On Monday, November 7, 2016, I made what I thought were the final edits to the manuscript of my latest book, The New Urban Crisis, and sent it off to my publisher. The next day, my wife and I invited our American friends to come to our house in Toronto to celebrate what we were all but certain would be Hillary Clinton’s election. We pulled out all the stops. We hung up red, white and blue bunting, and dressed our baby and our puppy to match. My wife’s sisters supplied us with life-sized cutouts of Clinton and Donald Trump, which they had literally “muled” over the border from the Detroit suburbs. At 6 p.m., when the polls began to close, we turned on the TV to watch the early returns. By 8:30, the party had come to a crashing stop. I spent the rest of the night glued to Twitter; I hardly even noticed when the last of our guests departed.
My wife and I, like so many Americans, woke up the next morning in a state of shock. Then she said something that snapped me back into focus: “As terrible as we feel, can you imagine what the backlash would have been if the election had gone the other way?”
Trump’s unthinkable victory, I realized, was that backlash. And as emotionally unprepared for it as I was, intellectually, I wasn’t all that surprised.
The divides that propelled him into office were the subject of my book. And I’d already lived through something quite like it before, in Toronto, where I moved in 2007 to head up a new institute on urban prosperity. I had long admired the city for its progressive brand of urbanism. The renowned urbanist Jane Jacobs moved to Toronto in 1968 and grew to love it. The English actor Peter Ustinov once dubbed Toronto “New York run by the Swiss.” And yet in 2010, this bastion of progressivism elected as dysfunctional and retrograde a politician as Rob Ford—best known in America for getting caught smoking crack—as its mayor. “If Ford could be elected in Toronto,” I said at the time, “then more and worse will follow.”
Ford died of cancer in March 2016, eight months before that shocking November night. But like America’s new president, he was a product of our deepening geographic rifts. Toronto—like New York, London, San Francisco, Washington, Boston and other great cities—really is a tale of two cities. As its middle class has declined, it has fractured into a small set of advantaged neighborhoods in and around the urban core and along its major subway and transit lines, where affluent residents work in banking, entertainment and media, journalism, academia and the arts—the people I have dubbed the “creative class.” That first city is surrounded by a much larger and more sprawling second city comprising relatively disadvantaged neighborhoods, most located far from the city’s center in its annexed suburbs, where the hard-pressed small-business owners, factory workers, tradesmen and taxi drivers, large numbers of them immigrants, who made up the “Ford Nation,” still live. Many felt Toronto’s success was passing them by and that Toronto’s first city of “urban elites” looked down on them.
It was the same again with Trump. For all the arguments about the relative effects that James Comey, Russian internet trolls, latent misogyny and racial tensions, and Clinton’s emails and speech fees had on the election, the electoral maps that Trump loves to show visitors to the Oval Office clearly tell the story of a country starkly divided along spatial lines. Clinton’s margin of victory in the most populous, wealthy and progressive blue urban coastal centers was overwhelming, their large size giving her a decisive edge in the popular vote. But Trump won everywhere else—in the smaller, struggling regions of the Sun Belt and Rust Belt, distressed suburbs, exurbs and rural areas—to earn a narrow victory in the Electoral College.
My wife’s words made me realize something else too: As disenfranchised and hopeless as Trump’s election had made us feel, his voters had been feeling the same way for a long time. While Trump’s victory was partly the consequence of a stagnant economy and growing economic anxiety, it was even more the result of growing resentment against the more open and “permissive” liberal values toward women, minorities, immigrants, and the gay and lesbian community that are characteristic of the country’s most prosperous urban regions.