President Trump’s latest campaign ads warn of left-wing mobs destroying American cities. His recent White House comments have depicted a rampage of violence and a “radical movement” to dissolve the police. His Twitter feed has sounded alarms over an Obama-era fair housing rule he has framed as a threat to “The Suburban Housewives of America” and the “Suburban Lifestyle Dream.”
It all amounts, with little subtlety, to a play on the perceived fears of suburban voters. But there are several reasons to believe that a strategy that worked for Richard Nixon on the heels of urban unrest in 1968 is less likely to be effective for Donald Trump in 2020.
For one, these are not the American suburbs of the 1960s (and they have a lot fewer housewives). The scale of urban violence and the threats to that suburban lifestyle are a faint echo of that time. And while polling shows that suburban voters disapprove of the president’s job in general, they disapprove even more of his handling of the very issues he is trying to elevate.
Over all, just 38 percent of voters in the suburbs approve of Mr. Trump’s job performance compared with 59 percent who disapprove, according to a New York Times/Siena College poll in June. Suburban voters disapproved of Mr. Trump’s handling of recent protests and race relations by an even wider margin, and 65 percent had a favorable view of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The president’s attention to suburban areas is understandable. Nearly half of voters live in a suburb, defined here as the parts of metropolitan areas that lie outside central cities, like Philadelphia or Baltimore, and that aren’t considered rural by the Census Bureau. In the Times/Siena poll, Mr. Trump trailed Joe Biden by 16 points, 51 percent to 35 percent, in suburban areas, notably worse than his eight-point deficit in similar areas against Hillary Clinton in 2016.
The president’s disadvantage in the suburbs is underpinned by his longstanding weakness among white voters with a four-year college degree, who back Mr. Biden, 57-31, in the suburbs.
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Fifty years ago, white voters with a college degree were a relative rarity, even in the suburbs. The white voters who fled cities often held blue-collar industrial jobs, and many embraced Republican messages on crime and race. To some extent they still do: White voters without a degree in the suburbs back Mr. Trump in the Times/Siena survey, 52 percent to 35 percent, but they made up only 37 percent of registered voters surveyed in the suburbs.
If white suburban voters in general are President Trump’s audience for his recent law-and-order messages, the scenes from Portland, Ore., have only complicated his pitch. White suburban mothers looking on across the country have seen not marauding criminals, but women who look a lot like them.
“The images that are emerging as the most indelible in the public mind are a line of mothers taking the tear gas,” said Rick Perlstein, a historian who has written extensively on the Nixon era. “Or a 53-year-old Navy vet asking people to honor their oath to the Constitution of the United States.”
There have also been the dads with leaf blowers. And the peaceful protesters who were violently cleared from Lafayette Square outside the White House in June for a presidential photo op may represent one of the enduring scenes of Mr. Trump’s presidency.
In this moment, President Trump also differs from Nixon in 1968 in a crucial way. Nixon wasn’t yet president; he wasn’t in charge. It’s much harder to run against disorder when it happens on your watch, Mr. Perlstein said. And fanning fears of crime and violence was less effective for President Nixon later in his presidency for just that reason.
In recent decades, cities have grown safer, and the suburbs have become much more racially and economically diverse. They have been sites of Black Lives Matter protests, too. About one in 10 suburban voters in the Times/Siena poll said they had participated in such a demonstration. A clear majority of suburban voters also said they believed there were broader patterns in America of excessive police violence toward African-Americans and bias against them in the criminal justice system.
For white suburban voters who do still live in segregated communities, the historian Matthew Lassiter said that threats today to suburban exclusion are much weaker than they were when President Nixon was elected. At the time, busing was still on the table. So was the possibility that desegregation plans might send students across city lines to neighboring school districts. Courts were still considering whether it was constitutional for wealthy districts to spend far more on education than poorer ones, or for suburban municipalities to keep out low-income housing.
“The threat of comprehensive restructuring of suburban privilege was real in the late ’60s and early ’70s because it was coming from the courts, and it was coming from civil rights litigants who had a federal judiciary that was going to go all the way with them,” said Mr. Lassiter, a professor at the University of Michigan.
That was true until President Nixon put four justices on the Supreme Court, who together killed many of those remedies to racial and economic segregation. Today, it’s simply less effective to warn that anyone is coming to destroy the “Suburban Lifestyle Dream” of advantaged schools and single-family neighborhoods because a previous generation of politicians and white voters were so successful at protecting it.
President Trump’s warnings today — that Mr. Biden will defund the police, and take federal control of local zoning laws — carry significantly less weight. Mr. Biden has said he doesn’t support defunding the police. And the Obama-era fair-housing rule, which the Trump administration announced it would end last week, is both too bureaucratic and incremental to be easily wielded as a boogeyman. Its central goal was to prod local governments to consider segregation patterns in their planning.
At times, President Trump himself has seemed unsure how to describe what’s so scary about that, leaving those arguments to op-eds by others. If anything, his foray into the topic may teach some moderate and liberal voters that their yard signs opposing affordable housing and denser zoning put them in awkward alignment with President Trump.
Historians who look back at the Nixon era add that this president is unlikely to succeed with white suburban voters for one more reason: He’s not as subtle about it as President Nixon, or Vice President Spiro Agnew, or Ronald Reagan after them.
“They understood something about race that Trump doesn’t understand,” Mr. Lassiter said. “Voters don’t want racial privilege challenged, but they don’t want to be explicitly reminded that racism is underneath their position.”
Because that tension persists, the historian Lily Geismer is skeptical that white suburban voters who support Black Lives Matter protests now — and may be Biden voters in the fall — will also back affordable housing that would diversify their neighborhoods or support city budgets that would cut police funding. In the Times/Siena survey, 49 percent of suburban voters said they strongly opposed reducing funding to police departments.
Professor Geismer, who teaches at Claremont McKenna College, noted that some of these same voters demonstrating for racial justice today are also talking about pulling their children from public schools during the coronavirus crisis and hiring private tutors.
“The idea that we support Black Lives Matter but we’re trying to do everything we can to protect our own children’s educational well-being — that’s the disconnect I see,” she said.
Ultimately, these are two separate questions: how suburban voters will respond to President Trump in the fall, and what they’ll support after the election, regardless of its outcome.