On Wednesday, at the conclusion of his trip to the American West, where he held a campaign fundraiser and visited a section of the border wall, President Donald Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One that San Francisco was "in total violation" and would be given "notice" for purportedly allowing its homeless population to pollute the ocean with used syringes. "It’s a terrible situation—that’s in Los Angeles and in San Francisco… They have to clean it up," he said. "We can’t have our cities going to hell."
It's unclear what Trump even wants his Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to do about the alleged syringes in the water, which experts deny is actually a problem in the first place. But as usual, Trump's diatribe against San Francisco was about his vague feelings rather than specific facts. The administration has been escalating its anti-homeless rhetoric over the summer, encouraged by the propagandists at Fox News. According to Media Matters, the network has aired at least 53 segments since May covering homelessness in California. Last week, the Washington Post reported that Trump officials have been discussing how to use federal authority to forcibly remove unhoused people from the streets of Los Angeles and other cities.
There can be no illusions about where Trump's concerns lie: not with the wellbeing of the homeless themselves, but with the effect that their presence has on—what else?—property values. "I own property in San Francisco… it was so beautiful," he told Fox News host Tucker Carlson in July. "And now areas that you used to think as being, you know, really something very special, you take a look at what's going on with San Francisco, it's terrible."
This naked hostility toward the least fortunate people in society is ugly, and it's not unique to Trump. When Trump complained to reporters before a fundraiser in Silicon Valley that unhoused people are living on the "best highways, our best streets, our best entrances to buildings… where people in those buildings pay tremendous taxes, where they went to those locations because of the prestige," he was saying a version of what many wealthy interests in the nominally liberal state of California believe.
Increasingly, the political and physical geographies of liberal enclaves like San Francisco and Los Angeles are designed to hide away the homeless, obscuring their existence without addressing the issues that put them on the street in the first place. Hostile architecture abounds, and nothing mobilizes liberal homeowners in defense of their rights faster than the threat of a homeless shelter being built in the neighborhood.
A fundraiser for Trump in Beverly Hills was hosted by Los Angeles real estate developer Geoffrey Palmer. Last year, the billionaire spent $2 million helping to defeat a statewide referendum that would have led to expanded rent controls, a limited but important step in preventing even more people from becoming unhoused.
Earlier this year, a group of San Francisco lawyers—presumably not all of them Trump supporters—filed a lawsuit to prevent a 200-bed homeless shelter from being built on the site of a parking lot in their neighborhood. The suit argued that the shelter would have "environmental" impacts "by attracting additional homeless persons, open drug and alcohol use, crime, daily emergency calls, public urination and defecation and other nuisances."
Advocates for homeless people have long argued that the problem is at bottom that there isn't enough housing low-income people can afford. "[Trump] is literally the one person who could single-handedly address this crisis—he could restore the massive cuts to HUD funding made decades ago instead of making massive investments in the military, for instance," Jennifer Friedenbach, head of San Francisco's Coalition on Homelessness, told the San Francisco Chronicle. "Instead, he is throwing blame in every direction, not taking responsibility for a crisis that lies squarely on his shoulders."
If many California residents can be accused of indifference to homeless people, the Trump administration has gone further. It appears to be preparing for an authoritarian response, channeled not through the provision of welfare but the cruelty of the police state. A report published by the White House's Council of Economic Advisors on Monday argued that "policing may be an important tool to help move people off the street and into shelter or housing where they can get the services they need," citing decades-old research that fondly described a time when "police patrols would have bundled [the homeless] off to jail."
Democratic officials are wasting their time responding to each factually incorrect statement the president and his allies make about the nature of the problem: The facts are secondary to Trump's intense anxiety over "cleanliness" and "prestige." His present fixation on the homeless will pass soon enough, returning no doubt to the migrants and refugees from "shithole countries." (This week, the Los Angeles Times reports, Border Patrol agents are being tasked with conducting asylum seekers' credible-fear interviews—which they will likely do in a considerably more adversarial manner than career asylum officers.)
In fact, Trump's anxiety over the homeless and his anxiety over the undocumented seem to come from the same underlying fear: "We can’t let Los Angeles, San Francisco and numerous other cities destroy themselves by allowing what’s happening," he said this week. In the Trump narrative, the cities where "what's happening" is happening "are usually sanctuary cities run by very liberal people and the states are run by very liberal people," as he told Carlson.
In deploying the discourse of invasion and contamination, Trump is at his most contradictory and his most dangerous. Take for example his claim to Carlson that "police officers are getting sick just by walking the beat," which he repeated on Tuesday, telling reporters that "they’re going to the hospital. We can’t let that happen." In the story Trump is telling, the police are both strong enough to wipe away all the unwanted and unwelcome, and also susceptible to illness and disease; the danger lies in the possibility that the administration resolves this contradiction by giving the police (whether federal or local) the power to do whatever they want.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Brendan O'Connor is a freelance journalist working on a book about immigration and the far right for Haymarket.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.