It’s not really news when an ambitious fellow from a country town decides to move to Chicago. But 56-year-old Darren Bailey, who announced last month that he is living in the dark-glass skyscraper known to most Chicagoans as the John Hancock Center, is not just any farm boy with big dreams. He’s the Republican nominee for governor.
How’s life in the big city?
“Chicago is living the purge, when criminals ravage at will, and the cops stand down,” Bailey told reporters last month, making a reference to the horror franchise in which murder is legal for one night a year. The state senator has spent most of his campaign decrying Chicago as a “crime-ridden, corrupt, dysfunctional hellhole,” and sponsored a bill in the Illinois Senate to make Chicago its own state, freeing farmers like him from the city’s left-wing political influence.
Why move to Sodom on the lake? “I want to immerse myself in the culture,” Bailey said. It’s an unusual tactic, albeit one with some history. Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne moved into the Cabrini-Green homes, a public housing project, in 1981. The architect Ernő Goldfinger briefly lived at the top of Trellick Tower, the London council block he designed in 1972, inspiring J.G. Ballard’s book High-Rise.
His stunt may have grabbed headlines, but Bailey’s rhetoric about Chicago is less unusual. Bashing the country’s cities and the people who live there has found new life in the Donald Trump era as Republicans try to ape the former president’s blend of nastiness and victimhood. An example of the former was Trump’s comparisons of Chicago and Baltimore to Afghanistan. An example of the latter was his incessant railing against the “elites,” though it seemed he was conscious that this may have been a tough sell from a man with a gold toilet. (“Why are they elite?” he wondered aloud at a 2018 rally. “I have a much better apartment than they do. I’m smarter than they are. I’m richer than they are. I became president, and they didn’t.”) It’s like the entire Republican Party is running for police commissioner of Gotham City.
Each tactic is alive and well as the midterms approach. Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance does a nice job hitting both notes. “I have to go to New York soon and I’m trying to figure out where to stay,” he tweeted last summer. “I have heard it’s disgusting and violent there. But is it like Walking Dead Season 1 or Season 4?” Around the same time: “How do we stop the elites from plundering the greatest country in the world?”
Disgusting and violent, but also rich and powerful? It’s a critique of New York City that’s not wrong, exactly, but it’s certainly not meant to be the least bit sympathetic or constructive. And no city is as irredeemably messed up and as powerfully elite as San Francisco, whose troubles with homelessness, street crime, and school policy have become an obsession of the Wall Street Journal opinion page, even as the city functions as a metonym for the technology industry and its thought policing. The city’s “long transition to flowers-in-your-hair progressivism,” the Journal’s Daniel Henninger writes, is “a suicide pact.”
To a certain degree, disgust and mistrust for the American city, laced with bits of antisemitism, xenophobia, and racism, dates back to Thomas Jefferson. When Vance says “the professors are the enemy,” he’s quoting Richard Nixon. In April, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton complained: “They want to make you live in downtown areas, high-rise buildings, walk to work or take the subway … They want to get you out of your pickup truck, out of your SUV, out of your home in the suburbs where you can have a backyard with your kids.” That’s the rhetoric of the Agenda 21 conspiracy. (I wish Democrats wanted anyone to get out of their pickup truck!)
Still, the nation’s leading conservative politicians didn’t always sound like Travis Bickle. On the campaign trail in 2008, after Sarah Palin made her infamous “real America” remark to an audience in North Carolina, she had to apologize!
No such luck with Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters, who, when asked about the country’s gun violence epidemic, said: “It’s people in Chicago, St. Louis shooting each other. Very often, you know, Black people, frankly.” (On Sunday, he shared on Twitter a pair of photos of bloody bodies that allegedly belong to Los Angeles store owners killed while trying to prevent robberies.)
To some extent, it’s not hard to explain the circumstances that have led one of the country’s two major political parties to line up behind a leader who says things like, “Right here in Ohio, our once-great cities are now scenes of horror riddled with bullet holes and soaked in blood.” The Republican Party is no longer competitive in major population centers, so lambasting those places and the people who live there can be construed as an attack on the Democratic Party. Often, though, it transcends partisan politics. It’s a message to rile up Americans whose urban reality—even if, like most Trump voters, they live in the suburbs—consists of violent viral videos filtered through conservative news sources.
It’s impossible to imagine the shoe on the other foot. Barack Obama was pilloried for his observation that small-town residents “cling to guns or religion”; Hillary Clinton’s great sin was to label Trump supporters a “basket of deplorables.” There’s simply no equivalent rhetoric on this side of the city line.
In 2013, in the aftermath of the Romney-Ryan rout in metropolitan America, Ed Glaeser wrote in City Journal—the house organ of the right-leaning think tank the Manhattan Institute—that Republicans should not give up on cities. Glaeser makes a convincing case that some conservative ideas could find traction with urbanites, though the piece feels about as distant from American politics in 2022 as the Epic of Gilgamesh. Congestion pricing? Zoning reform? Streamlined city services? This is not a language Republicans speak.
Republicans justify the way they talk about cities by saying they are being tough on crime, responding to one of voters’ main concerns. “For the last eight or nine months I could just see [crime] coming as the worst issue for the party in power,” a GOP Senate strategist recently told the Washington Post. The result is a string of scary ads associating criminals with Democratic candidates that some critics have called racist. But Republicans don’t actually have any ideas about solving crime. They just want to revel in its rise.
None of this is actually new, suggests Steven Conn, a historian at Miami University of Ohio and the author of Americans Against the City. “The general tune of the song is the same,” he told me. “What’s underneath all this rhetoric is an anti-urban animus that has two parts. The first has to do with heterogeneity. In the early 20th century, it was ‘Jews and Italians’—substitute ‘Blacks and Mexicans.’ The second was cities were places where governmental and collective action made life better, so for your rugged libertarianism, cities represent the antithesis.”
And not only that, Conn suggested. The real injury, in a country where 4 in 5 people now live in urban areas, is that life is better there. Just as earlier generations bemoaned the sinful city but envied their electricity and indoor plumbing, today’s GOP base knows that despite what Trump calls “blood, death, and suffering on a scale once unthinkable,” urbanites in the United States have it better. They have faster internet, higher incomes, and more jobs to choose from. They also live longer. Some of them even have gold toilets.