Economy & Work

Can Cities Counter the Power of President-Elect Trump?

As the federal government turns toward nationalism, local governments will become crucial beacons of pluralism.

Can Cities Counter President-Elect Trump?

A woman dressed as the Statue of Liberty waves an American flag in front of the highway as thousands of people protest in the streets against President-elect Donald Trump in Los Angeles on Nov. 12. (Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)

This post originally appeared at The Nation.

The American political establishment is going through the motions of uniting around Donald Trump, shocking though his victory has been for the 37 percent of Americans who said that fear was their first reaction to his election. All the necessary civic pleasantries have been spoken. “Heal the divisions of a long campaign,” said Paul Ryan. We owe Trump “an open mind and chance to lead,” said Secretary Hillary Clinton. “We are all on one team,” said President Barack Obama. They have to say these things to symbolize the peaceful transition of power of which our democracy boasts. And yes, on Nov. 10, the man who for more than five years denied President Obama’s American citizenship and was endorsed by the KKK was cordially received by that first black president of the United States as his successor and our — astonishing words! — president-elect, who in turn showed the sitting president deference and respect.

In the interdependent world in which we live, however, an American civics lesson is not enough. We also have a responsibility to give expression to the global perspective that defines and emanates from the rest of the world — and also, crucially, from oases of diversity and inclusion within our own borders. Trump’s winning “America First” message (USA! USA!) hardly does the job.

Seen from a global historical perspective, the disconcerting truth is that Donald Trump and his voters are sailing not merely in the face of the winds of change but against history’s dominant trends: global demographics are against him, as are American demographics; the reality of urbanization is against him; the mobility of peoples is against him; and the growing dysfunction of national sovereignty on an irreversibly interdependent planet is against him. In this world without borders, where no one nation can solve global problems alone and walls are not so much malevolent as irrelevant, the cosmopolitan voice is also history’s voice — reality’s voice — and a viable American voice too. It represents a majority of the world’s population, four-fifths of its GDP, and speaks for our inexorable urban destiny. We cannot allow it to be lost in the noise of parochial national xenophobia, or self-indulgent recrimination about why Democrats lost, for it speaks for us too.

The cosmopolitan voice is, of course, the voice of cities, and it is the natural antidote to Trump. Look carefully at the electoral map: It is not, as pundits now insist, the victory of the heartland, from Pennsylvania and Ohio to Wisconsin and Michigan, over the two liberal coasts; it is the victory of suburban, exurban and rural counties over cities — blue islands found in every red state in the nation. And it is this national, gerrymandered electoral map, mediated by an undemocratic electoral college, that prevented the urban vote from winning the White House — even though it won the majority. I say this not to recriminate but to focus on the real division of America, which is urban/rural right across the land, not coastal/interior.

The new American reality suggests a very particular role for cities. The dominance of the Trump brand of Republican Party over all three branches of government renders the old balance of powers ineffective. Yet America’s cities and the networks they have forged with cities across the world — in bodies like the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, the US Conference of MayorsEuroCities and the new Global Parliament of Mayors.

It is the federalist principle, encoded in the Ninth and 10th Amendments (the Second Amendment isn’t the end of the Bill of Rights), that offers an alternative — a vertical separation of powers: “the enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people,” reads the Ninth. And “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people,” adds the 10th.

Today it is America’s cities that can confront President Trump, asserting, “You are our president, but you are not the representative of our principles.” The Constitution empowers us to defend our sacred beliefs and rights — inclusion, diversity, climate action and social justice. And when a Washington patriot cries “USA USA!” an urban patriot will proudly respond “Planet Earth!”

The role of cities rests on right: the obligation under the social contract to uphold the life, liberty and sustainability of their citizens — something nation-states have shown themselves increasingly incapable of doing. Once upon a time, nations aspired to universality, and local jurisdictions were parochial and particularistic. Today the valence is reversed, and cities speak to global common goods — marriage rights, minimum wage, climate action, creative culture, refuge for immigrants — while nations have grown parochial and xenophobic. Urbanity is a global virtue associated with diversity and multiculturalism; nationalism has a parochial character upheld by walls.

So, as we watch the Republican Party try to undo the Obama legacy, and close the road to immigration and inclusion, we need to listen to the voice of cities: Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles and Mayor Marty Walsh of Boston on the coasts, but also mayors from the heartland like Megan Barry of Nashville and Kasim Reed of Atlanta; notable Democratic mayors like Bill de Blasio of New York and Michael Hancock of Denver, but also Republican mayors with urban agendas like Mick Cornett of Oklahoma City and Richard Berry of Albequerque, who are attuned to urban challenges rather than ideology. These mayors and their cities are as much America as the myriad red counties that turned back the clock in Washington. And they will tell you that what they share with Paris and Cape Town and Seoul and London is as important as what they share with Washington, DC.

They will remind us that, in order to hear the voice of England after Brexit, we must listen to the voice of Marvin Rees, a newly elected biracial mayor of Bristol, and Sadiq Kahn, the son of a Pakistani bus driver who is now the mayor of London. They will rebuke Marine Le Pen of the National Front for saying the United States and France are finally bound together by a shared contempt for Muslims and a fear of immigrants by pointing to the Spanish-born mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, who is the new chair of C40 Cities, and who is working to forge a new “Grand Metropole Paris” that incorporates both the wealthy inner city and the immigrant suburbs that lie beyond the périphérique.

It is America’s cities that can confront President Trump, asserting, ‘you are not the representative of our principles.’

Trump is no more the sole source for an American view on immigrants than Geert Wilders, the anti-Muslim Dutch rabble-rouser, is the sole voice of the Dutch view. Listen, rather, to Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb, the Moroccan-born mayor of Rotterdam, who is only incidentally a Muslim and massively popular; or to Jozias van Aartsen, the mayor of The Hague who, in September, hosted the founding meeting of a new Global Parliament of Mayors, which may become to cities what the United Nations once hoped to become for nations.

If you want to see which way history is facing, consult visionaries like Mayor Park Won-soon of Seoul and Mayor Patricia de Lille of Cape Town; Mayor Akel Biltaji of Amman, who is host to 1.3 million Syrian refugees; and, again, Mayor Cornett, a Republican who is president of the US Conference of Mayors and works closely with New York’s Mayor de Blasio.

For the simple truth that President-elect Trump will have to accept if he does not want to destroy the nation he aspires to lead is that nation-states are in trouble, and national governments are in disarray from Brazil and Belgium to Hungary and the Philippines — not least of all because they have refused to acknowledge the blunt realities of interdependence. The road to prosperity, no less than the road to global democracy, runs not through states but through cities. Cities are now the guardians of the future, the bastions of diversity.

Yes, America needs to hear the voice of the “forgotten” voters who put Donald Trump into the White House — the angry rural whites and school dropouts and glowering monoculturalists and women for whom class weighs heavier than gender.

Yes, America needs to hear the voice of the “forgotten” voters who put Donald Trump into the White House — the angry rural whites and school dropouts and glowering monoculturalists and women for whom class weighs heavier than gender. Bill Clinton spoke prophetically about them back in 1994, in the wake of an earlier revolution that became known as Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, when a wave of disgruntled rural voters elected 80 new and deeply parochial congressmen (not one of them in possession of a passport!) and flipped the House of Representatives, which then proceeded to block most of what then President Clinton was trying to enact. The president said back then, prompted by an impassioned Hillary, and despite the angry ideological protests of consultants like me:

“I know how you feel. I understand Hillary’s sense of outrage. It makes me mad, too. Sure, we lost our base in the South and boys voted for Gingrich. But let me tell you something. I know these boys, I grew up with them. Hardworking, poor white boys who feel left out. Feel that our reforms always come at their expense. Think about it, every progressive advance our country has made since the Civil War has been on their backs. They’re the ones asked to pay the price of progress. Now, we are the party of progress, but let me tell you, until we find a way to include those boys in our programs, until we stop making them pay the whole price of liberty for others, we are never going to unite our party, never really going to have change that sticks.”

Clinton’s prophetic words come tumbling down across the decades, a frenzied echo from voices from the American past that, having been ignored, have defeated Hillary and now stand ready to take the American future hostage. But however justified, however deaf Democrats and liberals have been to these rumbling voices, we cannot afford to make war on each other, or on history, in their name. In remembering America’s forgotten, we cannot forget the world of 8 billion people, most of whom are neither American nor white nor “Western,” with whom our survival is inextricably bound and from whom no wall can separate us. We cannot permit President Trump to turn the resentment of power into its concentration and abuse.

To contain it, to divide it, to prevent its abuse will now be the task of cities, which must find a way to acknowledge grievance without scapegoating those same people the aggrieved have been encouraged to blame. It is cities that can, perhaps, find a way to allow black and white to join in opposition to monopoly power rather than, by setting them against one another, assure its consolidation. It is in cities where Martin Luther King, at the end of his life, devoted himself to the pursuit of racial justice for both blacks and whites in his Operation Breadbasket. That must be the model.

Ironically, Donald Trump is a city boy from Queens — albeit with Manhattan-style power-broker aspirations — with a gift for manipulating the fears and resentments of those who despise the city. Maybe the city boy can find a way to listen to the voice of cities as well of the suburbs and countryside. Maybe cities can make him.

Benjamin Barber

Benjamin Barber is distinguished senior fellow at Fordham Law School’s Urban Consortium, and the author most recently of If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities and the forthcoming Cool Cities: City Sovereignty and the Urban Fix to Global Warming. Follow him on Twitter: @BenjaminRBarber.