Donald Trump might be the most urban president in American history. He was raised in Queens and makes his home in a midtown Manhattan high-rise. He’s lived in New York City his entire life. His personal fortune is heavily tied to the prosperity of cities. He built his business empire from a foundation in Manhattan real-estate development. He understands cities as only those who spend years living in them can.
But Trump polled poorly in major urban centers—he won just 18.4 percent of the vote in Gotham—and it’s easy to see why. He offered few specifics on his plans, and his focus was largely on the industrial economy, which had long since collapsed in central cities. Coastal hubs like New York and San Francisco have staked their futures on postindustrial technology, finance, and business services. Other cities aspire to do the same. The idea of bringing back factories has little appeal in such places, which see them as the “old economy.”
Trump did make a direct pitch to black voters, asking them, “What do you have to lose?” by voting for him. He stressed “law and order” and promised to “rebuild our inner cities.” Citing the water crisis in majority-black Flint, Michigan, he promised an ambitious new infrastructure plan. But blacks have long been a reliable Democratic constituency. It wasn’t realistic to expect Trump to flip the black vote substantially. (He did outperform Mitt Romney among blacks, though.)
Because of his lack of specificity, it’s hard to predict what Trump’s urban policies will be. But his campaign gives us some clues. First, given his pro-police and law-and-order stances, Trump’s administration is unlikely to retain the Obama administration’s aggressively anti-cop posture. It also seems unlikely that Trump will continue Obama’s federal push into further housing regulation via HUD’s controversial initiative, Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (though Trump did not address this issue directly during the campaign). From an urban perspective, it’s not clear how Trump’s infrastructure policy will play out, but a formative event in the building of the Trump reputation was his rescue, in the 1980s, of Wollman Rink in New York. Trump took over a failing city ice-rink renovation project—it was vastly over budget and years behind schedule—and completed it in a matter of months. Trump clearly gets urban construction.
Trump’s relationship with many big-city mayors is likely to be adversarial. Such mayors often lean hard left, and it will likely be to their political advantage to pick fights with the new president. The reaction of Minneapolis mayor Betsy Hodges, who lashed out at Trump in a series of Facebook posts after the election, may be instructive. “People’s lives, livelihoods, safety, and well-being are at stake,” she wrote. “We must continue, as always, to take a stand against what is coming, to fight for and with people against the meanness that is upon us.” Given Republican dominance at the federal level and in a majority of statehouses, the Left will look to cities and mayors to push a political agenda at odds with Trump’s policies.
Immigration will almost certainly be a major flashpoint. Big cities have become home to increasingly large numbers of immigrants. Miami is 75 percent foreign-born, San Jose 40 percent, and Houston 29 percent. These numbers don’t include U.S.-born children of immigrants. Many shrinking cities like Detroit and Dayton see immigrants as their best hope for repopulation. Moreover, Trump has vowed to crack down on illegal immigration, and most big-city mayors are de facto open-borders ideologues. Many preside over so-called sanctuary cities, where local governments, including law enforcement, refuse to cooperate with federal immigration laws. Trump says that he will revoke federal funding to sanctuary cities, and many mayors have already vowed to defy him. Whether he remains resolute in this standoff will offer an early test of Trump’s commitment to his agenda.
To a large extent, Trump’s urban strategy has yet to be formed. But cities are in his DNA. If the new president does nothing more than roll back the Obama administration’s intrusions into urban policy, he’ll do some good for American cities.
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