Cities as Nodes of Resistance to the Trump Agenda

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 comes to us from Peter Eisinger who is Professor Emeritus at The New School in New York City.  He has published extensively on urban politics and economic development including several articles in Urban Affairs Review.  He has recently written about the future of Detroit.

During the Obama years cities around the nation articulated or actively pursued policy initiatives at the vanguard of progressivism.  Sometimes these policy commitments were entirely consistent with Obama’s agenda (green cities, gun control) and sometimes they went beyond (the $15 minimum wage, sanctuary cities), but in general the cities were partners with Washington in the progressive project.   Many cities also embraced global trade, an Obama priority, seeing both foreign direct investment and export as crucial to local economic fortunes.  As the Trump era begins, however, these various progressive and globalist initiatives and commitments will clearly put cities in stark opposition to the national government.   Cities across the country—not simply on the coasts but also in the heartland—are already emerging as active or de facto nodes of resistance to the Trump agenda.

This resistance may be understood in two ways:  one is that even during the first weeks of the Trump presidency, cities have clearly become the principal sites of vocal opposition, that is, places for mass protests.  Notably, local elected leaders have led or spoken at some of these street protests or associated themselves in other ways with the protesters.   If the first month of the new presidency is any indication, the street protests taking place in cities, such as the women’s marches and the actions against the refugee ban, will surpass in sheer numbers the most significant protest movements of the Obama years such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter.  The last time so many Americans mobilized in the streets was during the Vietnam war, and the governance challenges these protests posed for President Johnson might serve as an object lesson for President Trump.

But there is a second and perhaps more enduring way in which cities will emerge as nodes of resistance and that is as institutional opponents.  Led by their elected leaders, most city governments are not only unlikely to abandon progressive policy and globalization initiatives but they will expand and defend them in defiance of federal priorities and federal constraints.

Consider the scope of institutional resistance in particular, that is, the range of issues on which local laws and policy commitments run contrary to the Trump agenda.

By the beginning of February, 2017, 1060 cities and towns in the United States had signed on to the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, committing themselves to meet Kyoto Protocol environmental standards.[1]   As the new president purports to believe that climate change is a hoax and works to dismantle various environmental regulations, local governments, big and small and in every state in the nation, have promised to pursue anti-sprawl land use planning, rigorous recycling, sustainable building codes, and emission reduction technologies for various municipal operations, among many other initiatives.  Through organizations like the U.S. Conference of Mayors, these local governments are committed to maintain a persistent lobbying force in Washington for environmental protection in the face of climate change.

Municipal governments have also joined the movement to raise minimum wages in the face of congressional reluctance to do so at the national level.   As Donald Trump took the oath of office, 30 cities had passed minimum wage laws.  Trump’s position on this issue has been inconsistent.[2]   He has argued at one point that having a low minimum wage was not a bad thing for the country; at another time he suggested that the federal minimum wage was fine where it was but that with the high economic growth he has promised, it would be unnecessary.   Trump’s choice for Labor Secretary is on record opposing President Obama’s effort to raise the minimum wage to $10.10.  Many of the local efforts to establish a minimum wage set a $15 per hour target.

Certainly the most contentious area of conflict between cities and the Trump administration in its first month is in the enforcement of immigration laws.   Thirty-nine cities have declared themselves “sanctuary cities,” a general and non-legal term for a city that refuses to one degree or another to cooperate fully with federal immigration officials in detaining and deporting immigrants without the proper documentation.  According to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, 39 cities had declared themselves sanctuary cities by the end of January, 2017.  President Trump has threatened to withhold federal funds from such cities, and pursuant to that threat, San Francisco has already lodged a lawsuit against the president challenging the constitutionality of such a threat.

Environmental policy, the minimum wage, and sanctuary protections are just some of the issues over which cities clash with the new Trump administration.   There are no doubt others that will likely divide Washington and municipal leaders at some point: gun control, LGBT rights, federal support for affordable housing, and even the future of health care policy.  Imagine the burden on municipal hospital emergency rooms when and if the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid funding are cut or eliminated.

City interests and the priorities of the Trump administration diverge not only in various policy arenas but also in the matter of trade.  A 2011 National League of Cities survey of its members found that 83% believed that expanding foreign trade was crucial to local economic prosperity.[3]  Urban economies are not only profoundly dependent on trade, but their principal trading partners tend to be those very countries the Trump administration has castigated for “taking advantage” of the United States: Mexico and China.   Firms in the Houston metropolitan area, for example, generate $80 billion worth of trade per year, with Mexico, China and Canada as the three most important partners [4].   Detroit’s ($44 billion total trade) most important trading partner is Mexico, and Seattle’s ($35 billion total trade) is China.  Other cities have similar trading profiles.   It is unclear how any individual city might resist or defy a trade war, but city lobbying organizations like the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities are likely to mount a concerted campaign to maintain trade agreements.[5]

City resistance to the Trump agenda promises a high level of political and official defiance, both in the streets and in city hall.    While coastal cities will no doubt be most prominent in contesting the president, many urban centers in the middle of the country will also be affected and will not always accede quietly to White House priorities.    Although opposition by cities to the Trump agenda is by its nature largely decentralized, these various nodes of resistance nevertheless represent a significant challenge to the ability of the president to govern.   Members of Congress from urban districts will be under pressure to serve as a constant source of resistance.   Local elected officials will embrace defiance.   Citizens will come into the streets under the gaze of television newshour cameras.   Interest groups and cities themselves will lodge lawsuits against Trump initiatives.   Little that happens in the urban arena will serve to advance the Trump agenda.

[1] U.S. Conference of Mayors, Mayors Climate Protection Center, List of Cities that Have Signed On, Feb. 2, 2017.

[2] Michelle Ye Hee Lee, “A Guide to All of Donald Trump’s Flip-Flops on the Minimum Wage,” Washington Post, August 3, 2016.

[3] National League of Cities, “Strategies for Globally Competitive Cities,” Washington, DC: National League of Cities, 2011.

[4] Global Trade, “Top 50 Cities for Global Trade,” July 2012.

[5] For example, the U.S. Conference of Mayors formally supported the Transpacific Partnership trade agreement(TPP) in May, 2016 as key to generating economic growth in the nation’s cities and metro areas.

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


2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Cities leading in fight against healthcare repeal – Canton, OH Resolution | Change is Messy
  2. Progressive Urbanism in Small Towns: The Contingencies of Governing From the Left – Urban Affairs Forum

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