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The year after the rat: How Trump could still help Baltimore and himself | COMMENTARY

President Donald Trump gives a Memorial Day speech at Fort McHenry. where about 200 socially distanced spectators inside the fort, mostly wearing masks, listened. May 25, 2020
President Donald Trump gives a Memorial Day speech at Fort McHenry. where about 200 socially distanced spectators inside the fort, mostly wearing masks, listened. May 25, 2020 (Amy Davis)

Monday marked the one-year anniversary of the day a sitting president of the United States referred to Maryland’s 7th Congressional District, including Baltimore, as a “disgusting rat and rodent infested mess.” It was a nakedly racist attack on social media then and the intervening months have only underscored President Donald Trump’s malign purpose. In 2019, Mr. Trump was intent on embarrassing then-Rep. Elijah Cummings, an outspoken critic of his border policies. The congressman died just two months later but not before graciously inviting the president to tour Baltimore with him. Alas, the invitation was never accepted. And Baltimore has remained on Mr. Trump’s radar only as a prop to inflame white fears of a majority-minority city, most recently by calling last week for an influx of “federal law enforcement” similar perhaps to the unmarked quasi-riot police that have demonstrably aggravated protests in Portland.

There is no hidden malevolence here. It’s all quite in plain sight. To the Trump administration, Baltimore and other “Democrat-controlled cities” are a punch line, at best a distraction to get voters to spend less time pondering the nation’s failed response to the COVID-19 pandemic and more fearing people of color. Immigration policies that put kids in cages, badgering of Black Lives Matter protesters, the defense of Confederate monuments and now the specter of out-of-control urban (meaning African American-perpetrated) crime; these are all cut from the same stars-and-bars decorated cloth. Reelect me, Mr. Trump is saying, or you will be home invaded by a gang of Colin Kaepernicks. And certain television networks are only too happy to promote this narrative even as coronavirus deaths rise at a rate many times that of the nationwide homicide count (and as their on-air personalities thoughtlessly scoff at the obvious links between violent crime and the pandemic as well as the recent incidents of police brutality that have so badly eroded community trust in police).

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In the words of the late Mr. Cummings, we’re better than this. And so, one year after first observing Mr. Trump’s rodent-like tendencies, we would take our cues from the son of sharecroppers and extend an olive branch: President Trump, please come to Baltimore and see first hand the problems the city faces. Why? Because Baltimore is part of the country and that makes our welfare part of your job. The challenges facing Charm City are not insurmountable but they won’t be fixed by tear gas and stun grenades. Want to boost America’s urban centers? It can start with promoting equity, of giving kids who grow up in neighborhoods like Sandtown-Winchester the same opportunities as those who live in affluent suburban neighborhoods like Ruxton — access to decent schools, housing, medical care and job opportunities.

Mr. President, you could make a difference here. What if you stood on the steps of Johns Hopkins Hospital and declared that anyone who needs drug treatment or mental health care in the United States should have it? What if you went back to Fort McHenry, not for a Memorial Day photo op, but to announce a war on systemic racism? What if you simply sat down with Baltimore’s mayor and its police commissioner and explored ways federal resources could be used to reduce homicide, not with storm troopers but by attacking the underlying social problems, including the failed war on drugs, that feed the body count? What if you walked the streets of West Baltimore and acknowledged that yes, Black lives matter and always have? Americans would surely take notice.

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Let’s be blunt. The polls suggest you are headed toward a historic defeat in November. You have lost support even among white men without college degrees, the key component of your base. Can you reasonably expect to frighten the nation sufficiently within the next 90-plus days to overcome this or might you be better off by following the example of Franklin Roosevelt who won reelection in 1940 despite a nearly 15% unemployment rate (roughly what it is right now) and a war in Europe by appealing to both city residents and working class southerners. Americans can be distracted but they also crave optimism. Engaging with Baltimore instead of simply belittling it would demonstrate that the 45th president, like the 32nd, believes that “all men are created equal” and that the ideals of the founders aren’t completely lost on him. Don’t send unwanted troops to Baltimore, Mr. President, bring yourself and a modicum of good will. That would be downright presidential.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels, writer Peter Jensen and summer intern Anjali DasSarma — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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