and your American D… https://t.co/ufn2RFsvJU— Donald J. Trump (@Donald J. Trump)1595530000.0
Less than a week later, on July 29, the White House announced that it was revoking the AFFH. This formal revocation came on top of action Trump took in January 2018, which de facto blocked the rule from taking effect by pushing back its effective start date to at least November 1, 2020. The Trump administration has taken numerous other steps to hamstring the federal government’s efforts to enforce fair housing and desegregate neighborhoods.
The same day the rule’s revocation was made public, Trump followed up with a tweet that, as many have noted, said the quiet part out loud.
...Your housing prices will go up based on the market, and crime will go down. I have rescinded the Obama-Biden AFFH Rule. Enjoy!— Donald J. Trump (@Donald J. Trump)1596039596.0
That same day, Trump echoed his tweet in remarks to an audience in Midland, Texas. “There will be no more low-income housing forced into the suburbs,” he declared, adding that “it’s been going on for years. I’ve seen conflict for years. It’s been hell for suburbia.”
Whereas Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson and his minions have portrayed the gutting of Obama’s fair housing rules as merely making things simpler by reducing unnecessary paperwork, President Charlottesville just came right out and revealed the real motivation for these changes. He’s vowing to make sure the people he considers undesirable from “low-income housing” projects can’t move in next door—and assuming it’s an effective strategy.
Apparently, Trump convinced himself that his previous tweets were too subtle. He decided that it would help if he named someone who would supposedly help Joe Biden take aim at the suburbs if he was elected. Since President Barack Obama is no longer on the ticket, the Orange Julius Caesar must have figured he needed a substitute of a similar hue.
Watched @billmaher last week for the first time in a long time. He’s totally SHOT, looks terrible, exhausted, gaunt… https://t.co/X9dvH3BUmF— Donald J. Trump (@Donald J. Trump)1597234265.0
When pressed on what he meant by that tweet, Trump, as The New York Times put it, “told on himself.”
“They’re going to, in my opinion, destroy suburbia, And just so you understand, 30 percent-plus of the people living in suburbia are minorities,” Trump rambled. “African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic American—they’re minorities. Thirty percent. The number is even higher, it’s—they say 35, but I like to cut it a little bit lower. You know why? That way I can never get myself in too much trouble with the fake news.”
Women of all races have been calling Trump out on this hate-filled nonsense. "I think people may make assumptions,” one white Kentucky stay-at-home mother of three told the Daily Beast. “And I think that's something the president has done, unfortunately, is make assumptions that all white women are going to support him. And we're not."
Writer Ally Henny, on the other hand, was explicit in her explanation of why Trump is choosing his words so carefully.
Most recently, perhaps having decided that race-baiting the suburbs from Trump’s own mouth and tweets needed some fleshing out as a campaign strategy, the impeached president and his HUD secretary “wrote” an op-ed piece, placed behind The Wall Street Journal paywall. It’s a bit more subtle, and makes passing mention of Americans of color also living in the suburbs, but this slick product can’t unsay what the racist-in-chief already put out there.
As Media Matters laid out, Trump’s racist suburban shtick strongly echoes the work of right-wing author and commentator Stanley Kurtz. In 2012, Kurtz published a book called Spreading the Wealth: How Obama is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities. If you’re wondering whether Kurtz has spent a lifetime studying housing policy, don’t bother. His previous book was 2010’s Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism. There is something that is definitely not “expertise in housing policy” running through both tomes.
Back to 2020. On the morning of June 30, Kurtz published a National Review piece claiming that if Biden won the presidency, he would go beyond the AFFH and adopt a policy advocated by Cory (not “Corey”) Booker; he further asserted that Biden’s true intention is to “abolish the suburbs.” Trump’s tweet saying the same went live about 12 hours later. Media Matters’ Bobby Lewis pointed out the connection between Kurtz’s article and the Trump tweet.
Stanley Kurtz leads us to the other right-wing blowhard mentioned at the beginning of this post, namely the man with whom Trump defiled the Medal of Freedom: Rush Limbaugh. In doing research for my recent book, I analyzed multiple examples of Limbaugh slamming Obama over his policies regarding the suburbs—most of the time citing Kurtz. A week before Kurtz’s book came out in 2012, Limbaugh started talking about it, quoting from it, and using it to paint President Obama as anti-suburban and, in so many words, anti-white. This went on for the remainder of Obama’s time in office.
On July 26, 2012, Limbaugh offered lengthy quotations from the Kurtz book, which regaled its readers with lies about Obama’s “lifelong hostility to the suburbs.” The 44th president apparently had it in for suburb dwellers, whom he supposedly believed “were just greedy racists who didn’t want to share their tax money with the urban poor.” We know exactly which group of people Limbaugh means when he talks about “the suburbs,” and who he means when he talks about “the urban poor.” This is the very same dog whistle Trump is blowing now, eight years later, when he’s fighting to keep the presidency.
Limbaugh did this over and over again. The next day he claimed that suburbanites were Obama’s “real enemies,” and six days after that, Limbaugh predicted that the first Black president would “abolish” the suburbs. In September 2013, the racist host said that President Obama would “destroy the suburbs,” and in July 2014, Limbaugh spouted off about “Obama’s war on the suburbs”—during a segment where he specifically went after the AFFH rule Trump so desperately hates, which was then under consideration. In a July 2015 master class on race-baiting, the host tied his suburbia-based attacks on Obama to “forced busing,” as well as to “attacks on the South” and “attacks on the Confederate flag.”
This went on and on. In addition to the examples above, Limbaugh threw out similar suburban dog whistles during the Obama presidency here, here, here, here, here, and here—each “here” represents a different day’s broadcast. And of course, Limbaugh is still at it in 2020. He even blew his dog whistle during his reaction to Rep. John Lewis’s funeral.
Thanks to reporting from New York Magazine’s Gabriel Sherman, we know that Trump got many of the specific topics for his race-baiting rhetoric from talk radio. In the run-up to the 2016 campaign, onetime top Trump aide Sam Nunberg did a “deep dive into talk radio”—listening for “thousands of hours” and then giving “reports” to Trump on what was really motivating the right-wing base. Limbaugh has the largest audience in talk radio, and has for as long as such ratings have been measured. Trump’s recent dog whistles on the suburbs and Biden are wholly unoriginal: They’re virtually a carbon copy of Limbaugh’s language on the suburbs and Obama—language which itself was cribbed from Stanley Kurtz.
When it comes to the suburbs, and other policies that relate to race and economics more broadly, Limbaugh and Trump have sought to win over middle- and working-class white Americans by falsely claiming that former President Obama and future President Biden want nothing more than to take away what they have earned—whether it’s money or safe neighborhoods—and give it to Black and Latino Americans who supposedly don’t deserve it.
Playing to racial anxieties and ginning up fear and hatred are the only ways the Limbaugh-Trump Republican Party can get the support of those voters, given that GOP policies actively work against their economic interests while favoring those of the real elites—the top 1%. To defeat Trump and the Republican Party made in his image, Democrats must help these voters recognize that Republicans are spewing hate in order to keep white Americans and Americans of color from coming together on the basis of shared interests.
One way to do so is to point out what the Trump party actually does when it gains power. The Trump presidency’s singular legislative accomplishment is a multibillion dollar tax giveaway to millionaires and billionaires, that does little to nothing for the average American of any race. The other major legislative effort undertaken by Trump & Co. was repealing the Affordable Care Act, which expanded coverage to tens of millions of Americans. Thankfully, that effort failed, but it too would have mostly helped the wealthy by giving them a tax cut, and harmed the folks—again, Americans of every race—earning around or just below the national median income who had gained coverage.
Republicans can’t sell their economic policies to middle- and working-class white voters, so all they have left to peddle is hate. That’s why Trump is now trying to scare white suburbanites with tall tales about poor people moving in from cities, or, as he did just a few days ago, revisiting some of his worst rhetoric from the 2016 campaign about immigrants and crime.
When thinking about where Trump comes from, most people associate him with the city. Trump Tower, his erstwhile home, sits in midtown Manhattan. He claims to have “built” skyscrapers, but mostly he just got paid to place his name on other people’s buildings. However, he grew up in 1950s Jamaica Estates, a neighborhood that, although it was located in Queens, New York City, much more resembled a wealthy suburban enclave. It was, according to a New York Times article, “an exclusive and nearly all-white place, resistant to outsiders and largely impenetrable to minorities.” Trump himself described it as “safe” and “an oasis” when compared to other parts of Queens, which he viewed as “rough.”
This mindset—the idea of a suburban environment as a place where white people with enough money to escape the inner city’s poor neighborhoods of color, as well as enough power to keep non-whites from moving in—is at the core of Trump’s race-baiting on the suburbs. Trump understands, and hopes to exploit in this year’s election the very racist fears that once motivated the white flight from American cities in the 1950s and ‘60s. So does Rush Limbaugh, whose racist rhetoric throughout the Obama presidency laid out the blueprint that Trump is now using to attack Joe Biden.
Two months before Election Day, it appears that the white suburban women who elected Trump in 2016 (and to whom Trump thinks this hate-filled nonsense will appeal) are not responding to his dog whistle, at least not in large enough numbers to reelect him. Perhaps they’ve evolved in terms of their fears and prejudices. Or perhaps they’ve simply come to realize that The Man Who Lost The Popular Vote poses a far greater danger because of his manifest unfitness to lead our country.
Making sure they remember that and come out to vote for the Biden-Harris ticket is one thing we can all help to make happen.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh's Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)