Baltimore Responds to President Trump
Not long after President Trump issued his first tweets about Representative Elijah Cummings, on Saturday—Cummings’s Baltimore-area district, Trump wrote, is a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess”—the staff at Chase Street Accessories & Engraving, in the downtown Baltimore neighborhood of Mount Vernon, fired up a laser engraver for a one-off piece of merchandise: a mug printed with an outline of the city and the words “I LOVE MY DISGUSTING RODENT AND RAT INFESTED MESS.”
“It was really just for fun,” Robbie Marcouillier, the shop’s manager, told me on Monday. “We had no intention or plan of really doing anything other than making us happy.” But word about the mug spread quickly.
“I was actually at a community event, and I had people coming to my table, and they’re asking me, ‘Are you the disgusted people? We saw you on Reddit!’ ” he said. “It was, like, Wow, this is something people really didn’t like, having their home insulted like this.”
Meanwhile, the Baltimore Sun was working on its own soon-to-be-viral response to Trump’s comments. “While we would not sink to name-calling in the Trumpian manner,” an editorial posted that evening read, “we would tell the most dishonest man to ever occupy the Oval Office, the mocker of war heroes, the gleeful grabber of women’s private parts, the serial bankrupter of businesses, the useful idiot of Vladimir Putin and the guy who insisted there are ‘good people’ among murderous neo-Nazis that he’s still not fooling most Americans into believing he’s even slightly competent in his current post. Or that he possesses a scintilla of integrity. Better to have some vermin living in your neighborhood than to be one.”
On Monday, I spoke to the editorial’s author, Peter Jensen, who has worked at the Sun for more than three decades. “I never in my life believed I’d be writing an editorial that describes the President of the United States as a rat,” Jensen told me. “That’s just sort of something that one doesn’t anticipate. And yet, there are so many people who apparently felt that needed to be said—who feel much better about themselves or about the country today because it was just said out loud.”
In the editorial, Jensen also argued that Trump’s attack on Cummings returned “to an old standby of attacking an African American lawmaker from a majority black district on the most emotional and bigoted of arguments.” Jensen said, “Naturally he fell back on the place being ‘unfit for human habitation,’ ‘devastated,’ ‘rat-filled’ and all the other terminology he knew. I mean, it’s just so obvious that I think even his supporters acknowledge this is a pattern of behavior.”
As the editorial acknowledged, there are parts of Baltimore that are genuinely and seriously grappling with crime and poverty. John Bullock, a professor of political science at Towson University, in Maryland; a Baltimore city councilman; and the head of the council’s Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, is intimately familiar with the parts of the city that are struggling the most and the changes that have reshaped it.
“Sometimes we use the term ‘rust belt’ when we look at cities that have gone through deindustrialization—the loss of manufacturing jobs and the poverty and population loss,” he told me. “Baltimore’s clearly an example of that. It’s also been exacerbated by drug addiction that has come along with it. So, yes, we do have significant issues of crime and public safety. My district is West Baltimore and Southwest Baltimore—and we do have some of the highest rates of folks who are returning home from prison, folks who are dealing with addiction, of gun crime, unemployment, all of those things.”
Twenty-two per cent of Baltimore residents live in poverty, a rate well above the national average, of about thirteen per cent. In 2017, Baltimore had the highest homicide rate of any major American city, with a rate of fifty-six murders per a hundred thousand people. Jill Carter, a state senator who represents parts of West Baltimore, emphasizes the role that racism has played in creating some of the problems facing the city. “Wherever you see places especially that are not just largely minority but largely African-American, you have to always look at the roots of the problem,” she said, “and the roots of the problem stem from slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and ongoing discrimination and inequity in the lives of African-Americans in America and in places like Baltimore City.”
The disparities between Baltimore’s black and white residents are made plain in basic statistics. The median income of white households in Baltimore is around seventy thousand dollars a figure higher than the white national median, of sixty-two thousand dollars. Black households have a median income of less than thirty-seven thousand dollars, a figure just below the black national median, of about thirty-eight thousand dollars. “Now that Trump has highlighted some of these issues,” Carter said, “I think it’s incumbent upon him and other people of good will to figure out what we’re going to do now to make it better, as opposed to just casting aspersions on the congressman who happens to be investigating him.”
Dutch Village, in North Baltimore, is one of several apartment complexes in the Baltimore area owned by the family real-estate firm of Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser. In 2017, Alec MacGillis, of ProPublica, reported on shoddy construction, mice droppings, and sickening mold at a number of Kushner-owned Baltimore properties, including Dutch Village. The complex, which resembles a Dutch village about as closely as Trump resembles a statesman, consists of more than five hundred squat, identical townhomes. On Monday afternoon, Wendy Hosear was sitting outside the complex, braiding her hair. She grew up in West Baltimore and had lived in Dutch Village for about a year. I asked her what she made of Trump’s comments about Baltimore and her former community.
“Personally, I don’t see the problem in what he said, because he’s right,” she said. “I’m trying to figure out what all the money they send to him’s going to, because West Baltimore looks crazy! West Baltimore is so dirty—and it’s not like he was saying it to be disrespectful. He was telling the truth. And anybody who lives in Baltimore knows it’s the truth. That’s one of those ‘it hurts because it’s the truth’ type of things.”
“I lived in West Baltimore,” she continued. “I know what it’s like over there—the killing, the dirt, everything. The air is different over there. Just coming off the highway—police sirens.”
Hosear’s brother, Deyonta’ Hosear, came outside, and I mentioned the charge that Trump homes in on black figures and largely black cities—first Chicago, now Baltimore—when he talks about dysfunction and decay.
“Black people make a stronger statement,” Deyonta’ said, shrugging. “Especially when you talk about the struggle that black people go through compared to white-people struggles.” He went on, “You don’t see people on white social media always posting their friends that die. You don't see them posting their relatives that are dead all the time. They aren’t struggling all the time like that.”
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“Trump was trying to come for Elijah Cummings,” Wendy said. “I’m completely understanding everything Trump’s saying! They’re sending them so much money to help the communities in his part of the town or whatever—where is that money going to? Because I don’t see it going nowhere in West Baltimore. I don’t see no difference in West Baltimore. It’s been that way for a minute.”