Here we go. It’s law and order week. And with the eyes of the nation fixed on Kenosha, Joe Biden is going to… southwestern Pennsylvania, to give a speech on why you aren’t safe in Donald Trump’s America. And Trump is going to Kenosha on Tuesday.
So we confront one of the enduring questions of American presidential politics, which goes back to Richard Nixon’s time: Can the Republicans scare enough white people into thinking that their beautiful suburb is going to be taken over by Black criminals if the Democrat wins?
Pretty much every liberal I know is terrified that the answer is yes. I don’t think so. Biden has to handle this right, of course. But this isn’t 1968, Biden isn’t some anti-cop crusader, and Trump is an unpopular extremist who is not speaking for most Americans. These things will matter.
Let’s take those three points in order. First of all, a lot of political journalism still lazily assumes that “suburban” means “white,” but that is far, far less true than it was 50 years ago. The country’s suburban counties are 35 percent nonwhite, according to this Brookings study. And it was published in 2015, so if anything that number is a little higher now. Also, half of all immigrants live in suburban counties, and immigrants now make up 11 percent of the suburban population, a number that will continue to rise and rise.
Most neighborhoods aren’t integrated, of course—far from it. Suburban segregation is arguably the single most racist aspect of American life today, a legacy of blatant post-World War II racism in housing. Still, things are very different from the way they once were.
It’s insane that we carry these 50-year-old stereotypes around in our heads, and it totally warps the way these things are discussed in the media. But reality is reality, and people live it. A lot of people may not reside in mixed neighborhoods, but if you go to a store in most suburbs these days, you see people of all races. And majorities of suburbanites like it that way, according to this big Pew survey from 2018.
Trump isn’t popular in the suburbs, either. It’s hard to find polls that break his numbers down geographically, but that Pew poll asked urbanites, suburbanites, and rural folks whether they had “warm” or “cold” feelings toward Trump. In the suburbs, it was 59 percent cold, 32 percent warm. That’s bound to be even lower now, post-pandemic.
Second, Biden seems to be handling it fine so far. It was a good decision to speak to the National Guard over the weekend. Whatever exactly he’s doing on Monday, he needs to accomplish two obvious things: denounce looting and violence, and maybe even call on Democratic mayors and governors to do a better job of maintaining order; and strengthen his attacks on Trump for inciting violence.
The second point is especially important for two reasons. One, Biden and his team need to remind people that it’s Trump who is the extremist here. We have a president of the United States who won’t denounce white supremacists and nutball conspiracy theorists. Say that over and over.
Two, Biden just needs to signal he can’t be pushed around. In recent history, as we know, Democrats have often been afraid to go head-to-head against Republicans on issues like this. Biden, happily, appears to be breaking this mold. He’s not afraid of Trump. It’s crucial that he not look intimidated. This is very much one of those situations where as long as Biden gives as good as he gets and stands his ground, even some people who don’t fully agree with him will respect the fact that he stood up to the bully.
And as for Trump: Yes, he only has to win back a certain percentage of voters in a few key states. It’s possible. But I think he’s overplaying this hand. I don’t think “soft on crime” sticks to Biden, and I think people who take seriously the batshit notion that Democrats want to abolish the suburbs are already Trump voters (by the way, here’s a good article from Curbed explaining where that nonsense came from—an Obama change to fair housing laws that had almost no real-world impact).
Of course, events are unpredictable. A looting incident the week before the election could turn things. In that light, it might not be the worst idea in the world for the city of Portland to shut down or at least curtail those protests at some point before Election Day. Let people gather every day but make them disperse at night. That still protects their First Amendment rights. Biden needs a little help here from all those “Democrat” mayors, who surely don’t want four more years of Trump.
But it’s not Biden who’s out of touch. It’s Trump. And his party. It’s been a core assumption of the political press for decades now that somehow, Republicans are the default party of middle America. It was assumed, then, that Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush were speaking for middle America, while Democrats were speaking for “special interests.”
But the country has changed. It’s changed a lot since Reagan’s time, and it’s even changed since 2016. Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin, in a paper on the 2020 electorate, estimate that the white non-college share of the electorate—Trump’s base—will drop by 2.3 percent from 2016. Every little bit helps.
Trump is not some political genius. I want to throw up every time I hear someone say that. He’s a liar and a gangster and a doofus who lied and stole and lucked his way into the White House once. He might get a small bounce out of his convention, where they lied about his meager accomplishments, such as they are, and made him look like Mr. Racial Toleration, but soon enough he’ll be back to his frothing racist self.
Remember 2018: The caravan that was coming to destroy America that the “Democrat” Party was allegedly cheering on didn’t work. I’m not saying don’t worry. I worry 24 hours a day. But I am saying don’t panic.