1. Governance
January 20, 2017

Don't kid yourself – Donald Trump won't Make Cities Great Again

By Eli Day

When children conjure alternate worlds out of thin air, ones that fly in the face of observable reality, we celebrate (or wave away) the phenomenon as a luxury of youth—one that expires with the twilight of adolescence.

But there’s a rare exception carved out for those who reach the heights of elite opinion-making. Time and again, one finds that to speak and write about a world of one’s own creation, at odds with all available evidence, isn’t flagged up as the false prophecy or reality murder that it is, but as ‘journalism’.

In recent weeks for example, prominent thinkers on both the local and national stage have let their imaginations run wild with self-delusion, failing themselves and readers in the process.

Here, I’m thinking of the curious and deeply unconvincing case that the incoming administration in the US is set to unleash a rolling tide of goodwill on America’s cities. You’d expect anyone making such an ambitious claim to do so on something like solid intellectual ground. Instead, we get the opposite – arguments that begin to crumble under the weight of their own dishonesty.

A few of these are making the rounds, but here I’d like to focus on the most popular and least convincing of them all: that Trump’s cosiness with business magnates and bias for home-grown industries make him a friend to cities. Trump “doesn’t like losers,” one reminds us, and so – by some magic – the triumph of metropolitan manufacturing is a sure bet. While Trump has yet to offer specific policy plans for the metropolitan hellscapes he evoked during the campaign, we can draw some conclusions based on the available evidence.

So good for ridiculous photographs, so bad for high office. Image: Michael Vadon.

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Trumped-up charges

Before we can evaluate the claim that great things loom on the horizon for cities, we need to diagnosis what afflicts them in the first place. That diagnosis has been offered by people smarter than me, but the basic story is simple: over the past century, America’s cities – particularly those with higher levels of poverty and those with high African-American populations – have been subject to a campaign of legal banditry.

These cities have lived through a highlight reel of the American talent for planned misery. A long record of both housing and job discrimination, enforced through relentless campaigns of white terrorism, combined in much of the urban north to mimic the horrors endured by black bodies across the apartheid South. Add to that the financialization of the economy and the evaporation of domestic manufacturing, and the picture looks a lot less mystical. Policy transformed whole cities into places where life is menaced by both past and present injury.

To start, the idea that Trump would take action against housing or job discrimination is one that laughs at itself right before bursting into flames. The man is, by any honest measure, a serial offender of both and there’s not a shred of evidence that he, his Attorney General, or his Secretary of Housing and Urban Development will lift a finger to see either vanquished, let alone to make amends for the devastation they’ve engineered in America’s cities.

In fact, we should expect the exact opposite. The incoming Justice Department is likely to enlist itself in the long war of attrition against civil rights. And Ben Carson, Trump’s nominee for HUD Secretary, is a know-nothing enthusiast for the days when solving housing discrimination was left to the real estate and mortgage industries – that is, people who struck gold in the heyday of residential segregation and never looked back.

Any effort to tackle the grinding poverty and enormous wealth inequality endured by so many city-dwellers must either reckon with these forces or risk being ridiculed as the nothing burger that it is.


Ben Carson, your neighbourhood’s know-nothing secretary. Image: Gage Skidmore.

Sweeping up the Detroit-us

And what about all that fire-breathing about a manufacturing comeback? As Dean Baker points out, we may see more Carrier-style deals down the line that manage to protect a vanishingly small number of these jobs from outsourcing. But this isn’t the first breath in a long-awaited resuscitation of industrial America. It is the last gasp of an empire desperate to cover its tracks after pulverizing its own manufacturing base.

And there are zero signs of a reversal in sight.

Despite the strongly-worded skepticism about TPP-style trade deals coming from Trump’s pick for Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, it should be remembered that Trump is enormously influenced by whoever whispers in his ear last. On economic matters, that whispering is most likely to come from folks like Steve Mnuchin and Gary Cohn, Goldman Sachs alumni who built their fortunes on the misery of others, and who show no signs of caring one iota about the public outrage over American trade policy. That’s a strong indication that reversing the corporate-friendly arc of those policies – the major, and perhaps desired, outcome of which has been the upward redistribution of income – is utter fantasy.

As the incoming administration recruits more and more pro-monopoly, anti-competition heartthrobs to its ranks, the flickering hope for a new approach on trade grows dimmer by the day. We know the cost of that decision: American manufacturing, especially in its former metropolitan cores, will continue to teeter on the brink of lifelessness, with the vultures circling anxiously overhead.

Detroit, home of urban decline and source of puns. Image: Arthur Siegel / Wikimedia Commons.

Meanwhile, Republican-controlled legislatures across the country are hard at work targeting trades unions for annihilation. Unions, you guessed it, being the primary vehicle for increasing workers’ negotiating power, and thus wages. The long awaited federal-state alignment is here, and it comes at the cost of considerable human suffering.

So what sort of narrow success story do these folks have in mind exactly? The answer is there if we look closely enough. Buried just below the surface of the arguments we’ve deliberated is a revealing admission: that Trump’s goodwill towards cities is measured not by the welfare of its residents, but the uninterrupted economic dominance of its corporations.

Their deepest ambition is to see to it that the economy of the last forty years – where corporations rake in enormous profits while working communities languish in the economic abyss – remains unchanged, other than to become a more bullish version of itself.

The Wise Men of public opinion may envision a different world, but offer no evidence for us to base such a conclusion on. That’s the thing with reality: it hovers ominously over those who can least afford to live in myth, calling on them to confront the world as it is, or give free reign to the dark imaginations of others.

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