UM Urban Resistance

March 15, 2017

Why Urban Resistance to the Trump Agenda Is Here to Stay

By Peter Eisinger

During the Obama years cities articulated or actively pursued policy initiatives at the vanguard of progressivism. Sometimes this was entirely consistent with Obama’s agenda (green cities, gun control) and sometimes it 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.  In the Trump era, however, these 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 nodes of resistance to the Trump agenda.
This resistance may be understood in two ways. One is that even in the early days of the Trump presidency, cities have clearly become the principal sites of vocal opposition. If the past few months are any indication, 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 Lyndon Johnson might serve as an object lesson for President Trump. Notably, local elected leaders have led or spoken at street protests or associated themselves in other ways with the protestors.   
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. Most city governments are not only unlikely to abandon progressive policy and globalization initiatives; they will expand and defend them in defiance of Federal priorities and constraints. 
By the beginning of February 2017, for example, some 1060 U.S. cities and towns had signed on to the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, committing them 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. Through organizations like the U.S. Conference of Mayors they are committed to maintaining a persistent lobbying force in Washington for environmental protection in the face of climate change.
As Donald Trump took the oath of office, 30 cities had also passed minimum wage laws; many establish a $15 per hour target. 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. 
Certainly the most contentious area of conflict between cities and the Trump administration so far has been 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 who lack proper documentation. President Trump has threatened to withhold Federal funds from such cities; pursuant to that threat, San Francisco has already lodged a lawsuit against the president challenging its constitutionality.
There are no doubt other issues 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 also diverge 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; 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 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 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]
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 such opposition 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 news 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.
Peter Eisinger is Henry Cohen Professor Emeritus at The New School. This is a slightly revised and updated version of an essay that originally appeared in February 2017 on the Urban Affairs Forum blog of Urban Affairs Review, a peer-reviewed, bi-monthly journal focused on questions of politics, governance, and public policy specifically as they relate to cities and/or their regions.

Photo credits: Andrew Dallos and Louis Vest

[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.