freedom cities

Donald Trump Wants to Build a City

Photo: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Donald Trump is an urban planner now. The former president is calling for a “quantum leap in the American standard of living,” which he intends to accomplish through a competition to design what are effectively postwar suburbs “on the frontier” using federal land. (Flying cars are also involved.) He will call them “Freedom Cities,” a place for MAGA-types of all ages to buy affordable homes and, most importantly, procreate: “We will support baby boomers, and we will support baby bonuses for a new baby boom.” The name given to this branding exercise, Agenda 47, is both a nod to his aspirations to return to the White House and an apparent reference to a set of sustainable-development goals that have been a target of conservative obsession for the last three decades. Trump’s announcement — delivered last week in a video, then a half-empty ballroom at CPAC — comes on the heels of the fevered right-wing conspiracies currently peaking around the “15-minute city,” a concept for walkable neighborhoods that’s being compared to “open-air prisons” by anti-vaxxer, COVID-denying YouTubers. It’s all very kooky and opportunistic, which is not the same thing as saying it’s fringe. Trump’s ramblings, like the bizarre spectacle of anti-urban protests in densely populated areas of Oxford and London, are the cartoonish, meme-brain side of a decades-long and well-funded campaign to bring actual transit and housing policies to a dead stop.

Agenda 21, Trump’s latest big bad, is a non-binding resolution adopted in 1992 at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. In the simplest terms, it is a global effort to align urban-development practices with the U.N.’s goals to address poverty, gender inequality, and depletion of natural resources. (The titular “21” is a reference to the 21st century.) But outside of being referenced in environmental-policy documents and at urban-planning conferences, Agenda 21 was largely ignored by most of the world outside of NGO circles. This didn’t stop ultraconservative American Policy Center founder Tom DeWeese from building his career on the idea that it was a plot to destroy America. He wrote a number of books with incendiary titles — Agenda 21 and How to Stop It; The Agenda 21 Manual: The Wrenching Transformation Of America — and traveled the country warning that sustainable urbanization hallmarks like public transit and bike lanes were some kind of Trojan horse to seize their property and destroy their way of life. DeWeese’s oeuvre eventually caught the attention of the Tea Party, neatly aligning with its racist, xenophobic, anti-urban reaction to the election of Barack Obama. Things snowballed from there: Ted Cruz had an entire page devoted to Agenda 21 when he first ran for U.S. Senate in 2012; that same year, the Republican National Committee passed its own non-binding resolution denouncing Agenda 21 as a “socialist/communist redistribution of wealth.” The party had found a new anti-urban bogeyman.

As all of this is happening, the Koch-backed Heritage Foundation is building and funding an effort to target grassroots efforts around transit and density as a means to stop Agenda 21’s “destructive smart-growth programs” at the local level. Where DeWeese saw military takeovers of private homes, Heritage saw an existential threat to the fossil-fuel industry. And over the next few years, the Koch brothers — and their staggering oil-refinement fortunes — went to work defeating these projects: In 2018, the New York Times reported on their political success pouring millions of dollars into anti-transit initiatives across the country through their astroturfing group, Americans for Prosperity. The Koch-funded efforts, equipped with a powerful data-collection tool, have successfully blocked more than two dozen transit-related measures coast to coast, with a particular focus on attacking gas taxes to fund transit and other non-driving infrastructure.

The paranoid people turning up to public hearings armed with form letters about a U.N. takeover of private property (“What does U.N. Agenda 21 have to do with Kansas, your county, your city, your home, your farm, your travel, or your employment? Everything!”) and the Koch effort to dismantle the country’s still-quite-limited alternatives to get around cities on a bike or a bus were two faces of the same movement. And then, the U.N. released an updated set of goals — the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development — it partnered with its own coalition of global organizations like World Economic Forum and C40 to actually give its guidelines teeth. Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, a former C40 chair, made the 15-minute city the cornerstone of her reelection campaign (and delivered on her promises). So when COVID hit, the dense, walkable communities known interchangeably as 15-minute cites or 20-minute neighborhoods — with all daily needs a short distance from home — became a new focus of lockdown conspiracy. The pandemic-era resurgence of interest in the concept, as elected officials saw both a climate-resilience tool and economic-recovery strategy, further fueled right-wing fantasies. Earlier this year in Oxford, tens of thousands of anti-15-minute-city leafletsfunded by the ’90s duo Right Said Fred — blanketed the city showing how ingrained the propaganda had become: “All this is coming from the United Nations Agenda 30. This includes the ultimate aim of moving the majority of the public to smart cities where all activity can be monitored to control people’s Personal Carbon Allowance.”

Which leads us back to Trump’s most recent foray into the arena of paranoid anti-urbanism. (He’s always dabbled.) Anti-city rhetoric has always been a key talking point for conservatives, whether the openly racist version espoused by the Tea Party and Trump or the sterilized xenophobia of New Urbanism and neo-traditional communities like the Villages, which are 15-minute neighborhoods for wealthy white people designed around golf carts. Trump’s CPAC promises to “tear down ugly buildings” and “build towering monuments to our true American heroes,” smacks of the same faux-nostalgia, this return to the early days of suburbia, where everyone is assigned a new car and a new single-family home, except it’s somewhere out on a remote Bureau of Land Management plot of desert that doesn’t have a reliable water source. This is how Trump shows his hatred of cities. Pouring money into efforts to kill light-rail trains is how the Koch legacy groups show theirs. And in the fringier corners of the internet, where propagandists describe 15-minute cities as “climate lockdowns” and plot to vandalize bollards and planters, is how they show theirs. The absurdity of the latter group makes it tempting to write the whole thing off — but Trump’s past successes in capturing the public imagination and the Koch empire’s policy track record is a sobering reminder of what happens when we do.

Donald Trump Wants to Build a City