Trump’s Scare Tactics Aren’t Working on Women in the SuburbsAugust 25, 2020
CORNELIUS, N.C. — A few years back, in the middle of the day in the middle of a week in the spring, in the parking garage of an upscale mall in Charlotte half an hour south from her house here in the suburbs, Susan Sandler was attacked. A young Black man in a hoodie hit her in the side of the head as she walked to her car. He knocked her unconscious and dragged her across the concrete, took her purse and her wedding ring and left her with ripped jeans and bleeding knees.
If anybody, I thought, might be receptive to the president’s racially loaded warnings of crime spreading from cities and promises to keep the suburbs safe …
“Um, no,” said Sandler, a Democrat who is 59, white and married to a Republican who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and will again (she thinks) come November.
“He fuels the fire and wants to make people like me feel like it’s coming this way,” she said Monday. “It’s just Trump’s rhetoric to try to scare people.”
The suburbs, like this one, just up Interstate 77 from the official site of the start of this week’s Republican National Convention, make up the terrain on which the coming election almost certainly will be decided. The suburbs almost always are a political battlefield, or at least have been for the past generation or more. And if Trump can’t win or even loses a sufficient slice of his support in Cornelius, one of the whitest and most reliably Republican of the key suburbs in this critical swing state, he probably can’t win North Carolina, according to pollsters and strategists. And if he can’t win North Carolina, they say, he probably can’t win reelection. Hence the message he’s been delivering with increasing frequency and ferocity of late, appealing to the “Suburban Housewives of America,” charging that Joe Biden wants to “destroy your neighborhood and your American Dream,” and stressing that residents of American suburbia want “security” and not “low-income housing” forced “down their throats.”
“Why,” he asked in a tweet over the weekend, “would Suburban Women vote for Biden and the Democrats when Democrat run cities are now rampant with crime … which could easily spread to the suburbs?”
It was a prominent and recurring theme on the opening night of the mostly virtual RNC. “They want,” said Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the couple from St. Louis who pointed guns at Black Lives Matter protesters marching past their house earlier this summer, referring to Democrats and echoing language used repeatedly by Trump himself, “to abolish the suburbs.”
The response I got from actual suburban women here on Monday, though, was a mixture of eye-rolls, laughter and confusion. “It’s not something I’m afraid of,” said Connie Searle, 61, retired from a human resources job at a bank.
“I haven’t heard anyone voice concerns about being afraid that angry mobs are going to come out this way,” said Sue Rankin-White, 72, who worked for the Department of Education in Washington, D.C., and lived in Northern Virginia before moving here.
Afraid of the city? “I’m here because of its proximity to Charlotte,” said Camerin Allgood McKinnon, 36, a mother of two who teaches dance.
While Searle, Rankin-White and McKinnon are all Democrats, the prospect of lawlessness in the suburbs doesn’t appear to be a top-of-mind concern for women who aren’t Democrats, either. On Monday evening, I knocked on the front door of Meredith Wolverton, because the school teacher had posted on the Nextdoor app a string of anti-mask comments and a read of her Twitter timeline confirmed her support for Trump, even though she’s registered as unaffiliated. Standing on her porch, though, when I asked if she is frightened by a possible “invasion” of crime coming up from Charlotte, she flatly said no.
“I’m not concerned about that,” she told me. And she also wasn’t afraid of the coronavirus pandemic. What she was afraid of, she suggested, was the Democrats’ overreaction to it. “I want to be able to go to church,” she said. “I want to be able to go to the gym. I want to be able to go do all these things and have my rights as an American citizen.”
Affixed to her house was an American flag. Ditto for the houses around her. Cornelius started more than a century ago as a mill town. Its growth along with the rest of the area in the past few decades has been dizzying—population less than 3,000 in 1990, still not quite 12,000 in 2000, almost 25,000 in 2010 and now more than 30,000 and still going, with people moving in from the Northeast, the Midwest and elsewhere. But it’s maintained a largely Republican character. The mayor is a Republican. All but one of the five-person town board are Republicans. Sen. Thom Tillis started his political career here as a member of that town board.
In 2008, in the four Cornelius precincts, John McCain beat Barack Obama by an aggregate 2,663 votes. In 2012, Mitt Romney beat Obama by 4,043 votes. And in 2016, Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 2,984 votes.
The 2018 midterms, though, ushered in a hard-to-ignore change, a byproduct of court-ordered redrawing of districts but also the shifting demographics and political preferences of the many newcomers. Going into the 2018 election, people here were represented in the state House, the state Senate and the county commission by three Republican men. After? Three Democratic women.
And this summer, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, citizens have clamored to have removed a monument of a Confederate soldier in front of a church on one of the town’s main drags — and marched for racial justice in a peaceful protest organized by a trio of local high school students.
“That is something that would not have happened even five years ago, I don’t believe,” Pam Jones, a founder and leader of a group called Unity in Community, told me.
Electoral implications loom.
“I think the suburbs are going to be really, really blue,” Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist based in Raleigh, told me. “They were growing more Democratic based on urbanization, period; in the age of Trump, that’s been on steroids.”
And the arguments he’s making to suburban women? “These protesters and rioters are going to come into the suburbs?” Jackson said. “He’s having a conversation that frankly only exists on Fox News. It doesn’t exist in any neighborhood in the suburbs.”
“It’s appealing to June Cleaver,” said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at nearby Catawba College, “when June Cleaver’s dead.”
On Monday night, though, at the RNC, this was a thrust of the pitch.
“Anarchists,” “mass chaos in the streets,” and “rioting, looting and vandalism,” Donald Trump Jr. said.
“When you are in trouble and need 911, don’t count on the Democrats,” said his girlfriend, the Trump campaign adviser Kimberly Guilfoyle.
“They’ll disarm you, empty the prisons, lock you in your home, and invite MS-13 to live next door,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida.
“Democrats refuse to denounce the mob,” said Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio.
“Your family will not be safe in the radical Democrats’ America,” said former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley.
“Trump,” said Charlie Kirk, the 26-year-old founder of Turning Point USA, “was elected to protect our families—our loved ones—from the vengeful mob.”
And the McCloskeys from St. Louis drilled home the point. “Just weeks ago, you may have seen us defending our home as a mob of protesters descended on our neighborhood,” he said. “What you saw happen to us could just as easily happen to any of you who are watching from quiet neighborhoods around our country,” she said.
It’s simply not what I heard here in this suburb north of Charlotte.
“That messaging doesn’t resonate with women that I know,” said state Rep. Christy Clark, one of the three Democratic women who in 2018 beat Republican men. “What I’m hearing is a lot of people are concerned about coronavirus and how that’s going to impact their families, especially around the economy—and if they have children, the online education.”
“What they are worried about is Trump’s influence as a bully and as someone who demonizes the other and who doesn’t act like a president should act in anyway,” said another, state Sen. Natasha Marcus.
“I want affordable housing. Because guess who lives in affordable housing? Teachers. Police officers,” Marcus said. “So when Trump says, ‘I’m going to stop that program, so you don’t have to worry, suburban housewives,’ it’s like: Are you talking to me?”