Donald Trump is a racist. Let’s get that out of the way right now.
That’s not name-calling, but a sober assessment of this man’s public behavior over decades. His days as a redlining real-estate developer, his rabble-rousing against the Central Park Five, his nauseating “birtherism” campaign against Barack Obama, his call for four congresswomen of color to leave the country, his constant vilification of black Americans and brown immigrants — it all screams his conviction that skin color supersedes character in determining a person’s value.
In one sense, Trump’s recent tirade against the city of Baltimore is just another manifestation of his racism. Baltimore is largely African American and is represented by a black congressman, Elijah Cummings, who has had the audacity to actually carry out his duties as chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform and investigate this administration.
When Trump wigged out on Twitter last weekend, calling Baltimore “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being would want to live,” it wasn’t just a typically unpresidential attack on a major American city; it was also the most piercing of dog whistles to the fellow bigots who comprise so much of his base.
Cummings “should investigate himself with his Oversight Committee!,” Trump tweet-bellowed. He somehow managed to avoid using the word “uppity,” but you get the idea.
But Trump’s vilification of Baltimore — and Chicago, Atlanta, Ferguson and other urban, largely black areas — also speaks to a divide that goes beyond race. We are, perhaps more than in the past, two Americas: urban, and not. And America’s current leader has clearly chosen sides.
It’s an old dynamic, of course — “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse” is, literally, an ancient story — but there’s something especially corrosive about that divide today. It’s not just about where and how we live, but how we think about each other and about what it means to be American.
This president didn’t create that fault line, but he’s stomping on it with both feet in his malicious, self-serving effort to turn Americans against one another. As Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot puts it: “He knows he’s not getting any significant votes in any urban center in the country, so why not vilify those areas?”
Trump knows what button he’s pushing here. There’s an attitude among a lot of conservatives today — a largely race-based attitude — that urban areas are somehow less “American.” Not only does this dismiss the very concept of democracy (since some 80% of Americans live in urban areas), but it relies on the myth that cities today are an unmitigated disaster. They aren’t.
Yes, urban murder rates are up. For that we can largely thank the (mostly rural or suburban) Republicans who do the bidding of the gun lobby. But urban crime as a whole is historically low.
And, contrary to the myth of bullets whizzing around every city street corner, those disturbing murder rates in St. Louis and other cities are concentrated in the poorest areas. It’s further proof of the age-old truism that violence is driven not by skin color or ethnicity, but poverty.
Cities have more poverty than non-urban areas, because cities have more of everything: more wealth, more industry, more diversity, more creativity, more opportunity. Even a smallish, troubled city like St. Louis offers the world-class museums, the music, the shows, the sports, the art, the restaurants — the life — that can generally be found only in urban settings.
There’s nothing wrong with preferring the country. Fresh air and crickets are great. But those who denigrate urban life as intrinsically inferior tend to bring a big dose of misanthropy to the table. And when the president of the United States does it, and spikes it with racism, it’s an especially pungent dish.
That this anti-urban demagoguery is coming from a lifelong New Yorker is incongruous, but no more so than usual with him. This is, after all, the bankruptcy king who touts his business acumen; the self-proclaimed genius who shows signs of being functionally illiterate; the moral cesspool of a man who leads the “family values” party. Trump is nothing if not self-contradictory.
To hear Trump tell it, Baltimore is just a collection of slum properties of the kind that his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, owns there. In reality, it is, like most large cities, a mix of the worst and best of America, a place where epic opportunity does battle with epic deprivation. Only political arsonists like Trump ignore the former and cheer the latter.
Cities, for all their problems, are the leading edge of civilization. They’re where artists and musicians and chefs and entrepreneurs push their respective envelopes. They’re where the big cultural movements flourish, where the epochal political conversations happen, where the towering success stories are written.