It is way too late to be shocked when Donald Trump — now apparently running for re-election as a full-throated racist — attacks a majority-black city like Baltimore as a “disgusting rat and rodent infested mess” in one tweet, which he followed with, “No human being would want to live there.”
As a human being who lived in Baltimore for 12 years — rarely encountering a rat, by the way — I was offended, of course. Trump was attacking Baltimore only because Rep. Elijah Cummings, chair of the House Oversight Committee, had gotten publicly emotional in challenging the Trump administration’s treatment of refugees at the border. And Trump, because he’s Trump, would retaliate. And since Cummings’s district includes much of Baltimore …
It turns out, Trump had seen a piece on FoxNews — where else? — saying parts of Baltimore were in worse condition than those living in crowded cages on the border, and so Trump goes to Twitter to tell us of Baltimore’s infestation, a word which he almost always reserves for places where black people live. And while it’s true that Baltimore has more than its share of problems, with disturbing income inequality, segregated neighborhoods and tragically high gun violence to name three, it’s also true that the median income in Cummings’s district is well above the national average. (I didn’t live in what is now Cummings’s district. I lived four blocks away.)
The usual Baltimore suspects lambasted Trump. David Simon of “The Wire” fame. John Waters of John Waters’ fame. Nancy Pelosi, whose father was Baltimore mayor, one of two Baltimore mayors in the family.
But when I saw The Baltimore Sun editorial board’s impassioned defense of the city, I was thrilled. As an alumnus of the Sun, where I was a columnist for nearly 12 years before coming to Denver, I was proud to see the paper taking such a strong stand.
And when I found out who wrote the unsigned piece — my old friend and colleague, editorial writer Peter Jensen — I was more than thrilled. I was shocked. Jensen is one of the nicest people I know. He doesn’t do vitriol. He doesn’t go for the jugular. Like most editorial writers, he’s, well, measured.
Not this time. This is what Trump does to people. After Trump had attacked, in Jensen’s words, “700,000 people to screw with one guy,” Jensen came out firing.
In an editorial headlined, “Better to have a few rats than to be one,” he closed it this way: “Finally, while we would not sink to name-calling in the Trumpian manner …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.”
When I reached Jensen and told him he was now my hero, he laughed and said, “If there was anyone I’d expect to call Trump a rat, it would have been you. I never thought it would be me … I don’t remember that day in journalism school when they tell you how to react after you’ve called the president of the United States vermin.”
The column went viral, and Jensen has been interviewed by news outlets across the world. By editorial standards, the piece was shocking. One of the great puzzles of our time is how the media should best respond to Trump’s mendacity — I use the word because I’m pretty sure Trump doesn’t know what it means — and this is one way that draws attention. Does it play into Trump’s hands? I don’t know. Does talking about impeachment play into Trump’s hands? I don’t know. There is no modern precedent for this president.
To blame Cummings — or as Trump put it, King Elijah’s Baltimore fail — for Baltimore’s poor neighborhoods is, of course, absurd. There is a long history of neglect and abuse, of racism and red-lining, of impoverished schools and the scourge of drugs. If anyone should be doing something about poverty and violence in cities, it would, of course, be the president, who has slightly more power than one out of 435 members of the House. It seems that he’s not interested. But he is interested in insulting the Squad —four women of color in the House — and in insulting civil rights icon John Lewis, whose Georgia House district he also called infested. And now Cummings.
Meanwhile House Republicans are planning to hold their annual retreat in Baltimore — Trump’s “very dangerous & filthy place” — in September. Most Republicans dodged when asked about Trump’s tweets. Many said they like Baltimore — that’s the Baltimore with its Inner Harbor, with Fort McHenry, with a great art museum, with Camden Yards, with Babe Ruth’s birthplace, with a football team named for Edgar Allan Poe’s Raven, with Johns Hopkins Hospital, with more than its share of culture and cuisine and blue crabs. It is often the site of political retreats. Usually, the president would be addressing the coming retreat, but maybe not this time.
He would not be welcome. Of course he wouldn’t. And not only because David Simon — another Sun alumnus whose much-praised Wire addressed the violence and poverty in Baltimore as a platform for addressing the same problems facing too many cities — was slamming him. Simon, whose politics run left and whose tweets are a master’s class in social media insults, tweeted this of the president and the streets of West Baltimore, “If this empty-suit, race-hating fraud had to actually visit West Baltimore for five minutes and meet any of the American citizens who endure there, he’d wet himself.”
Or as slightly milder-mannered editorial writer Jensen put it, “Usually I write about somewhat drier topics. Zoning. Gas tax. Light rail. And some days, you call the president of the United States a rat.”