St. Louis’ failure means red Missouri

I hesitate to call Sen. Josh Hawley a fascist only because I don’t think he believes in anything, including fascism, beyond his own ambition. Hawley is Donald Trump without the clown car and a Florida condo grandmother’s makeup and bouffant.

Like Trump, Hawley’s a serial liar. But Hawley doesn’t lie about the little stuff, like his SAT scores or hand size. Hawley saves his for the big items that effect public policy and people’s lives.

When he ran for Attorney General after suddenly moving back to Missouri, Hawley assured us that he had no ambitions beyond being AG in Jeff City. Starting small, the Hawley lie express picked up speed once he was elected to the U.S. Senate, culminating with his claim that the sedition he committed in the Senate by objecting to Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory was merely to get at “the truth” behind lies about vote fraud.

Hawley always maintains a safe social distance from his conscience, so the fact that his Senate stunt was merely a way to corral support from Trump cultists probably didn’t bother him. The story’s pretty much the same for his successor as Missouri AG, Kirkwood’s Eric Schmitt. 

Schmitt’s shameful record as Attorney General started with his lawsuit to strip health coverage from people with pre-existing conditions. He followed that with one of the dumber stunts by any government official, a lawsuit against China over the coronavirus. But then, Schmitt joined the Sedition Caucus by joining a lawsuit to toss out election results from four states Biden won.

Like Hawley, Schmitt’s amoral stunt, tossed out by the Supreme Court on a one-sentence rejection, wasn’t about subverting democracy so much as about Schmitt’s ambition. The Attorney General doesn’t care about sedition or subverting the Constitution. He cares very much about running for future office, and knows his baseless pro-Trump lawsuits will win him Trumpista votes in future Republican primaries.

But you have to ask why Missouri overwhelmingly elected Republicans such as Hawley and Schmitt, who transitioned from mere racially tinged political extremism to outright neo-fascism without missing a beat. And why Missouri has a radical white nationalist GOP super-majority running politics and policy in the state. And why the Missouri Democratic Party is such a pile of steaming wreckage that it failed to even field candidates in 51 (!) state House races last year.

Conservative rural and exurban white people in Missouri aren’t so different from their counterparts in Illinois, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia or Texas. Go not that many miles outside of Chicago or Atlanta or Houston, and you’ll find the same pro-Trump militants and conspiracy believers you’ll find anywhere in this state.

But those states are either blue or are quickly becoming blue, while Missouri sinks deeper into red extremism. The difference? Successful cities and expanding, educated suburbs.

Outside of Chicago, Illinois is as deep red as any part of the Show-Me State. But Chicago and its surrounding blue counties have almost 80 percent of Illinois’ population. Virginia flipped blue because of the successful, sprawling suburbs of Washington, D.C. Georgia is turning blue, driven by the breathtaking growth and diversity of the Atlanta metro area.

North Carolina and Texas will eventually flip blue because of growth in metros such as Charlotte, Raleigh, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin. Missouri has become a deeper red because St. Louis has failed as a major city and a major metro area.

At least one growing successful city is the secret sauce for any state hoping to turn purple, then blue. The modern dividing lines between Democratic and Republican voters are degrees and density. Democratic voters tend to have degrees, or live in dense, growing cities and their rapidly spreading suburbs.

St. Louis’ legacy of racism, disinvestment, poor leadership, selfishness, bad urban policy and parochialism has given us the largest urban population loss in North American history since 1950, the 13th highest murder rate of any city on earth, neighborhoods with an infant mortality rate higher than Malaysia’s, one city resident in five living in poverty, a police department with a racist reputation that solves only one-fourth of all murders, a city so cash-strapped it can’t buy garbage trucks, and millionaires from the Rams’ Stan Kroenke to Centene’s Michael Neidorff who’ve trashed the city loudly and publicly on their way out the door.

As Harvard historian Walter Johnson points out in his 2020 book “The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States,” almost every bad idea in 19th- and 20th-century America, from genocidal expansion and normalizing slavery to segregated urban housing and racist urban development, either started in St. Louis or was perfected here.

The past isn’t necessarily the future. But this upcoming mayoral election, as the city’s population drops below 300,000 for the first time since the Civil War, will be one of its most consequential. If new leadership can’t come up with a strategy that results in growth rather than more managing decline, St. Louis, and the state it’s in, will have a future that looks a lot more like Nebraska than Georgia.

Charles Jaco

Charles Jaco is a journalist and author. He has worked for NBC News, CNN, KMOX, KTRS, and Fox 2. He is best known for his coverage of the first Gulf War, and for his "legitimate rape" interview with Senate candidate Todd Akin. He is the winner of three George Foster Peabody Awards, and the author of four books.

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