A recent one was the inclusion of a prediction that Joe Biden, if elected, would destroy the suburbs. What was that all about, I wondered, until I saw Trump's tweeted warning to "suburban housewives of America."
"Housewives"! Were they twisting their hands nervously in immaculate aprons as they looked out the kitchen window at a perfect lawn and a white picket fence? It fell into place: the Trump slogan "Make America Great Again" focuses squarely on the dream of a pristine suburbia.
|Suburban dreams in the makIng: Levittown under construction|
Prejudice — the othering of minority groups — was built into the triumph of the American suburb. Today, the perceived disaster of a Biden victory is presumed to carry with it the completion of racial and ethnic integration. Typically Trump casts his mind into a way-back machine picturing a suburbia not anywhere as diverse as it has become. It's a world where it's OK to think of the women whose votes he is likely to lose in November as housewives.
In big cities, competing ethnic groups have learned to sort of get along over the past century or so. They have to mingle somewhat in the conduct of daily life. There have been dramatic flare-ups, of course, but these have also served as warnings to suburbanites. And urban strife, along with federally designed escape routes and legal exclusions, has been pictured as something the suburbs can avoid.
|Big-city irony would shift to suburbs|
In the large cities, the inevitable meltdown of ethnic purity creates dream worlds that Philip Roth, in the heavily ironic title of one of his best novels, called "American Pastoral." Trump's suburbia is still populated by the legacy of the American diaspora, and he suspects it's kind of a last stand. His housewives and their commuting husbands ("Honey, I'm home!") are the shepherdesses and swains updated from the classic pastoral.
Roth was writing about his hometown, Newark. In the nearby city of Paterson, Allen Ginsberg grew up. The Jewish middle class of which they were a part had a place in the big cities that their people did not easily find in the suburbs. One of those north New Jersey towns was home to my paternal grandfather, who once told my mother that he would never sell his home to a Jew. When I told his sister, my great-aunt, that I was headed to Harvard to begin graduate school, she replied crisply: "I don't like Harvard — too many Hebrews."
It was a world of casual bias, radiating from the WASP establishment out through the Jewish populace and into black and brown communities. Towns that were wealthy enough to keep their independent character could morph into suburbs of the metropolis and remain white havens.
|Ezra Pound nailed a prejudice he linked to the suburbs.|
Why "suburban"? Pound's admission fingers the culture that sustained prejudice. If rural America was hostile to outsiders, it rarely had to be inconvenienced by them. And the big city allowed groups to self-segregate socially while keeping commerce uneasily, and unequally, integrated. Suburban anxiety was unique, built upon the fear of loss, hopefully a remote nightmare. To keep the fear at bay, the illusion of suburban purity, of households headed by June and Ward Cleaver, had to be maintained. The fiction is still powerful, Trump hopes. Suburbia is the fulcrum.
"The commuter towns and leafy developments circling Philadelphia and other U.S. cities — areas with increasing racial diversity and a growing number of college-educated voters — have been a clear source of trouble for the president and his party," says a July 25 Associated Press article, headlined "Trump plays on fears in campaigns for suburbs."
In his Paris Review interview, Pound told Donald Hall that tales of his post-frontier origin in Hailey, Idaho, could offer little explanation of his iconoclastic ways. "I grew up near Philadelphia. The suburbs of Philadelphia." The adjective "suburban" was thus wisely chosen as an indicator of his notorious prejudice. Later in the interview, Pound said truly: "We suffer from the use of language to conceal thought and to withhold all vital and direct answers." That's one of many possible answers that could be put forward to explain the attractions of suburbanism.
And the suburban mindset might well be universal. In his expansive 1940 poem "New Year Letter," W.H. Auden describes humanity as "The children of a modest star, / Frail, backward, clinging to the granite / Skirts of a sensible old planet, / Our placid and suburban nurse."
The image is one that hints at desperation, an unavoidable dependence that we can't free ourselves from. Events may properly suggest that our earthly home is neither "sensible" nor "placid," but we are inclined to say well, let's go with that. Our suburban dreams demand it. That's what Trump and his supporters are counting on.