Opinion: Why Donald Trump is circling GOP wagons around suburbia

If the president is to be believed, the ghost of June Cleaver is stalking the land, pearls and all.

“The suburban housewife will be voting for me,” Donald Trump assured us before the Republican National Convention began its work.

She will be too afraid not to, he implied. Otherwise, low-income types “would invade their neighborhood.”

The president’s Twitter message wasn’t an aberration — it was a preview of coming attractions, aimed at places just like metro Atlanta.

The GOP gathering that endorsed Trump’s re-election was both virtual and in-person, capped by an unusual Thursday acceptance speech by the nominee on the White House grounds — where he intends to stay come next January.

Despite the mixed media, a persistent theme throughout the four-day event was the threat that Democrats pose to suburban America.

“They want to abolish the suburbs altogether by ending single-family home zoning. This forced rezoning would bring crime, lawlessness and low-quality apartments into now-thriving suburban neighborhoods,” said Patricia McCloskey on the first night.

She was one-half of the St. Louis couple photographed outside their home with their firearms in July — he with an AR-15, she with a pistol — as a Black Lives Matter protest marched through their gated community.

Then came the congressman from Florida. “They’ll disarm you. Empty the prisons. Lock you in your home. And invite MS-13 to live next door,” said U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz.

From the northern ’burbs of Atlanta, former congresswoman Karen Handel — looking to reclaim her Sixth District seat from U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Marietta — chimed in with a 30-second TV spot that struck the same law-and-order tone, featuring images of protests in Atlanta that went violently awry. “It’s hit too close to home,” Handel began.

Trump hammered the point home in his Thursday acceptance speech. If the left gains power, they will demolish the suburbs, confiscate your guns, and appoint justices who will wipe away your second amendment and other constitutional freedoms,” he said.

There are those who think that when it comes to modern suburbia, Republicans as a whole — and Trump in particular — are out of touch.

“He’s thinking of the whole 1950s version of the white suburbs and white flight,” said Deirdre Oakley, a professor of sociology at Georgia State University. Her specialty is urban — and suburban — geography.

“If you look at metro Atlanta, the suburbs have been diversifying here since the 1990s,” she said. “After the recession, you had a lot of Black families moving from the cities to the inner suburbs.”

Larger population shifts are also a factor. Many African Americans elsewhere in the country are returning to the South of their forebears, college-educated and staking a claim in suburbia. Immigrants no longer cluster in the central city. Suburbia is their home, too.

Among U.S. counties, Gwinnett has the 12th highest percentage of foreign-born, citizen-voters – about 18%.

And metro Atlanta’s suburban housewives — where have they gone? To work, for one thing. Going into this coronavirus recession, about 55% of Georgia women were part of the workforce — slightly higher than the national rate. For women between the ages of 25 to 54, the rate is much higher.

“If you go outside the metro area, as far as Augusta, say, you do find the traditional white, suburban housewife,” Oakley said. The distance between job and home is one factor. Lack of childcare is another.

I could have left things there, except for two thoughts. First, Donald Trump routinely traffics in white nostalgia — that’s what “Make America Great Again” is all about. And many long for the “Leave It to Beaver” days when a single middle-class salary could support an entire family.

Then there’s the fact that the GOP convention’s suburban references were far too orchestrated to be accidental. Since the days of Ronald Reagan, Republicans have had top-drawer script writers. They still do.

Oakley, the GSU professor, helped me understand what might be at work. After we talked, she sent along some work by Karen Pooley, a Lehigh University academic who took a close look at Atlanta’s suburbs. The data is a few years old, but still good.

As of 2010, an influx of new residents had “swelled the region’s Black middle class, which is now bigger than metro Chicago’s and exceeded only by that of New York City and Washington, DC,” she wrote.

In metro Atlanta, “fully 87 percent of the African American population lived in the suburbs,” Pooley wrote in 2015, just a year before Hillary Clinton took both Gwinnett and Cobb counties in the 2016 presidential contest.

The rub: The suburbs of metro Atlanta are largely segregated. There are white areas and Black areas, white subdivisions and Black ones. Nearly two-thirds of African American students in Atlanta’s ’burbs attended majority-minority schools, Pooley wrote.

In the old days, racial dynamics fell along urban-suburban lines. Now racial politics have become an intra-suburban affair. Georgia Republicans know that if they lose the suburbs completely, they lose the state. There aren’t enough rural voters to make up the difference. The GOP dilemma is the same in many other parts of the country, and the votes of college-educated, white women will be crucial. And so the appeal to law-and-order.

“[Trump]’s definitely trying to capitalize on it. I definitely see the wedge being drawn,” said state Rep. David Wilkerson, D-Powder Springs. Wilkerson is a CPA, and a Black father of two. He lives only a few miles from my house in west Cobb County.

“There is a lot of conversation, especially with zoning, between some of the families that have lived here forever, with large land lots, and African American families that have moved out here,” Wilkerson said. “You have this interesting dynamic where they have similar interests, as far as why they moved out to suburbia in the first place — why they want to drive an extra 45 minutes to get anywhere.”

But there are tensions, Wilkerson concedes. The county school board, for instance, has been wrestling for months with a simple declaration that racism is wrong.

“I think that some of the elected leaders are out of touch — they’re holding on to something that doesn’t exist anymore,” Wilkerson said.

Four members of the school board are white. Three are Black. That and many other things could change in Atlanta’s ’burbs come November.