BALTIMORE – The more Donald Trump talks, the more he shows us he feels not an ounce of empathy and understands not a heartbeat of history.
He calls this city “rat-infested…where no human being would want to live,” without ever setting foot here. When he finally does show up, last week, he heads straight to a high-end hotel in a glittery part of town where he immediately puts his foot back into his mouth.
He tells a gathering of Republicans huddled at the Marriott Waterfront Hotel that billions of dollars in federal aid to this city were “wasted” and “stolen.” Oh, yeah? City officials ask the president for evidence of such claims.
Have you heard even a pipsqueak response yet from Trump? No? Neither have city officials.
Then Trump tells those same Republicans, “We’re going to fight for the future of cities like Baltimore that have been destroyed by decades of failed and corrupt rule.”
Let’s just break that sentence down piece by piece. When does this president suggest he’ll finally start fighting for cities like Baltimore, instead of insulting them? He ran for president promising great infrastructure initiatives – repairing crumbling roads and bridges, rehabilitating decayed housing, efforts of that nature.
Nearly three years into his administration, have we seen this yet? Twice last spring, Trump sat down with Democrats and agreed to a $2 trillion infrastructure plan. But they also agreed on something else: there’s no money to pay for it, not with the credit card bills this administration has run-up.
Trump found money for a tax cut for rich people – tough luck there’s nothing left to spend on hungry cities like Baltimore.
So let’s look at the next part of that Trumpian claim – the one about “cities like Baltimore that have been destroyed by decades of failed and corrupt rule.”
Have there been politicians who have acted corruptly here? Of course – as with any American city. But in Baltimore, they’ve mainly been fringe players committing acts of pettiness and stupidity. To blame this city’s sustained economic and social ills on any history of City Hall corruption is a fantasy.
If Trump’s alluding to two of our recent mayors, Catherine Pugh and Sheila Dixon, then he clearly doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Whatever crimes they committed, they were selfish and squalid, yes, but they were also inconsequential to the city’s problems.
The money Pugh made on her “Healthy Holly” books created no urban blight. Nor did Dixon’s snatching of gift cards intended for charitable use. Shame on them both – but the damage these two women did was to their own reputations, not to live in their city.
And, if Trump wants to look back over “decades” of “corrupt rule” at City Hall, he can look all he wants at the administrations of Tommy D’Alesandro, William Donald Schaefer, Du Burns, Kurt Schmoke, Martin O’Malley and Stephanie Rawlings Blake – whatever flaws they had, mayoral “corruption” wasn’t among them.
But maybe Trump was hinting at something else – race. It’s his signature punch, whether it’s the birtherism baloney he spewed about Barack Obama or Charlottesville’s bigoted demonstrators he called “fine people,” or Mexican rapists or “s—hole countries” that happen to be dark-skinned.
Or it’s about Elijah Cummings and his “rat-infested” congressional district in West Baltimore.
Was Trump referencing the flaws of Pugh and Dixon because they were African-American leaders in a majority-black city? Was he trying to tie them in with his fight with Rep. Cummings?
It clearly fits with Trump’s history. So let’s put him straight on “corrupt rule” over the “decades” around here. We’ve had corruption in high places, all right – out there in the city’s surrounding counties.
We had it with a white guy named Spiro Agnew, who was taking bribes from developers while he ran what was then nearly all-white Baltimore County and while he was governor of Maryland, and while he was vice president of the United States. The disgraced Agnew had to resign from office.
And we had “corrupt rule” with a white guy named Dale Anderson as Baltimore County executive – who fought overtly to keep blacks from moving to the county. He was taking bribes from developers, too. The disgraced Anderson went to federal prison.
And we had “corrupt rule” when we had a white guy named Joseph Alton who was Anne Arundel County Executive. He took bribes from developers, too, and went to federal prison.
Around here, that’s your “corruption” over “decades,” Mr. President.
You want to talk about that kind of history over “decades,” here’s a little bit of it: Years ago we had a U.S. civil rights commission study county housing and racial policies – the very policies that helped propel this city’s enduring economic downfall. The commission declared Baltimore County was a “white noose” strangling the city.
Here’s what we have today: a president who doesn’t understand the history of his own nation, and shrugs off the generations of racism and economic unfairness whose shadow lingers over scores of cities even now.
We have a president who should look at such situations and say, “I want to help fix this,” instead of heartlessly plucking at its enduring and painful wounds for his own political gain.
Feature photo by Bill Hughes.
Michael Olesker, columnist for the News American, Baltimore Sun, and Baltimore Examiner has spent a quarter of a century writing about the city he loves.He is the author of several books, including Michael Olesker’s Baltimore: If You Live Here, You’re Home, Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore, and The Colts’ Baltimore: A City and Its Love Affair in the 1950s, all published by Johns Hopkins Press.