Election 2020

Trump's One-Sided War Against New York's Political Elite

Bill de Blasio's coming humiliation is just the latest evidence of the outer-borough president's revenge on Manhattan.


The list of people ready to guffaw at the pending national humiliation of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is longer than the walk-up line for To Kill a Mockingbird. There is the New York mayor's political nemesis in Albany, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, no doubt miffed that his own lane to the White House got smothered in the avalanche of Joe Biden's late-ish entrance into the 2020 presidential race. There are the headline writers at the New York Post and Daily News, whose familiarity with the unpopular incompetent breeds a delicious contempt. And then there are the people who have actually worked for the guy, who use words like "lunacy" to describe de Blasio's quest.

But the loudest pre-emptive snorts are already coming from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., 250 miles south.

De Blasio thus becomes the latest Manhattan bug on the windshield of the man who McKay Coppins memorably described in The Atlantic as "the outer-borough president." From a young age, Coppins observed, Trump "was acutely aware of the cultural, and physical, chasm that separated himself from the city's aristocracy. In several interviews and speeches over the years, he has recalled gazing anxiously across the East River toward Manhattan, desperate to make a name for himself among the New York elite."

That elite was never truly impressed, even after the developer and tabloid fixture found splashy success across the East River: "Trump was a vulgar self-promoter, a new-money rube, a walking assault on good taste and manners. He was, in short, not one of them. And he knew it."

Coppins wrote those words in January 2017. Since then, the president has had ample time to act on his revenge fantasies against the city where he first made his now-ubiquitous name. And the results of this D.C. vs. Manhattan fight have been as lopsided as a Harlem Globetrotters game.

The biggest Trumpian blow against the betters he left behind, by far, was the 2017 federal income-tax cap on state and local tax (SALT) deductions at $10,000. Disproportionately affecting residents of high-income, high-tax polities, the SALT cap seems almost tailor-made to clobber Manhattan. According to a 2017 Tax Foundation study, New York County (which is comprised solely of Manhattan) took by far the highest median pre-reform SALT deduction in the country—$24,900 per itemizing inhabitant, compared to $17,000 in Marin County, California. (The New York City-adjacent suburban counties of Westchester and Nassau ranked #4 and #8, respectively.)

"SALT was an economic civil war," Gov. Cuomo complained at a February news conference, blaming the cap for a whopping $2.3 billion tax-revenue shortfall. "It literally restructured the economy to help red states at the cost of blue states….It was a diabolical, political maneuver."

Diabolical? Hardly. As Reason economics columnist Veronique de Rugy has observed,

the deduction provides an indirect federal subsidy to state and local governments in high-income areas by decreasing the net cost of nonfederal taxes to those who pay them. As the Tax Policy Center notes, in some instances these state and local governments effectively "export a portion of their tax burden to the rest of the nation."

But Cuomo is on firmer ground when he notes the politics of it all. The governor, whose biggest 2018 re-election campaign theme was standing up to Trump, has been remarkably ineffective in that role. He created a SALT workaround allowing tax filers to donate their tax sums to state charities that provide social services, but that got quashed by the Treasury Department and faces an unpromising future in the courts. He met with President Trump in February and vowed a "nationwide campaign" to repeal the cap, but Democratic New York governors don't tend to have much sway in the GOP-controlled Senate House of Representatives.

"People are mobile," Cuomo warned in February. "And they will go to a better tax environment. That is not a hypothesis. That is a fact." Hmmmm, there might be a teachable lesson there….

The Census in mid-April came out with its annual population adjustment. And what did it find? Year-over-year population loss not just in New York state but—for the first time after a long climb—the city as well. Naturally, the president couldn't help himself from taking a victory lap. "People are fleeing New York State because of high taxes," Trump tweeted. "They didn't even put up a fight against SALT—could have won."

That personalized, pugilistic interpretation of the tax deal was shared by a politician who otherwise usually backs the president, Rep. Peter Steve King (R–Long Island). "He's from New York," King told Newsday, "but he did more to hurt New York than what's ever been done before. That's the reality and he's trying to pass the buck to us."

Usually, out-migration from New York state to Florida, New Jersey, Texas, and the like is replaced by international in-migration to New York City. But the Trump administration has affected those numbers, too, not just by squeezing down the number of legal refugees, student visas, family green cards, and temp workers, but by changing the very way population is counted.

The American Community Survey, from which the most recent Census data was gleaned, asked international migrants a different question last year. Not, when did you arrive in the U.S., but where did you live last year. "Our feeling is that the number for net international migration is likely too low because the new method tends to produce a lower figure," New York Department of City Planning chief demographer Joseph Salvo told The New York Times.

Most controversially, the administration's new citizenship question on the decennial Census survey—which it has not asked since 1950—will (if permitted by the Supreme Court) almost certainly lead to an undercount among any household that contains even one illegal immigrant. Remarkably, and in contravention to the original purposes of the Census, this appears to be by design.

The combination of actual population loss and conscious undercounting of immigrant-heavy populations is directly weakening New York's political power. The Empire State is currently projected to be the only one in the union to lose two congressional seats after the post-Census reapportionment.

Most of President Trump's haymakers directed toward Manhattan fail to land. He keeps whining about his depiction on Saturday Night Live and his treatment by the news division at 30 Rockefeller Center, but all his Twitter rage-threats to sue for defamation, re-impose the Equal Time rule, or even have the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) re-examine licenses, have hit the dead end of robust legal protection of the First Amendment. (As well as the respect for same by FCC Chair Ajit Pai.)

The administration's attempts to crack down on sanctuary cities have similarly been rebuffed by the courts. Mayor de Blasio flatly rejected requests to hand the feds information about the immigration status of prisoners in city custody. And even Trump's trade wars have so far just stalled, not yet reversed, the long Wall Street boom.

But it's hard to avoid the conclusion that in the Acela corridor power struggle between New York and Washington, it is Trump and Trump alone who has come out on top. In January 2016 the most likely obstacles to the reality TV star's path to the White House were former New York senator Hillary Clinton, Brooklyn-born democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, and possibly former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. Only Sanders remains, and he's running a distant second in the pre-primary season to the guy who canceled out Andrew Cuomo. De Blasio stands to be the latest to not only lose to Trump, but suffer continuous degradation throughout.

"A special hello to all of you in this room who have known and loved me for many, many years," then-candidate Trump said, with startling contempt, at the New York elite's legendary and traditionally jovial Al Smith dinner in October 2016. "But then suddenly, [they] decided when I ran for president as a Republican, that I've always been a no-good, rotten, disgusting scoundrel. And they totally forgot about me."

Now, New York politicians can't stop yammering about Trump. But they can't stop losing to him, either.