If you’d only read the defenses of President Trump, you could be forgiven for thinking he was offering a thoughtful policy analysis when he disparaged Representative Elijah Cummings. On Saturday, Trump tweeted that the Maryland congressman, who is black, “has been a brutal bully, shouting and screaming at the great men & women of Border Patrol about conditions at the Southern Border, when actually his Baltimore district is FAR WORSE and more dangerous.” The president went on to describe Maryland’s Seventh Congressional District — which is 54 percent black and includes half of Baltimore City — as “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess,” as differentiated from the “clean, efficient & well run” prison camps his administration uses to incarcerate migrants and asylum seekers. Trump later asked, “Why is so much money sent to the Elijah Cummings district when it is considered the worst run and most dangerous anywhere in the United States[?] No human being would want to live there. Where is all this money going? How much is stolen?”
As is often the case, facts were ancillary to Trump’s assessment: To describe his border camps as “clean” and “well run” is to ignore the women pressured to drink from toilets therein; the guards’ refusal to give prisoners soap, toothpaste, or chances to bathe; and the children wearing mucus-caked clothing for lack of laundry resources. To suggest that inordinate federal funds are given to a district where “no human being would want to live” belies that several districts receive billions of dollars more and that, alongside the stark inequality that defines most metropolitan areas, Maryland’s Seventh District remains the second-wealthiest majority-black congressional district in the country and is home to more than 600,000 people. To blame Cummings for crime and poverty in Baltimore is to ignore that federal officials have little say in how their individual jurisdictions are run. And to insist, as a general rule, that members of Congress keep quiet about immigration policy as long as their home districts have problems would require an unbroken silence on the subject across Capitol Hill.
Yet when faced with the suggestion that Trump’s salvo against Cummings was not about governing, but about racism, the president’s defenders insisted he was merely telling the truth about a poorly run district. “Have you seen some of the pictures on the internet? Just this morning from the conditions in Baltimore?” acting–White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney told Fox News. “The richest state in the nation has abject poverty like that. A state, by the way, dominated for generations by Democrats. I think it’s fair to have that conversation.” Conservative pundit Ben Shapiro tweeted, “[Pointing] out that Baltimore is one of the worst run cities in America, rife with crime and plagued by poor living conditions, isn’t racist. It’s evident to anyone with two eyes and a functioning pre-frontal [sic] cortex.” Other conservative journalists submitted as proof of the president’s nonracism footage of residents complaining about life in the city’s ghettoes. One clip shows former-Mayor Catherine Pugh surveying a block of abandoned East Baltimore row houses and remarking, “We should just take all this shit down.”
The problem with this defense — that Trump was leveling a substantive, if perhaps inartfully blunt, critique of Baltimore — is that it contradicts the president’s actual record when discussing black and brown communities. Evidence suggests the city’s material conditions were incidental to his remarks. Trump believes that black and brown people are inherently filthy and degraded — unless they are celebrities or supporters — but can be redeemed by proximity to white governance. Examples abound, such that presuming Trump was ridiculing poverty in Cummings’s district with a more noble underlying assumption verges on delusional. It’s clear to even casual observers what he thinks of these areas and their denizens: Testifying to Congress in February, Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, claimed that while riding through an impoverished neighborhood in Chicago, the president once “commented that only black people could live that way.” Trump has falsely described Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District — which is almost 60 percent black and encompasses three-quarters of Atlanta — as “in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime-infested)” during a personal attack on its black congressman, Representative John Lewis. When faced with the prospect of protecting Haitians, Salvadorans, and Africans as part of a bipartisan immigration deal, Trump asked last year, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”
His rationale for why these areas have problems combines the presumed defect of the people who live there with the absence of competent — and by inference, white (and usually Republican) — leadership. Trump uses the word “infested” to describe them almost exclusively, and on the rare occasion he applies it to majority-white spaces, as he did in 2017 when he called New Hampshire a “drug-infested den,” it’s to illustrate the problems imported by nonwhite people: “The drug lords in Mexico are knocking the hell out of our country,” he explained. His conception of U.S. citizenship as a given for white people but conditional for others leads him to characterize its merits as attributable to the former. People of color, by contrast, are fundamentally foreign and ungratefully disparaging of benevolent white leadership. Earlier this month, he demanded that four Democratic congresswomen — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib — “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested” countries they “originally came from” before commenting on how the U.S. should be governed, even though all four were expressly elected to govern. Only one of them, Omar, was foreign-born, and Pressley is a descendant of slaves.
But there is hope for black and brown people, in Trump’s assessment, and it lies in submitting to white rule. The cleansing properties of this submission are such that Central American migrants can be importing “disease” at one moment, only to have all mention of disease dissipate after they’re placed in his “clean, efficient, and well-run” border camps. The barrier to them realizing this, as Trump remarked to Cohen, is that “black people would never vote for him because they [are] too stupid.” This is ironic given that poverty and crime in black communities are traceable to the historical chokehold of white supremacism on government and civic life that Trump’s administration embodies. Baltimore was a pioneer in de jure segregation, becoming the first U.S. city to adopt an ordinance, in 1910, prohibiting black and white people from buying homes on blocks where the other was a majority, according to Richard Rothstein’s book The Color of Law. When white people fled the city for cushier suburbs in the mid-20th century, they took with them much of the social and economic capital required to maintain investment and decent-paying work, leaving resource-starved black communities behind to be terrorized by a police department so racist it sparked riots in 1968 and 2015. Regional mobility has been restricted further by the Trump family’s own hand: Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, for years owned thousands of apartment units in Baltimore County priced to house people “in financial difficulty,” according to the New York Times. Many of the buildings were abysmally managed, marked by rodent problems, raw sewage floods, and pipe leaks that caused black mold to grow. When residents — many of whom were black and trying to escape the dangers of segregated Baltimore — tried to move out or were late on their rent, they were litigated aggressively into even more dire financial straits by Kushner’s lawyers.
All of which casts doubt on the honesty and noble intentions of a president who refers to black and brown people almost exclusively in racist terms, lies relentlessly to and about us, and offers his own empowerment as the solution to our problems. Nor does his record of confronting black leaders inspire confidence: If President Obama was a Kenya-born Muslim who lied about this grades, Cummings is a thief and an incompetent, and both he and Lewis are responsible for social ills in their majority-black districts that can be traced directly to racist policies, many of them local, it’s clear that Trump is less interested in a substantive analysis of Baltimore’s struggles than deploying racism to satisfy his personal and political grievances. He falls increasingly short of earning the benefit of the doubt by the day, yet his defenders insist on treating his remarks as if there’s no documented ethos informing them. Perhaps they find solace in lying to themselves and others about racism. The rest of us can’t afford their delusion.