How Our Cities Will Save Us From Trump

Min Naing speaking with media at airport action against Trump immigration order.
Min Naing speaking with media at airport action against Trump immigration order.

Cities are the future, again. After decades of disinvestment stretching back to the end of WW II, real estate capital, responding to changing middle-class tastes and energy trends, reversed course in the 90s, prompting a flood of urban development. The return of the middle classes brought new prestige and power to cities, along with rising rents and displacement for those who’d never left.

The booming, gentrified city took hold first on the coasts, and then in mid-western and southern centers once thought by critics like Edward Glaeser to be dead. The sequence of interlopers has become a cliche. First came the artists, then creative class hipsters-- advertisers, architects, media execs and journalists--then the cadre of bankers and lawyers boosted by the financialization of the economy, and now the tech heads, as knowledge workers previously ensconced in suburban office parks stream into NYC, San Francisco and Seattle. Urban student populations grew in parallel and a new working class of immigrants arose to fill service sector and construction jobs.

Meanwhile, communities of color and the segment of white working-class ethnics who had never abandoned cities--the Do the Right Thing duality-- along with the original bohemians--Patti Smith’s less famous neighbors in the Chelsea hotel--hung on as best they could.

Despite the intensifying battles around rents and displacement, all of these diverse segments have on thing in common: they detest Trumpism, and its Bannon-authored shock doctrine of apocalypse and theocratic reconstruction. Trump’s support in cities, our centers of finance, branding, media, medicine and now technology, is next to nil. Of the nation’s five largest cities, his best showing at the polls was in Houston, where he won 43% to Clinton’s 54%. Trump fared woefully in the other four, gaining 19% in NYC, 23% in LA, 13% in Chicago and 15% in Philadelphia.

The coalition between the urban elites and middle classes--who’ve come out on top in the neoliberal age---and the people of color who’ve felt the brunt of the repression brought on by neoliberal restructuring--mass unemployment, incarceration--appears likely to hold despite its fraughtness, and that’s for one reason: Bannon’s war--rooted in an unstable ideology of anti-capitalism with a hyper-capitalist base, racism and xenophobia--has creative class hipsters, urban intellectuals and people of color in its crosshairs.

The lack of any urban base is a huge obstacle to Trumpism. Big Capital--finance, tech and ascendant knowledge-driven corporations--has placed all of its chips--its real estate, its human resources, its branding apparatus, and its R & D--in cities. Capitalism cannot afford a battle to the death with those who propel its brands and make it hum. The physical proximity of key assets to this mass anti-Trump constituency provides endless and highly strategic opportunities for direct action, as witnessed in the weekend mass momentum protests at airports.

Historically, far right European movements have often dabbled in anti-urban ideology, but there is little precedent for a fascist movement that failed to build a coherent urban strategy. Mussolini’s early base in Milan and his Blackshirt marches on Rome were key to the rise of Italian fascism. Hitler dispatched Goebbels to Berlin to win over the lower-middle-class and proletariat base in the mid-1920s. By 1933, according to German critic Uwe Klußmann, “a combination of street brutality and political smarts succeeded in catapulting the party past rival parties.”

Bannon has done none of this painstaking work. While his hardline base of rural and Tea Party suburbanites is substantial, it is dispersed and spends far more time in chat rooms than town squares. The power of online networks and propaganda outlets is not to be discounted--after all it has propelled Bannon to his status as a diabolical global overlord--but the fascists’ lack of street mobiilization capacity and their distance from capital’s key assets will neuter them in the next phase of urban-centric mass mobilization.

How best to seize this advantage? The airport actions provide a template. Momentum protests at key moments, fed by social media and the networks that proliferate in cities, at capital’s core strategic assets to shut them down. The targets of these actions are the titans of capital headquartered in cities who run the Preibus wing of the party, those who disdain uncertainty and have too much to lose in cities--their headquarters, their intellectual assets and their global trend-setting consumer base. The onus falls particularly on New Yorkers in this vein because of their demonstrated mobilization capacity and the concentration of so many key assets and Preibus-wing institutions and insiders. In mobilizing, it’s important to note that part of Bannon’s strategy is to draw out and provoke response, but that in no way discounts the imperative of mass action. To maximize the impact of direct action, the diverse urban masses will have to acclimate to a level of militancy unfamiliar to many.

Another path is hashtag-driven brand destruction of the kind that has hobbled Uber over the last week. The density of consumer vanguardists in cities makes consumer action trenchant, and brands with any urban appeal, which is almost all brands, now recognize the peril of associating with the regime. Those who cross that line must be punished mercilessly through social media boycotts. At the regional level, there are Trump functionaries and donors in every major metro--developers, retailers, philanthropists--and they too make strategic targets for boycotts and counter-branding.

Finally, there is the growing prospect of mass job action along the lines of a general strike. Bannon’s perverse war and Trump’s incompetence has radicalized the urban office-worker masses like nothing else could have, and that leaves open the prospect of an unprecedented walk off. If our cities rally to such an occasion, one thing is certain: the phone calls to Trumpists from the moneymen used to having their way in the time before Bannon will be blistering.

A postscript: Even as we engage in this existential battle, the work must begin in cities to shore up the anti-fascist coalition by coming to terms with the displacement and lack of affordable housing putting the most stalwart progressives--those targeted by right-wing ideologies for their skin color and class status--at risk.

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