It doesn’t take much evidence for President Trump to decide he’s right. Dead people still on voter rolls? Then he clearly lost the popular vote in 2016 because of voter fraud. A warrant was obtained against a former campaign staffer a few weeks before the election? Then the entire investigation into Russia’s role in the election was obviously invalid.
The most recent example came Saturday, when Trump began his day by watching a Fox News segment looking at run-down areas in Baltimore. The report featured video filmed by a Republican activist from the city and was used to draw a specific contrast: This is what Rep. Elijah E. Cummings’s district looks like. Yet, the Maryland Democrat has the gall to criticize Trump?
Never mind that what was shown were individual units in one part of Cummings’s district. Never mind that his district also reportedly includes rental units owned by Trump’s son-in-law and White House adviser Jared Kushner. Those discrete bits of televised evidence, those several rowhouses — on Fox News, no less! — were more than enough for Trump to offer a sweeping assessment of Cummings’s tenure.
“Rep, Elijah Cummings has been a brutal bully, shouting and screaming at the great men & women of Border Patrol about conditions at the Southern Border,” Trump tweeted, “when actually his Baltimore district is FAR WORSE and more dangerous. His district is considered the Worst in the USA. As proven last week during a Congressional tour, the Border is clean, efficient & well run, just very crowded. Cumming District is a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess. If he spent more time in Baltimore, maybe he could help clean up this very dangerous & filthy place.”
It takes an enormous amount of chutzpah for Trump to level this charge. This was, after all, the president who pledged at his party convention three years ago this month that he alone could fix the government’s problems. Since he’s been president, Trump has traveled to Maryland several times in an official capacity, but never to Baltimore.
His invocations of the city since he has been president include a mention of East Baltimore as he established “opportunity zones” in several regions — designations that could end up benefiting Kushner.
Most of the times he has mentioned Baltimore, though, have been to lump it together with other heavily black places such as Detroit and Chicago as a stand-in for “dangerous, run-down areas.” We’re spending money on wars overseas, he said, while “neglecting the fate of American children in cities like Baltimore and Chicago and Detroit.” Speaking to police officers, he lamented that we had “seen the unbearable horror of the shortcomings in Baltimore and Chicago that have cut short so many lives and so many beautiful, beautiful dreams.”
He uses “Baltimore” as an invocation of something bad. It is something from which people must be lifted up or against, something from which the rest of the country should be compared. It overlaps with how he uses “infest,” a term that been used by Trump on Twitter to describe only places that are mostly nonwhite or heavily Democratic.
To contrast himself with Cummings, Trump insisted on Sunday that he has done more for black Americans than have Democrats simply because the black unemployment rate has fallen.
When Trump took office, 57.5 percent of the country’s working-age black population was employed; now, 58.2 percent are. Over the prior three years, the percentage had climbed 4.2 points. The unemployment rate in the Baltimore area has dropped under Trump, from 4.5 percent to 3.8 percent. Three years before his inauguration, it was at 6.3 percent. Employment growth there has trailed the rest of the country.
On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly conflated the concerns of black Americans with problems in the “inner city,” as though what was happening in places such as West Baltimore defined the black experience.
Trump’s main pitch to black voters in 2016 was: “What do you have to lose?” To be fair, that pitch included no promise of black voters actually gaining much in voting for him.
Trump’s disparagement of Baltimore and his insistence that its problems are Cummings’s problems and not his own reflects where Trump thinks government resources should be expended. Just as he championed a $16 billion bailout for farmers at the same time his administration was mulling a $15 billion cut to food stamps, Trump sees some parts of America as deserving of concern and others as hopelessly broken.
Struggling places such as West Virginia are victims from outside forces that must be combated, like environmentalists and drug-smuggling immigrants. Baltimore? Baltimore’s problems aren’t a function of decades of structural racism or neglect but, instead, the fault of the people who live there and represent it.
There’s a paradox that’s worth reiterating: If it’s an indictment of Cummings that Baltimore has problems, it is necessarily also an indictment of Trump. Both are in positions of political authority over it, but at least Cummings has spent time in the district.
To compare Baltimore to the border, as Trump did, exposes what the president is actually doing. Trump has direct control over facilities at the border housing migrants, facilities that have been repeatedly criticized as dirty, under-resourced and unhealthy for those interned in them. Baltimore, while part of the United States, is at enough of a remove that he can pass the buck wherever he wants. He doesn’t even need to pretend that it’s his responsibility — and his defenders quickly stepped up to bolster that belief.
A few rowhouses prove that Cummings is a hypocrite. A few news stories raising alarms about conditions at the border? Fake news.
Early last year, I was in Baltimore to see how residents felt about the president one year into his term. I spoke with a man named Oliver Spriggs, 78, who lived in Cummings’s district. He was walking with his 8-year-old grandson, Keishawn.
I asked how he thought Trump was doing.
“You really don’t want to know,” Spriggs replied.
Keishawn chimed in: “Horrible!"
"Lousy!” Spriggs said. He said that he felt Trump was a liar.
“And as far as I’m concerned,” Spriggs added, “he’s a racist in his words and his actions.”
His grandson, surprised, looked at his grandfather.
“He’s a racist?” Keishawn asked.