Trump’s war on cities backfires: Attack on Milwaukee may be too far for MAGA

Going after the heartland can't be a winning message weeks before the Republican National Convention comes to town

Published June 17, 2024 5:30AM (EDT)

Former President Donald Trump speaks to guests at a rally on April 02, 2024 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump speaks to guests at a rally on April 02, 2024 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Donald Trump went to Capitol Hill on Thursday to meet with congressional Republicans. It was his first trip there since the January 6 insurrection. 

While there, he received plaudits from his now loyal supporters including some who used to be his severe critics. The former president also discussed his policy positions and shared reflections on a variety of subjects, including the likelihood that Taylor Swift will support him. And, according to the New York Times, Trump “falsely claimed that former Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s daughter once told him that he and her mother might have been a good match.”

Some of those who heard Trump’s remarks reported that he made disparaging remarks about the city of Milwaukee, where the Republican Party will have its National Convention in July. He allegedly called the largest city in Wisconsin, a battleground state Trump lost by fewer than 50,000 votes, a “horrible” place.

His attack left Republicans from the Badger State in a tizzy trying to clean up Trump’s mess, as ABC News reports:

Republican U.S. Rep. Derrick Van Orden, who represents western Wisconsin, said Trump was talking about the “terrible or horrible” crime rate in the city.

“He was directly referring to crime in Milwaukee,” said Van Orden, who told The Associated Press he was sitting just feet from the former president.

He said Republicans in the room concurred. “They’re like, yeah, crime is terrible.”

U.S. Rep, Scott Fitzgerald, also from Wisconsin, told WISN-TV in Milwaukee that Trump was referring to election integrity.

“That’s where the comment came from, that Milwaukee’s just terrible," Fitzgerald said. "What he was talking about was the elections in Milwaukee, their concerns about them.”

But Republican U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil, who represents southeast Wisconsin, disputed that Trump made the comment.

“I was in the room," Steil posted on X. "President Trump did not say this. There is no better place than Wisconsin in July.”

And Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany, who represents northern Wisconsin, said he never heard Trump call Milwaukee a “horrible city.”

While his campaign spokesman, Steven Cheung, said that Trump’s comments about Milwaukee were “falsely characterized,” he acknowledged on X that Trump had indeed criticized the city over its “terrible crime and voter fraud” problems.

This insistence that crime is “terrible” in Milwaukee fits in with the former president’s campaign strategy which emphasizes the crime problem and promises that if Trump is returned to the Oval Office, he will lead a “tough on crime” administration. Numerous commentators have noted the gap between the claims Trump is making about crime and the facts about America’s crime problem.

But it is important to remember that what Trump is saying about crime and “horrible” places like Milwaukee is part and parcel of his broader effort to create a portrait of American cities as out of control bastions of “woke” values. He hopes  to profit from a deep rural/urban split that characterizes American politics. This effort is key to his “divide and conquer” approach to the 2024 campaign.

Responding to his comments about Milwaukee, Democratic Representative Gwen Moore, whose district includes most of that city, called out the former president for using her city in that way. “Once he's settled in with his parole officer,” Moore said, “I am certain he will discover that Milwaukee is a wonderful, vibrant and welcoming city full of diverse neighborhoods and a thriving business community." 

Milwaukee’s mayor Cavalier Johnson joined Moore in responding to Trump. He described Milwaukee as a “splendid city.”  

And he got it right when he said “It’s very clear to me that Donald Trump just does not like cities. He does not like cities. And so, for us, for voters here in Milwaukee, I think the message is pretty clear. You heard it from the man himself.”

Before saying more about Trump’s politically motivated war on urban America, let’s look at what he says about the crime problem.

As Professor Glenn C. Altschuler notes, “At his campaign rallies, Donald Trump often declares that ‘crime is rampant and out of control, like never before.’ He claims that the nation’s capital is a “nightmare of murder and crime. People from Georgia go down to Washington now and they get shot.” In New York City, ‘you go right outside and people are being mugged and killed all day long.’”

“If elected president in 2024,” Altschuler continues, “Trump says he will close the border with Mexico, deport millions of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., send the National Guard to clean up crime-ridden cities and withhold federal government grants to municipalities that do not adopt tough law enforcement procedures.”

Trump has also tried to blame President Biden for what he portrays as America’s crime problem. In February he told the Conservative Political Action Conference that President Biden had presided over a spike in “bloodshed, chaos, and violent crime.” 

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Last month he blamed the president for what he described as the “plunder, rape, slaughter and destruction” of American communities.

The facts do not support Trump’s claims about crime in America. As NBC News explains, “The crime picture Trump paints contrasts sharply with years of police and government data at both the local and national levels.”

FBI statistics released this year, as NBC News says, “suggested a steep drop in crime across the country last year. It's a similar story across major cities, with violent crime down year over year in Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C.”

This is also true in Milwaukee where “homicides have decreased 39% – down to 23 from 38 this time in 2023. Property crime is down 11%. Auto thefts are down 10% – down to 1,295 from 1,431 this time in 2023.”

Despite these facts, Trump knows he is playing to a receptive audience. Earlier this month a Pew poll found that Trump and Biden supporters have starkly different views of the crime problem and how to deal with it. 

They disagree on how much of a problem crime is in this country, with Trump supporters thinking it is a much more serious problem than Biden supporters. In addition, the former are much more likely to say that “the system is not tough enough” on criminals.

National polls also show that “More Americans also trust Trump over Biden on the handling of crime (41%-28%).”

Exaggerating the urban crime problem has long been part of Trump’s political playbook. Doing so is a way of signaling his disdain for cities and the diverse ways of life that one finds there. 

As The Atlantic’s David Graham puts it, “Trump’s disdain for American cities is one of his most consistent personality traits….Pick a major city, and there’s a good chance you can find him denigrating it.”

Graham highlights examples such as what Trump said in 2019: “We can’t let Los Angeles, San Francisco and numerous other cities destroy themselves by allowing what’s happening.” That same year he called Baltimore a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.”

So, it should not be surprising that Milwaukee now finds itself in Trump’s crosshairs.

The former president knows that he is not going to win in places like Milwaukee, so it costs him little to call it “horrible” or to blow its crime problem out of proportion. He is channeling what Ohio State University Professor Steven Conn calls a long-standing “anti-urban tradition” in American life.

A century ago, Conn says, Americans were not “enthusiastic…. about cities filling up with Catholics from Italy and Poland, Jews from Russia and Lithuania, and African-Americans from Mississippi and North Carolina. Many,” he says, “recoiled in horror at all this heterogeneity.”

Trump knows that many still do. To borrow from what former Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin said in 2008 they believe that small towns are the “real America,” the “hardworking, very patriotic,…pro-America areas of this great nation.”

Trump’s comments about Milwaukee are a reminder that he shares Palin’s view. That is why he has been and remains the candidate of rural America and why his idea of making America great again depends on pitting one part of the country against another.

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By Austin Sarat

Austin Sarat is William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. His most recent book is "Lethal Injection and the False Promise of Humane Execution." His opinion articles have appeared in USA Today, Slate, the Guardian, the Washington Post and elsewhere.

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Commentary Crimes Donald Trump Elections 2024 Fbi Stats Gop Convention Maga Milwaukee Rnc Wisconsin