Cities are the problem, President Donald Trump told a typically riled-up crowd Thursday night in Cincinnati, and their problems are Democrats’ fault.
The latest iteration of the president’s evolving attack on urban — and specifically majority-black — communities expanded past Baltimore to encompass Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago. In each case, he said, “these communities have been run exclusively by Democrat politicians” whose tapping of federal programs amounts to “stolen money and…wasted money.”
But Trump’s caricatured version of city life is especially cynical given the fact that he’s mounted a considerable effort during his time in office to cause the very dereliction for which he blames others. He’s proposed eliminating the main federal grant program that cities use to build new public resources and refurbish old ones. He’s repeatedly plotted to evict millions of the most vulnerable people from their existing housing. He’s asked for roughly a trillion dollars in cuts to health care programs for the poor and elderly.
And when his budget cuts have been largely stymied by congressional Democrats, Trump has slipped punishing austerity in through the side door. His agencies are using their regulatory authority to kick millions of working people off of food stamps for daring to save a bit of money, to kick millions of other citizens off Medicaid for the crime of being unable to find work, and to rip down safeguards that protect them from the greed of developers. Where he’s been unable to punish inner-city communities by shutting off the funding faucet, he has introduced new barriers in the form of paperwork and bureaucracy.
But the hypocrisy of his new heel-turn against the cities where most Americans reside also long predates his time in office.
The president made his wealth on business practices that hollow out urban cores, exacerbate inequality, push low-income residents out, and relocate social problems rather than ameliorate them. Trump’s habitual exaggeration of the crime, drug, and public health challenges facing various cities notwithstanding, to the extent that cities do have such problems they are the byproduct of the shameless wealth-hoarding behavior of developers like him.
Economists have a fancy term for the bad things a business venture causes for others during their pursuit of profit: “negative externalities.” The civic struggles Trump is now lambasting for political gain are in fact negative externalities to the rich fancy-lad class of goons from which he sprung. Trump’s celebrity and wealth were built on depriving cities of the resources they need for sustained success, in both raw economic terms and at the less tangible level of social fabric.
The modern history of U.S. urban policy has been shaped by private money. Most political leaders have embraced the idea that profit-motivated developers should be the primary engine of the various socioeconomic goals that cities must pursue. They are willing to lavish generous tax breaks on these developers to induce them to break ground, and they are eager to swap ownership of the ground itself if they must. Be clear: That land was yours and the money for those tax breaks comes from you. The mayors who make these deals are taking your stuff and giving it to rich people.
It’s odd at surface level to give away money and land to plutocrats. But it isn’t as crooked as it sounds. It’s based in a sincere – if arguably misguided – belief about how to do the most good for the most people at the fastest possible pace.
The idea, the developer-reliant urban leadership model holds, is to generate economic activity. You get the developers to build so that there will be builders who get paid wages that they can then spend in the neighborhoods where they live. Those doughty edifices wrought from this exchange provide residents with reasons to come to the areas surrounding what they build, and to bring their wallets with them when they come. It’s all meant to prop up another of those economics-jargon clichés: the “virtuous cycle.”
Trump’s history in the real estate business exposes the weaknesses of this developmental idea, however.
Instead of paying an honest wage for honest work, Trump has historically underpaid or stiffed his contractors outright, wiping out the first leg of the stool supporting the virtuous cycle. Instead of taking some of the tax incentive money and land value received from the public trust to distribute it more widely, Trump (and many other developers) hoarded it as aggressively as he could.
The 200 undocumented Poles whom Trump hired to rip asbestos out of the department store that was in the way of Trump Tower’s footprint in 1980 did not get put on a path toward self-sufficiency that allowed them to spend money into a virtuous cycle of working-class rebirth. They got $5 an hour, if they got anything at all. (Most didn’t, the lawsuit Trump settled with them 16 years later claimed.)
Public resources shoveled to Trump haven’t transferred back to working-class payouts in his other projects either. Ask the Atlantic City cabinet-hanger who lost the business his father founded in the 1940s to Trump’s petty-greed habit. If you don’t believe him, ask the 252 other contractors there who were forced to sue Trump over unpaid bills. Or the Plainview, New York-based HVAC firm that had to slap a $75,000 lien on Trump’s firm when he bailed on making payments. Or Juan Carlos Rodriguez, who agreed to deliver a large painting job at Trump’s prized Doral golf course in Florida but was forced to sue and seek a court-ordered foreclosure on the golf complex just to get Trump to make good on their deal.
The developmentalist policy idea leads to wildly unequal transactions with men like Trump. The public servants are expecting dollars to circulate when they hand them over, and the man pocketing them is scheming to keep them in his own pocket.
And that’s just the build phase of Trump’s turn at the board. The rest of the developmentalist cycle – the increased foot traffic, the expected harmonious rise of mixed-income neighborhoods – never comes to pass either. What men like Trump build, they build for rich people.
The poor and unfortunate who had lived where projects like Trump Tower “reclaim” for the wealthy are not welcomed or afforded new opportunities at upward mobility by the redevelopment. They are displaced by it. Their incomes stagnate as the cost of living where they live skyrockets, with the nigh-inevitable result that they are forced to relocate. And the privation often follows them to their new homes.
This more vicious cycle means that economically dislocated urban resident continue to rely on assistance to get by in their new surroundings, from programs like Medicaid or food stamps or rent subsidies. And it means they remain stuck dealing with slumlords who won’t lift a finger to deal with rats and roaches because every such effort cuts into their own profits. Men like Jared Kushner, whose residential offerings in the Baltimore area epitomize the conditions his father-in-law is trying to blame on Democrats writ large.
Which brings us back from Trump, The Builder to Trump, The President. He has sought to slash funding for all these programs. He has proposed more than a trillion dollars in cuts to public programs for low-income working people.
Those cuts drill the rural areas he’s now trying to energize through the divisive flavor of rhetoric he refined Thursday night in Cincinnati, too. But the city settings where populations are densest see a far greater geographic concentration of the human impacts of austerity. The resulting contrast primes both city-dwellers and country folk to view one another with mutual suspicion.
The casually cruel ironies of his attacks on city folk go even deeper, however. The same high-density population zones he’s calling thieves at his rallies, while trying to stiff through policy choices, are also much more self-sufficient in overall fiscal terms than the redder, more rural areas to which he often panders.
Urban counties pay more in taxes than they receive in public services. In rural areas, the opposite is true. The city-dwellers Trump is so fond of attacking are actually subsidizing everyone else’s lifestyles. Country mouse is eating city mouse’s cheese, not the other way around. That’s a sensitive and pride-stinging economic reality, and one that has driven mutual resentment for longer than Trump’s been on the scene.
But the president’s innovation here is his willingness to simply lie about how money circulates among fellow Americans. When Karl Rove engaged in the same sort of politics, he framed the matter as one of cultural differences – the values of “real America” versus everywhere else. Many conservatives still rely on this poisoned rhetoric, as illustrated by the right’s applause for Sen. Josh Hawley’s (R-MO) recent (and dishonest) speech decrying “cosmopolitan” America.
Trump, meanwhile, doesn’t look to change the subject away from how rural America benefits from urban America’s labor. He just lies about who gets what largesse from whom — and about how he got rich making it worse.