The White House’s move this week to eliminate a fair housing rule seems like it came out of left field — until you take a look at the rhetoric behind President Donald Trump’s re-election bid. Trump cast the repeal of the housing rule as a step against overreach, but the political message was one of suburban grievance and white flight.
The soon-to-be-scrapped Obama-era rule sought to name and shame areas that weren’t keeping pace with a diversifying population by requiring communities to identify patterns of racial discrimination in housing and remedy them. Since coming to office, Trump has cast the regulation as a threat to white suburbia. In 2018, he ordered the Department of Housing and Urban Development to suspend its enforcement of the rule. Heading into his 2020 re-election bid, he ordered it purged entirely in a way that leverages the power of the Presidency to his political advantage. When the President changes such a rule, it’s more than just a press release. It is a serious policy shift that no one else in the country can match pound for pound, with serious consequences for families of color and what roofs are available over their heads.
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The rhetoric Trump has used makes it very clear he sees this as a favor to his mostly white base. In June 30 tweet, Trump said the fair-housing rule was “not fair to homeowners” — at a moment when Black home ownership rates are at modern-era lows and questions of racial justice are at the fore. On July 16, Trump said that Democrats wanted to “abolish our beautiful and successful suburbs” and “eliminate single-family zoning, destroy the value of houses and communities already built.” In a follow-up tweet on July 23, Trump warned his presumptive Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, would “destroy your neighborhood and your American Dream” by forcing housing fairness. The explicit target audience for the message: “The Suburban Housewives of America.”
Trump’s re-election campaign has made fears in the suburbs are cornerstone of its strategy, and with good reason: Strategists expect suburbanites to comprise half of the electorate this fall, just as it was in 2016. In broadcast and digital ads, Trump warns voters that their personal safety hinges on him winning a second term. They are naked appeals to white voters’ fear, and Trump equates those voters with the suburbs.
That could be a miscalculation with disastrous consequences for the President. Polls show Trump with softening public support, especially among women, and they are the deciders in the suburbs. An ABC News/ Washington Post poll released July 19 shows Trump trailing among suburban women by a 24-point gap. Among all suburbanites, Biden leads by nine points in the ABC/ Post poll, and Biden led by 25 points according to a Marist/ NPR poll released in June. It’s quite the shift from 2016, when Trump carried the ’burbs by four points, according to exit polls.
In Trump’s vision of the country, the suburbs are full of voters who fled the cities as part of a white-flight migration. In reality, the idea of the suburbs being a safe space of majority-white neighborhoods is a myth straight out of the 1970s. National trends have shown America’s suburbs have been diversifying for years, while retaining high levels of education that often correspond with higher incomes. Trump’s tactics of insisting on outdated demographics and trying to whip up a rivalry between suburban white voters and urban Black and Latino voters is familiar to anyone who watched his 2016 campaign. But given a double-digit swing in suburban voters’ poll answers, maybe Trump’s message of grievance and walk-back of civil rights aren’t as resonant as they were before.
A version of this article first appeared in The DC Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox every weekday.