The belligerent style in American politics

Close-up of Donald Trump's mouth
Close-up of Donald Trump's mouth
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The belligerent style in American politics

How New Yorkers hijacked the Republican Party.
September 9, 2018

The sitcom “All in the Family,” the top-rated show on television for five years in the 1970s, was created by Norman Lear, a committed liberal who would go on to found People for the American Way. But Archie Bunker, the show’s lead character, was a blustering bigot whose rants about the growing ranks of minorities, immigrants and anti-war longhairs were supposed to be obviously stupid and outdated. The audience, Lear hoped, would see Bunker as a small-minded fool and come to regard Bunker’s views as discreditable.

For liberal viewers, the concept worked as planned. Schoolteachers used the show to teach students about prejudice. But conservatives interpreted Bunker’s sentiments differently. They laughed with him, rather than at him, nodding along to his commentary and thinking that it vindicated their own opinions. A 1974 study in the Journal of Communication found “most bigoted viewers didn’t perceive the program as satirical,” The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum wrote in 2014. “They identified with Archie’s perspective, saw him as winning arguments. … Lear’s series seemed to be even more appealing to those who shared Archie’s frustrations with the culture around him, a ‘silent majority’ who got off on hearing taboo thoughts said aloud.”

Besides demonstrating the limits of converting conservatives through mockery, “All in the Family” proved that a portly, angry old white man from Queens could effectively articulate the anxiety about a changing society among social conservatives across the country, winning their affection in the process.

Yet no one thought to ask what would happen if a real-life Archie Bunker were rich and famous and went into politics. Now we know: He would be elected president. Just as New York liberals thought Bunker’s diatribes would be self-defeating and were proven wrong, so has the heartland appeal of President Donald Trump’s abrasive and chauvinistic fulminations taken them by surprise. But Trump’s distinctly New York brand of right-wing politics not only attracted Republican voters: It has become the dominant paradigm of the contemporary Republican Party. Call it the Belligerent Style in American Politics.

The Belligerent Style is the nonideological but viscerally reactionary and perpetually enraged attitude of outer-borough and suburban white New Yorkers: tribal, hostile to new immigrants of color, longing for a bygone era and attracted to a strongman who promises to restore it. It’s the spirit of a man who bought newspaper ads to call for the death penalty for the Central Park Five and insisted for years that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. This is the politics that elected Rudy Giuliani as New York City mayor and nominated Carl Paladino for governor, the conservatism of Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Michael Grimm and Archie Bunker.

Just as Richard Hofstadter famously described the early 1960s far-right with his landmark essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” today’s right-wing ethos is a more of a style than a philosophy. Its two primary strands are authoritarianism – in particular, an eagerness to loudly embrace whatever the Dear Leader says, no matter how contradictory to his prior statements, or one’s own – and crude white chauvinism. Many political observers have been bewildered by Trump’s intellectually disjointed approach to governance – a mishmash of autocracy, kleptocracy, transactionalism, nativism, racism and populist bombast. The key to understanding Trumpism is to view it ethnographically rather than philosophically: It’s what happens when New York conservatism goes national.

Bunker and Trump grew up in their shared borough before its white majority dissipated. Forty years after “All in the Family” stopped taping, Trump’s outlook is seemingly frozen in that time and place: In his mind, it’s still the 1970s and the country, especially its cities, are beset by rising crime and the incipient onslaught of diversity. The best way to guess as to how Trump – and by extension the whole Republican Party and its propaganda apparatus in outlets such as Fox News, The Daily Caller and Breitbart News – will react to any development is probably to ask WWAD: What Would Archie Do?

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Rudy Giuliani speaks at a Donald Trump presidential campaign rally in Miami.
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Rudy Giuliani speaks at a Donald Trump presidential campaign rally in Miami.
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Rudy Giuliani speaks at a Donald Trump presidential campaign rally in Miami.
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Rudy Giuliani speaks at a Donald Trump presidential campaign rally in Miami.
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Rudy Giuliani speaks at a Donald Trump presidential campaign rally in Miami.
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During the 2016 presidential campaign, political reporters discovered a strange new phenomenon: the Trump rally. Audiences, virtually all white and skewing older, lined up for hours and packed arenas to the rafters to hear a political novice ramble incoherently. Trump was no great orator or visionary: His speeches were light on concrete policy proposals and did not articulate a vision of liberty akin to Barry Goldwater’s or Ronald Reagan’s. And he completely lacked the uplifting eloquence of then-President Barack Obama.

But conservatives were drawn to the orange star like moths to a flame. They cheered Trump’s haughty boasts (“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters”), laughed uproariously as he disparaged liberals, especially Obama (“We’re tired of being pushed around, kicked around ... and being led by stupid people”), and threatened, even assaulted, protesters at Trump’s urging (“I’d like to punch him in the face, I’ll tell you”). In a line that could’ve been ripped from Bunker himself, Trump waxed nostalgic onstage about a protester, saying, “In the good old days, they’d rip him out of that seat so fast. But today, everyone is so politically correct.”

Trump’s campaign rallies – along with his Twitter feed, through which he’s insulted at least 487 people, places and things – are where the Belligerent Style first found its national niche. Whereas Tea Party politicians like Ted Cruz, and before them social conservatives like Rick Santorum, emphasized fealty to conservative principles, the Belligerent Style substitutes pugnaciousness for ideology. You could have been a Democrat or a moderate Republican until very recently and be a hero to the right-wing now, so long as you are unwavering in your loyalty to Trump and relentlessly nasty in your denunciations of his opponents and his targets, such as immigrants who entered the country illegally and the mainstream media. It’s an opportunity perfectly suited to the charlatans often found in New York’s highest-paying industries like finance, real estate and television – and many of them eagerly have taken advantage of it.

In fact, the Belligerent Style is largely an outgrowth of New York itself. The most high-profile champions of this now-dominant strand of Republicanism are disproportionately from New York and its environs.

If you turn on cable news at almost any time of any day, you’re likely to see a discussion of the latest outburst from a New Yorker – be it Trump, one of his official mouthpieces like Giuliani, or an unofficial one like Hannity. Fox News, which Trump regularly watches as it churns out propaganda on his behalf, is based in New York City, so its on-air personalities and executives mostly live in the city or its suburbs. But the New York City-area roots of Trump’s most enthusiastic surrogates run deeper: Hannity and O’Reilly both grew up on Long Island. (Since being fired from Fox News last year for alleged sexual harassment, O’Reilly now hosts a podcast and a show on the conservative cable news channel Newsmax TV. His current fixations include defending Trump from what he calls “the dark left” and dismissing the notion of “white privilege.”)

White House deputy chief of staff for communications and former Fox News executive Bill Shine grew up and started his career in local television on Long Island. Shine was forced out of Fox last year for allegedly facilitating sexual harassment by several prominent men there. As The New York Times noted at the time of his departure, “Mr. Shine was a Long Island commuter who prided himself on his working-class roots, and friends considered him the newsroom’s closest embodiment of the average Fox News viewer.”

Giuliani was raised in Brooklyn and on Long Island, has lived in Manhattan his whole adult life, and served as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York and as mayor of New York City. Donald Trump Jr. is a rising star in Republican politics, and is in demand as a campaign trail surrogate because of his Belligerent Style comments and tweets, such as comparing Democratic policies to Nazis. (Cliff Sims, a former White House and Trump campaign staffer, recently told The Washington Post: “Don is a chip off the old block. He’s a savage on Twitter and a force of nature on the stump.”) Anthony Scaramucci, who has ping-ponged between defending Trump on cable news and briefly serving as Trump’s White House spokesman, is also from Long Island.

Some of Trump’s most aggressive defenders grew up next door in New Jersey, including counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who first became a right-wing hero for his habit of bellowing rebukes at schoolteachers who asked him questions during town halls.

Many of these Trump associates adopt Trump’s Belligerent Style in their public appearances, including Kudlow’s assertion that mild-mannered Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “stabbed us in the back” and Scaramucci’s profane tirade to The New Yorker about White House leakers.

No one thought to ask what would happen if a real-life Archie Bunker were rich and famous and he went into politics.

The Belligerent Style is embodied in its purest form by its talking heads, such as Hannity and Jeanine Pirro.

Pirro once was considered a promising New York Republican politician. The Elmira native was the first female elected judge and district attorney in Westchester County. In 2005, seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, she declared herself a fiscal conservative but added, “I have broad blue stripes when it comes to social issues. ... I am a woman who is a moderate in New York.”

After her political career fizzled, thanks in part to her then-husband’s conviction for tax evasion, she went into television, first as a judge who condescended her guests in the no-nonsense manner of Judge Judy, then as a conservative pundit.

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Jeanine Pirro and Sean Hannity
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Jeanine Pirro and Sean Hannity
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Jeanine Pirro and Sean Hannity
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New Yorkers and vocal Trump supporters like Jeanine Pirro and Sean Hannity have come to dominate Fox News.
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Jeanine Pirro and Sean Hannity
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Gage Skidmore
In the past few years, she’s soared to national political prominence as a Trump attack dog. As the Times reported in December, “Ms. Pirro has lately emerged as a force in a right-wing media effort to undermine the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, who is leading the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election … saying on the air that ‘individuals’ in the F.B.I. and the Justice Department ‘need to be taken out in cuffs.’ … Her increasingly severe denunciations of Mr. Mueller have translated into big ratings.”

Even as evidence of the Trump campaign’s potential collusion with Russia has mounted, Pirro has continued with her impassioned defense of the president. In late August, for example, she wondered about Mueller, “Bob, are you stupid?”

Trump has returned the favor. The president “rarely misses an episode and … has urged his Twitter followers to tune into her show along with him,” the Times reported.

“By the virtue of the fact that Trump is a New Yorker, he’s been able to operate in the same circles as (some conservative media figures) for a long time,” said Matt Gertz, senior fellow at Media Matters for America, a liberal organization that monitors conservative media. “Pirro has been a friend of Trump’s for decades. Their social relationship has allowed her to rise with him.”

Hannity, whose on-air presence is reminiscent of an irate driver honking his horn on the Long Island Expressway, has become the president’s most notable media acolyte. As the Times observed in November, “The quintessential Hannity program, whether on radio or television, tends to hinge on one or more of the host’s abiding preoccupations: reverence for the military and law enforcement; nostalgia for an America that Hannity feels is slipping away; disdain for the mainstream media; and since the last presidential election, unyielding support for the agenda of Donald Trump.”

Like all belligerents, Hannity needs something to be against, despite his close ally being in the White House. And so his show, like Pirro’s, has shifted even further away from policy reporting and analysis, to focus on the president’s antagonists and their perfidy.

As with Pirro, whose audience has grown 25 percent since Trump took office, Hannity’s approach has fed a hunger among conservatives for combative pro-Trump propaganda. His show is now the most popular news program on cable TV and, this year, he passed Rush Limbaugh on one list of the country’s most important radio talk show hosts. Trump speaks regularly with Hannity, reportedly hiring Shine on the host’s recommendation.

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Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally
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Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally
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Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally
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Donald Trump personifies the most negative stereotypes of Long Islanders: garish, irate and profane.
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Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally
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Brandon Stivers/Shutterstock

The New York City-area provenance of Trump and his Praetorian Guard is not a meaningless biographical detail, like the fact that Limbaugh grew up in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. New York is central to Trump’s public persona and his political appeal. Trump’s accent betrays his outer-borough upbringing. His career was made in New York real estate and his fame in New York’s tabloids. The accomplishments he and his boosters cite as qualifications, such as building Trump Tower and renovating Wollman Rink in Central Park, all took place in Manhattan. Even Trump’s disregard for the truth and habit of making promises he has no intention of keeping are partly the product of a career in the unscrupulous New York real estate industry.

While Fox News and talk radio blowhards have long appealed to older white conservatives across the country, the current pre-eminence of libertine loudmouths from Queens and Long Island seems like a weird reversal for the GOP.

Until 2016, religiosity was the nominal basis for social conservatism. Evangelical southern governors such as George W. Bush and Mike Huckabee appealed to Republican presidential primary voters with starkly moralistic messages.

But Barack Obama’s presidency and the racist, Islamophobic and xenophobic backlash to it seems to have led many Republicans to admit what their opponents long suspected – that the talk about traditional values was just a euphemism for discomfort with social change and a desire to see a leader who would stand athwart it yelling “stop!”

In that environment, New York vulgarians like Trump and his minions are no longer harmed by their personal peccadillos or ideological apostasies, and they possess an asset in great demand among today’s Republicans: a bluntness and gruffness of rhetoric and tone that may make the culturally insecure feel safe. Interviews with Trump supporters across the country – including, for example, devout rural Southerners – routinely come back to the idea that he’s a jerk, but a jerk may be the only one tough enough to keep out undesirables and slay political correctness. As one Southern Baptist church parishioner told The Washington Post, “We need abrasive right now.”

So it is fitting that many of the conservative pundits who have ridden the Trump wave to greater fame and fortune are not avuncular evangelicals but surly, secular Northeasterners. Even those not originally from New York mostly grew up within a two-hour drive of Trump Tower. In 2017, Fox News added shows by hosts Mark Levin and Jesse Waters, both of whom grew up in Philadelphia – and in Waters’ case, partially on Long Island – and Laura Ingraham, who is from Connecticut. All have a snarky attitude and focus heavily on attacking liberals.

In August, Ingraham made headlines with this riff on her Fox show: “In some parts of the country, it does seem like the America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore. Massive demographic changes have been foisted on the American people. They’re changes none of us ever voted for, and most of us don’t like.”

Ingraham wasn’t just pandering to an audience in rural America. Hostility to immigration is a powerful force in parts of New York as well.

Consider Suffolk County on Long Island. It supported Obama twice, then went for Trump by 8 percentage points. (Adjacent Nassau County was carried by Clinton, although, as in the state as a whole, the Democrat’s margin of victory was smaller than Obama’s in 2012.) As Scaramucci put it in the first press conference of his brief White House tenure, “The people I grew up with, they so identify with the president and they love him.” Opposition to immigration is the subject Trump most frequently raises when campaigning on Long Island. When the president visited in May to complain about Salvadoran-American gang members, whom he refers to as “animals,” he said, “I essentially grew up on Long Island. … This used to be the place that you would leave your doors unlocked, you would leave your windows open always.”

The suburban enclave in eastern Queens where Trump grew up is indeed closer, and far more similar, to Long Island than it is to Manhattan. Long Island today, inhabited by the whites who left Queens and Brooklyn, is what Archie Bunker’s Astoria was in the 1970s. And Trump personifies the most negative stereotypes of New Yorkers in general and Long Islanders in particular: garish, irate and profane.

Why is this personality so appealing to conservatives and a certain breed of white swing voter? Perhaps because it conveys authenticity and sincerity. It also makes coddled celebrities seem more like the average Americans they claim to represent. Trump, Hannity and O’Reilly live in luxury, but their undignified shouting shows they are just regular guys at heart. (Voters never saw upper-crust stiffs like John Kerry and Mitt Romney lose their temper or berate an adversary.)

Many Trump supporters have said his penchant for slandering Latino immigrants endears him to them not because they agree with his specific statements but because they admire his willingness to say it. Suffolk County Republican Party Chairman John Jay LaValle expressed precisely this sentiment when he told Politico, “Trump speaks our language. He thinks the way we think. He talks the way we talk. He is breaking the political correctness of America.”

While talk radio blowhards have long appealed to conservatives, the current pre-eminence of libertine loudmouths from Queens and Long Island seems like a weird reversal for the GOP.

It may seem counterintuitive that a nativist uprising would be led by a denizen of the country’s most diverse city and egged on by other New Yorkers. But it actually makes sense that the leaders of a response to demographic shifts are people who grew up in suburban New York, in places like Levittown and Jamaica Estates, where whites barricaded themselves to hold the rising tide of minorities at bay. New York experienced the influx of non-European immigrants first, and so the angry white reaction started here too.

Today’s Archie Bunker, the white man venting about nonwhite newcomers to his neighborhood, is now found in the suburbs undergoing changes that already have occurred in New York City. The Latino population on Long Island has tripled since 1980. And so Suffolk County and places like it across the country found comfort in a candidate who isn’t afraid to give voice to their inner Archie. Areas that had been overwhelmingly white but now have growing nonwhite populations, such as Rust Belt suburbs, were among those that swung hardest toward the GOP from 2012 to 2016.

This shift toward Belligerent Style revanchist politics is reflected in not just the White House and on Fox but in New York’s Republican members of Congress.

Rep. Lee Zeldin from Suffolk County “has emerged as a vocal defender of the president and many of his policies,” according to Newsday. Zeldin has backed up Trump on such hot-button issues as the president’s controversial comments about the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Zeldin’s district has swung between the parties, but went for Trump by 12 percentage points. Zeldin’s election to Congress in 2014 showed the changing terrain in diversifying suburbs that would boost Trump two years later. In the summer of 2014, Politico reported, “Polls showed support for immigrants plummet in Suffolk, and Zeldin grabbed onto the issue, accusing (his Democratic opponent) of supporting ‘amnesty’ and proclaiming that the border had become vulnerable because agents were forced to ‘babysit the surge of children coming across the border.’ Zeldin’s campaign caught Trump’s eye. The future president robocalled on behalf of Zeldin during his 2014 race, and he called Zeldin after both his primary and general election victories.”

Rep. Claudia Tenney, who represents Central New York, has fully adopted the Belligerent Style, throwing out inflammatory accusations about political opponents. As Politico wrote in April, “Tenney has developed a bombastic reputation on Capitol Hill, adopting Trump-like rhetoric to defend scandal-plagued administration officials or blast the media for ‘fake news.’” Tenney has echoed Trump’s call to lock up Hillary Clinton, and she threw in James Comey for good measure. After the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Tenney suggested, without evidence, that mass shooters tend to be Democrats.

The first member of Congress to endorse Trump was Rep. Chris Collins, from the Buffalo suburbs. “He became one of Trump’s top defenders,” according to USA Today, with more than 200 national television appearances in Trump’s first 13 months in office. After being indicted for insider trading, he has suspended his re-election campaign. One potential replacement for Collins who local GOP leaders considered was Carl Paladino, whose 2010 campaign for governor was a forerunner to Trump’s presidential bid. CBS News described Paladino that year as, “A millionaire developer who is fond of channeling disturbed newsman Howard Beale’s “mad as hell” speech from the movie ‘Network.’” Paladino admitted forwarding racist and sexist emails, proposed housing welfare recipients in prison and defended a friend who called then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver “an Antichrist or a Hitler.”

Rep. Pete King helped organize Trump’s MS-13 event. Shortly thereafter, King took a page from Trump’s playbook by tweeting hysterical invective toward African-American NFL players who kneel during the national anthem – one of Trump’s favorite subjects – to protest police brutality. “Disgraceful that @nyjets owner will pay fines for players who kneel for the National Anthem,” King wrote. “Encouraging a movement premised on lies vs. police. Would he support all player protests? Would he pay fines of players giving Nazi salutes or spew racism? It’s time to say goodbye to Jets!” King’s tweet encapsulates the Belligerent Style in every particular: disproportionate anger, ungrammatical writing, insensitivity toward racial and religious minorities, performative patriotism and a distracting obsession with culture war minutiae.

The Trumpification of New York Republicans is also apparent on Staten Island, the most Long Island of New York’s boroughs. Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, who represents part of the borough, previously told City & State, “Trump is really revered and loved by Staten Islanders.” Former Rep. Vito Fossella Jr. – who left Congress after the 2008 election after being arrested for drunken driving and exposed for carrying on a yearslong affair that produced a child – made his comeback as the co-host of a short-lived show on right-wing network Newsmax TV. In news accounts, the show wasn’t described as conservative, but merely “pro-Trump.” The segments viewable online inveigh against the “dishonest” and “unpatriotic” news media, while the promos leaned heavily on Fossella’s outer-borough New York identity, featuring shots of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

Perhaps Fossella should have run for office again as a Trump Republican. That was the strategy of former Rep. Michael Grimm, who held the same seat until he resigned in 2015 after pleading guilty to federal tax evasion. This year, Grimm challenged current Rep. Dan Donovan for his old seat. He attacked Donovan with mean-spirited jabs, like calling the congressman “desperate” and saying “he’s embarrassing himself,” and accused Donovan of being insufficiently pro-Trump. Donovan fended Grimm off by out-Trumping him. Donovan intensified his opposition to illegal immigration, proposed a bill to require a portrait of Trump in U.S. post offices and talked up his closeness to the president, who endorsed him.

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Michael Grimm arrives at his polling place to vote in the 2018 GOP primaries
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Michael Grimm arrives at his polling place to vote in the 2018 GOP primaries
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Michael Grimm arrives at his polling place to vote in the 2018 GOP primaries
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Rep. Dan Donovan had to talk up his relationship with Trump to fend off his Trump-like challenger, above, Michael Grimm.
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Michael Grimm arrives at his polling place to vote in the 2018 GOP primaries
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Seth Wenig/AP/Shutterstock

Despite the close association with New York, the Belligerent Style is a liability for the GOP in parts of the state. Belligerence is an approach designed to amp up one’s supporters, not reach out to moderates. The Belligerent Style’s ascendance has made politics more polarized and kept Trump’s approval rating underwater. Paladino lost resoundingly to Cuomo in 2010 and Tenney’s extremism has Beltway Republicans worrying that it could put her seat in play. It is especially dangerous for Republicans in cities and surrounding suburbs, which did not favor Trump, while exurban areas like Suffolk County did.

Perhaps that’s why, when asked for an interview for this story, Nassau County Republican Party Chairman Joseph Cairo emailed a statement via his spokesman that brought up Trump’s demeanor, unprompted, only to pivot away from it. (He was sure, however, to mention MS-13.) “I have always put more stock in substance than in style,” read the statement, in part. “President Donald Trump has brought an agenda of substance to his job as the leader of our nation, producing meaningful results that have benefitted New Yorkers and people across the nation. As the engineer of a historic tax cut he is helping taxpayers keep more of what they earn. Donald Trump has presided over an economic and stock market rebound, brought manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. and delivered historically low unemployment rates. Here on Long Island, neighbors are breathing a collective sigh of relief that he has cracked down on violent gangs like MS-13.”

The Belligerent Style is especially out of step with the city that raised its most notorious exponent. Racial minorities have increased from 47 percent of New York City’s residents in 1980 to roughly 68 percent today. If Giuliani and David Dinkins faced off in the New York City mayoral election again and each got the same share of each racial group’s vote as they did in 1993, Dinkins would now win. Trump and Giuliani are relics of the New York conservatism that has conquered the country only after it has been vanquished from its place of origin. But being an angry white guy with a bridge-and-tunnel attitude, Archie Bunker in a suit, is now the surest path to success as a conservative TV pundit and, apparently, to the White House.

Ben Adler
is City & State’s senior editor.
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