Prone to bombast and the kind of vitriol more commonly heard in the midst of a drunken barroom brawl, Donald Trump reserves his most abhorrent attacks for people of color.
He is no master political strategist, but he has clearly run the political and legal math. He is betting—and thus far correctly—that there will be no real consequences from his behavior, including his racial demagoguery with a Congress where our representatives are unable to muster the moral and political courage to seek his impeachment and removal from office. After Robert Mueller’s testimony last week, the House is moving ahead with its planned six-week summer recess.
In the face of collective inaction, Trump keeps acting, testing new ways to express his racial demagoguery in terms that Congress—and much of the country—cannot quite fully condemn. It’s sickening to see. He appears, it seems, to relish the fights. Whether he is pointing his stubby fingers at a black reporter and calling her “stupid” and “dishonest,” chastising a black member of the White House press corps to “sit down,” or telling black and brown congresswoman to “go back” to where he assumes they came from, Trump is playing to the one audience he knows with never fail him: white people who share his racist, xenophobic worldview.
Saturday morning, the president again raised the stakes when he leapt into a tirade against Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland), who dared to challenge the administration’s anti-immigration policies and take issue with the deplorable, inhumane conditions in border detention centers. People—including children—are dying in those government-sponsored concentration camps. Cummings and others are rightly sounding the alarm.
Rather than address the issues with a modicum of integrity and work to find solutions to the very problems his administration created, Trump attacked Cummings and one of America’s oldest cities.
“Rep. Elijah Cummings has been a brutal bully,” he tweeted Saturday morning. “shouting and screaming at the great men & women of the Border Patrol about conditions at the Southern Border, when actually his Baltimore district is FAR WORSE and more dangerous.”
He went on to claim the congressional district that includes the City of Baltimore “is considered the Worst in the USA.”
Apparently Trump, who had no problem maligning four congresswomen of color because they criticized his domestic policies, now believes it’s fair game to trash-talk an American city—one that sits less than 50 miles from the White House. It is worth mentioning that his son-in-law and special adviser Jared Kushner—whose emails Cummings subpoenaed this week—is a predatory slum lord who owns apartment complexes in Baltimore.
“Cummings District is a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess,” he tweeted. “If he spent more time in Baltimore, maybe he could help clean up this very dangerous & filthy place.”
Similar to previous rants, Trump’s attack on Maryland’s 7th District—one that includes urban, suburban and rural areas— appears to have been inspired by a Saturday morning Fox News segment.
“Living conditions at the border,” the network had “reported,” shortly before Trump’s Tweets, “are better than most areas of his district, the city lined with abandoned buildings and trash on the streets.”
That characterization might ring true in an episode of The Wire, but the real Baltimore is a rich tapestry that boasts proportionally higher education rates. It is home to Johns Hopkins University and its hospital, where HUD Secretary Ben Carson once practiced as a neurosurgeon. Notwithstanding his penchant for attempting to assuage accusations of racism by surrounding himself with African-American preachers or cozying up to black celebrities—namely Kanye West, Steve Harvey, and most recently A$AP Rocky— Trump is not alone in his derision for predominantly black cities.
It is no coincidence that Trump characterized Baltimore this way. It certainly is not rare for him to invoke that brand of ghastly imagery when he is assailing a black or brown political opponent, no matter where they hail from in the world. His former personal attorney Michael Cohen, a man privy to some of the president’s most private conversations, had occasion to witness it first-hand.
“While we were once driving through a struggling neighborhood in Chicago, he commented that only black people could live that way,” Cohen testified before a congressional committee. “And, he told me that black people would never vote for him because they were too stupid.”
The wholesale demonization of black people and of our nation’s largest cities—and specifically urban centers with large concentrations of poverty and higher rates of violent crime—is common parlance among Republicans, who regularly reference the “Democrat plantation” when talking about black voting patterns. Then too, Chicago has become a strawman for gun-related homicides and, recently, Los Angeles is held out as a bastion of homelessness. It is no coincidence, they believe, that these municipalities are largely governed by black and brown Democrats.
Certainly, Baltimore continues to grapple with serious issues. But, such arguments are devoid of their historical context, including the generational impacts of Jim Crow-era separatism and the systemic, government-sponsored wealth-stripping that ensued as the nation began to integrate. Rather than seek meaningful ways to mitigate poverty and invest in communities in ways that foster greater economic mobility, instead the country embarked on a containment agenda—reinforced by the demonization of marginalized populations. In their telling, poverty is not a function of physical wealth but an outcome of abject moral malaise.
Cities like Baltimore, Atlanta and Chicago—where people of every economic stratum live and work—disproportionately fuel the federal tax base, paying more than they receive in services. Meanwhile, rural regions of the country—predominantly white and conservative—consistently draw more in federal support than they contribute—especially when it comes to public entitlements. Federal investment in people and communities, it seems, is only eschewed when it comes to funding the revitalization of non-white communities.
In attacking black elected officials and the cities they represent, Trump is playing an old game. He is doing it with a viciousness and an openness we have not seen from a president since before the civil rights era and that had seemed outside the bounds of our politics. But he has reopened that door. No one pushed or cajoled him through it. Each day that he darkens the doorway of the Oval Office, we are casting a shadow that will outlive his presidency. We should slam and bolt the door behind him.