By Igor Ogorodnev
29 Jul, 2019
Baltimore is one of the most deprived cities in the US. President Trump knows it. Bernie knows it. Most importantly, the voters know it. Answering Trump’s criticism by shouting “racist!” is both bad politics and bad for the city.
Maryland’s largest city has the second-highest murder rate in the nation, behind St. Louis, Missouri. In a city of 600,000, over 300 people will have been shot by the end of the year for the fifth year running. If it were a country, it would be one of the three deadliest in the world.
More than a fifth of its citizens live in poverty, its trash problem has been covered in hundreds of local articles dating back decades, while the rat infestation received its own recent documentary on PBS – which, incidentally used it as a metaphor for general urban decay.
Thus, when President Donald Trump called it a “rodent infested mess” that “ranks last in almost every major category” he is on strong ground – while the Democrats who have run the city since 1967, and Congressman Elijah Cummings, who has been in his post for 23 years and 12 elections, are vulnerable.
Every political philosophy and organization has a weak record in certain areas that will be attacked – look at Republicans squirm when the next unbalanced gun owner goes on a rampage – but there are right and wrong ways to respond to criticism, particularly since Trump’s talking points are not new, either for him or the Republicans.
It is so sad to see @VictorBlackwell & @CNN turn the light currently shining on #WestBaltimore into a race issue. This could result in a positive change. @RepCummings could help get his district in order. Listen to one of his constituents explain the "rats & rodents" problem. pic.twitter.com/LTG8AnT27x
— Kimberly Klacik (@kimKBaltimore) July 27, 2019
Here are some wrong responses.
Ad hominem: “Better to have some vermin living in your neighborhood than to be one,” the Baltimore Sun wrote.
Lashing out: Unofficial Baltimore poet laureate David Simon, who created the TV show The Wire, is now in the third day of arguing with “f**kmooks” and “beer-keg-dwelling, mouth-breaking [SIC] submoronic Trumpists” who pointed out that the president may have had a point.
You are poultry arguing to grown humans about a US Rep being responsible for municipal governance or being more than 1/535th of the legislative voice on national urban policy. You are actually clucking around on Twitter like a fucking yardbird and making as much sense. https://t.co/GGcEdl5thA
— David Simon (@AoDespair) July 28, 2019
Various degrees of whataboutism: From turning the spotlight to poor white states like Kentucky, to this gem from CNN anchor Jim Sciutto, who tweeted “President Trump has repeatedly assailed conditions in Baltimore. He has not once mentioned the brutal police crackdown in Moscow,” in what sounds more like a parody of what Democrats obsess about than a real sentence typed out by a professional journalist.
Accusations of racism: To whatever extent Trump was dog-whistling to his supporters by singling out a black-majority city, or whatever beliefs he may have expressed in the past, in this case it is his critics who have brought race into the debate. Attempts to frame the narrative in such a way – including ludicrous insinuations that the “rodents” mentioned by Trump are in fact the Maryland residents themselves – have made the Democrats appear opportunist, paranoid, and even racist themselves.
To sum up: liberals in the media and politics have acted like emotionally incontinent truth deniers, who have played the “race card” to deflect debate, living up to a frequent accusation against them. They have chosen to side with the corrupt and murderous status quo, appearing actively unmotivated to help the people of Baltimore – whose neighborhoods they will never visit – because they are more interested in political point-scoring and shooting the messenger.
Perhaps this reflexive rejection of anything uttered by Trump matches the feelings of their base, but to the outsider, to anyone with their mind still open even a little bit, to the undecided voter, this reaction is bizarre.
There were better responses available. The liberal establishment could have chosen to tactically agree with Trump, and say something like “we must do better.” Or it could have pointed to the historic socio-economic decline throughout America that has produced such pockets of poverty and crime. Even just letting the comments go would have been better than doubling down or circling the wagons.
There is little surprise that Trump has spent several consecutive days hammering away about this on his Twitter, as his opponents lock themselves into defending the indefensible.
There is nothing racist in stating plainly what most people already know, that Elijah Cummings has done a terrible job for the people of his district, and of Baltimore itself. Dems always play the race card when they are unable to win with facts. Shame!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 28, 2019
With fifteen months until the presidential election, have the Democrats adopted such a rigid mindset, perhaps due to the proverbial Trump Derangement Syndrome, that they have lost not only nuanced political acumen, but also basic emotional intelligence? The handling of the issue by the potential nominees during the upcoming debates on Tuesday and Wednesday will be telling.
I think there is something deeper at work here, too. The reason for such a rabid teeth-baring reaction is repressed shame. When Senator Bernie Sanders called parts of Baltimore worse than North Korea, the Democrats agreed, but now they have to contort themselves into believing that never happened, and the doublethink is causing them torment. The inability of local Democratic administrations to preserve their liberalism while maintaining law and order, the embarrassment at seeing the local political machine get more and more votes as the districts under their control get poorer and more depopulated while wealthier people flee, must rankle. What we are seeing, to use an ugly word, is butthurt.
The way out of this situation is for Democrats to drop some of their dogma, to examine their own record in power in such cities, and to be more honest with themselves and the voters. A similar opportunity arose when the city was last in the national spotlight, during the Freddie Gray riots in 2015, but judging by the worsening situation in Baltimore, chaotic and incompetent decisions taken then were based on ideology, rather than facing the truth or trying to achieve results.
Self-reflection is a painful process, but could reap rewards both for Democrats in 2020, and for dwellers of Maryland’s 7th congressional district long after that.
* Igor Ogorodnev is a Russian-British journalist, who has worked at RT since 2007 as a correspondent, editor and writer.