Trump and Urbanism: Defending the Unwalled City

Editor’s Note: This essay is part of an Urban Affairs Forum’s Scholars Series on “What the Trump Administration Should Know About Cities.”  This essay is by Professor Todd Swanstrom who is the Des Lee Professor of Community Collaboration and Public Policy Administration at the University of Missouri – St. Louis.  He is the author of many articles and books including Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century (with Peter Dreier and John Mollenkopf).  You can read UAR’s recent series on Place Matters here and list to our podcast with him here.

By Todd Swanstrom (University of Missouri – St. Louis)

Donald Trump ran against cities.   During the campaign, he called inner cities “disasters,” implying that this was caused by flawed liberal policies.  Trump’s negative portrayal of cities continued after the election.  In his Inaugural Address he painted a bleak picture of “[m]others and children trapped in our inner cities, rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape,”  and he decried “the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives.”

Running against cities is a time-honored tradition in American politics, with conservative politicians use cities as foils to mobilize small town and rural voters.  They portray cities as feral places where the welfare state, impersonal bureaucracies, and excessive immigration have corroded traditional moral values.  According to this view, city dwellers have lost their patriotism and embraced a multicultural moral relativism that treats all cultures and value systems as equal.   In addition to the threat of moral decay, politicians often depict cities as welfare sumps, forcing small town and rural taxpayers to fit the bill pay for the laziness and government dependency of the urban underclass.

This one-sided portrayal of cities as economic, social, and moral disasters is clearly false.  Although the murder rate is up slightly in recent years, mostly driven by a few cities like Chicago, in 2016 the overall crime rate in the thirty largest cities was at its “lowest point in a generation” (Friedman, Grawert & Cullen 2016, p. 3).  Research shows that, on average, immigrants commit less crimes than native-born Americans (Bersanyi 2012) and cities with large immigrant populations have lower crime rates than cities with few immigrants (Adelman, et al 2016).   Large cities are economic dynamos.    City size and density enhance economic productivity and innovation.  Workers in metropolitan areas with populations over 1 million are 50 percent more productive than workers in small metros (Glaeser 2011, 6).  As highly educated professionals cluster in metropolitan areas, their productivity increases, as do their salaries (Moretti 2012).    To be sure, cities also have growing areas of concentrated poverty plagued by high crime and unemployment, but even here Trump’s claim that they are “disasters” is overdrawn, ignoring the valuable work done by churches, nonprofits, and individual volunteers.

The charge that urban dwellers lack patriotism and have jettisoned traditional values for moral relativism is more difficult to evaluate.  In fact, I think it truthful to say that city dweller are more committed to the cosmopolitan values of diversity and tolerance.  Cities are places where people of different religions, races, ethnicities, and world views can learn to get along in the modern world.  As Louis Wirth put it in his classic essay, “Urbanism as a Way of Life”:

The juxtaposition of divergent personalities and modes of life [in cities] tends to produce a relativistic perspective and a sense of toleration of differences which may be regarded as prerequisites of rationality and which lead toward the secularization of life. (Wirth 1969, 155)

The fact that city dwellers are more tolerant of differences does not mean, however, that they have given up their moral values.  The outpouring of patriotism and selfless action that New Yorkers displayed following the 9/11 attacks belies the charge that city residents have embraced moral relativism and are unwilling to defend American values.  Living in cities does tend to promote a different view of morality, however.  By forcing people with very different value systems to rub elbows with each other, cities undermine the idea that any one group has a monopoly on the truth – or that revealed religion or sacred texts can be the basis of political authority.  The Trump Administration would be well-served to realize that cities, with their freedom, endless economic opportunities, and tolerance of diversity, are one of our greatest weapons in the so-called war on terror (Swanstrom 2002).

Having criticized Trump’s distorted view of cities, it would be a mistake, however, to ignore the partial truth in his defense of group loyalties (America first!) and protections for national borders (Build the wall!).  Nationalism remains a powerful force in the world and religious, ethnic and even racial solidarities still matter.  Too often, cosmopolitan elites are quick to celebrate diversity, free trade, and globalization without fully considering their costs.

Successful modern cities are a delicate balance between Gemeinshcaft and Gesellschaft, between loyalty to primary groups and loyalty to universal norms and values.  That delicate balance can be upset when the borders of the city are thrown open to the forces of globalization and the mobility of labor.  Citizens who lack strong communities and institutions of civil society to buffer them against the corrosive effects of globalization will turn to politicians, like Trump or Marine Le Pen in France, who promise to protect them.  It is easy for highly educated professionals to defend free trade when their jobs are not directly threatened.  Although free trade benefits the American economy generally, the flight of jobs to low-wage overseas production sites has devastated many older manufacturing centers (Goodman 2016).  Voters in these deindustrialized spaces scattered across the Midwest and South played a key role in elevating Trump to the presidency.

Trump’s idea of building a physical wall to protect Americans from illegal immigration is easy to satirize – especially the idea that Mexico will pay for it.  Walls are not, however, without value.  More than a generation ago, Norton Long explores the challenges of the modern “unwalled city.”  The traditional walled city nurtured strong civic loyalties based on the reality that everyone shared a common fate.  Citizens were willing to sacrifice their lives, if necessary, to defend the city’s walls.  What Long meant by the modern “unwalled city” is not the absence of physical walls but the fact that cities are so easily penetrated by market forces.  As Long put it:   “The nation-state of modern capitalism has opened up the walls of the older city to the almost full force of the regional and national market” (Long 1972, 95).  We could add today the full force of the global market.

For many voters Trump’s wall on the Mexican border or his threat to erect tariff walls to protect American workers represent efforts to protect communities from the destructive forces of globalization and the market.  Citizens have legitimate concerns that history is moving too fast and that forces beyond their control are undermining communities.  Walls or bans on immigration are not the answer but citizens need a sense that we can control our borders.   High tariffs are not the answer either.  We are inextricably tied to the global economy.  The federal government needs stronger government policies, such as enhanced unemployment insurance, job training, and local economic development grants.  Instead of dismantling public programs, government needs to strengthen its partnership with the vast array of nonprofit associations that help individuals and communities to cope with the stresses of globalization (Salamon 1995).


Adelman, Robert, et al. 2016. “Urban Crime Rates and the Changing Face of Immigration: Evidence Across Four Decades,” Journal of Ethnicity and Criminal Justice, Vol. 15, Issue 1: 52-77.

Bersanyi, Bianca E. 2012.  “An Examination of First and Second Generation Immigrant Offending Trajectories,” Justice Quarterly Volume 31, Issue 2:  315-343.

Freidman, Matthew, Ames C. Garwert, and James Cullen. 2016. Crime in 2016:  A Preliminary Analysis. New York:  Brennan Center for Justice.

Goodman, Peter. 2016.  “More Wealth, More Jobs, but Not for Everyone:  What Fuels the Backlash on Trade,” New York Times, September 28.

Glaeser. Edward. 2011. Triumph of the City:  How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. New York:  Penguin Press.

Long, N. 1972. The Unwalled City: Reconstituting the Urban Community. New York: Basic Books.

Moretti, Enrico. 2012.  The New Geography of Jobs.  Boston, MA:  Houghton-Mifflin.

Salamon, Lester M. 1995. Partners in Public Service:  Government-Nonprofit Relations in the Modern Welfare State.  Baltimore, MD:  Johns Hopkins University Press.

Swanstrom, Todd. 2002. “Are Fear and Urbanism at War?” Urban Affairs Review, Vol. 38, No. 1, pp. 135-140.

Wirth, L. 1969. Urbanism as a way of life. In Classic essays on the culture of cities, edited by R. Sennett. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

The “What the Trump Administration Should Know” Scholars Series was developed and edited by Scott Minkoff (Forum Editor) and Jered Carr (UAR Managing Editor).

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s