I’ll say this — and it’s not much — about President Donald Trump’s incendiary tweet attacks on Rep. Elijah Cummings and the city of Baltimore: At least, for a change, he’s laid off my beloved Chicago.
The Republican president has treated Chicago, hometown of his predecessor President Barack Obama, as his favorite symbol of “American carnage,” although he displays virtually no real knowledge of the real city.
I therefore braced myself for another Chicago hit after Trump made headlines over the weekend with a tweet that called Cummings’ Baltimore district “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.” He said that “no human being would want to live there.” He later called Cummings, who is Black, a “racist.”
I braced myself because Trump’s tweet was based on a Fox News report on Baltimore’s rat problem. The report cited a list put out by the pest control company Orkin on the cities with the highest number of residential and commercial rodent treatments in 2018.
Baltimore actually ranked ninth on the list. At the top, unfortunately, was my beloved Chicago, although I don’t expect Chicagoans to pour into the streets to chant “We’re No. 1” about this list.
Nevertheless, Chicago is dealing with this problem just as Los Angeles and New York, respectively second and third on the list, are doing. Bashing Democrat-run cities has become a long-running trope among some Republicans, even though 10 of the nation’s 12 poorest states in the union (Alabama, South Carolina, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, Idaho, Florida and Mississippi), according to U.S. Census data and the National Conference of State Legislatures, have Republican governors and legislatures in which the Grand Old Party has majorities in both houses.
Media that want to offer a little balance have noted that Baltimore’s rats sometimes have been encouraged by New Yorkers, such as Jared Kushner, a New York real estate magnate and Trump’s son-in-law. A 2017 investigation by ProPublica and The New York Times called “The Beleaguered Tenants of Kushnerville,” reports conditions that led to lawsuits and 200 fines in 9,000 apartments owned by Kushner’s company.
But let’s face it. Trump’s attacks have virtually nothing to do with his concern for living conditions in Baltimore compared with what they have to do with punishing Cummings. As chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, he pressed a tough case against Trump’s border policy last week and also is conducting multiple investigations of the president.
And attacking Cummings also provides red meat for Trump’s base during his never-ending re-election campaign.
As Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot suggested when asked by reporters whether Trump was racist: Don’t overthink it.
“Racism is a part of who he is. It is a part of his strategy,” Lightfoot said Monday.
But everyone also should avoid being distracted by the race question from “what people actually care about and what they need,” she said. “What they need is leadership.”
Indeed, actions speak louder than labels. Office-seekers in our democracy have a choice. They can try to win by dividing people along lines of race and other differences or they can act to bring people together by emphasizing what we share in common.
Trump made his choice quite clear when he first announced his 2016 presidential campaign by attacking Mexican immigrants as “bringing drugs,” “bringing crime, “they’re rapists,” as well as some who “I assume are good people.”
More recently he has made public enemies out of “the squad,” a quartet of freshman House Democrats and women of color whom Trump has told on Twitter to “go back” to where they came from instead of criticizing his administration. All four of the women — Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan; Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York; and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota — are U.S. citizens, and only Omar was born outside the U.S.
Trump’s telling Cummings to go take care of his district and stop investigating his affairs strikes the ear much like the “Send her back!” chant that Trump’s rally crowd in Greenville, North Carolina, employed. Both are just another version of the old and shameful message that too many members of minority groups still hear, “Go back where you came from.”
Can Trump’s version of white identity politics win in 2020? That’s up to us voters.