Why America’s big cities have become the president’s punching bag

Why We Wrote This

Critics see President Trump’s attacks on U.S. cities as a dog whistle, while supporters say he’s calling out failures of liberal governance. What may matter most is how this argument plays in the suburbs, which is where the next election may be decided.

Stephanie Keith/Reuters
People dance in the streets while holding signs that read "ceasefire" in Baltimore, May 10, 2019. Ceasefire is a local organization that stages events to call attention to gun violence in Baltimore.

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When Marilyn Ford points, she might as well be pointing with President Donald Trump’s finger.

“He is right, you know,” says the silver-haired septuagenarian, referring to Mr. Trump’s recent racially tainted fusillades on liberal cities.

This week’s spree of attacks shines a spotlight on a long Republican practice of throwing shade at cities, many of them under decadeslong Democratic rule. Mr. Trump’s supporters say that it’s not about race – he’s just calling out the failures of liberal governance. But even with a strong economy, which would normally put a first-term president in strong position for reelection, Mr. Trump’s racially divisive rhetoric is already alienating voters in key electoral battlegrounds.

“President Trump’s words over the past two weeks have been very polarizing,” says Juan Carlos “J.C.” Polanco, a New York attorney known as “the Hispanic voice of New York Republicans.”

“I grew up in the inner city, so I understand the issues of poverty and violence, drugs and gangs, and even rodents in the inner city,” Mr. Polanco says. “But it’s one thing to point that out, and to talk about solutions to solve those issues, and it’s another thing to use it to disparage people.”

It didn’t take long Thursday night, at a rally in Cincinnati, for President Donald Trump to pull out his favorite punching bag: America’s big, diverse cities, most of them run by “Democrat politicians” and harmed by “the far left’s destructive agenda.”

As he has all week, President Trump singled out Baltimore. He didn’t name names, but he didn’t have to. The president has been punching hard at Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, who represents much of Baltimore – and whose congressional committee recently approved subpoenas for Mr. Trump’s daughter and son-in-law. On Friday morning, he tweet-trolled Congressman Cummings over an intruder who entered his Baltimore home last weekend.

That Mr. Cummings is African American is lost on no one. And following the president’s tirades against four minority female freshmen in Congress, known as “the squad,” the politics of race is aflame like at no other time in Mr. Trump’s presidency.

“The pattern Trump is following with Elijah Cummings is the same as with the squad,” says Ian Haney López, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and an author of books on the politics of race. “That is, go after a Democratic politician of color and slander them in terms that are highly racialized but that still allow a modicum of deniability. That’s dog whistle politics.”

And, Mr. Haney says, it could win Mr. Trump reelection by keeping his base supporters energized. But if it turns off enough suburban and blue-collar women who might otherwise support him, particularly in battleground states, the strategy could backfire.

“There’s no question that in his approach to Cummings, he’s walking a tightrope,” says GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “But at the same time, he cannot allow unfettered media coverage to call him racist and a Russian puppet without making the case that the policies that are being prescribed by the very people who are calling him racist have let down Democratic voters and particularly minorities.”

Indeed, Mr. Trump’s pitch to African Americans in 2016 was essentially “what have you got to lose?” And while he won only 8% of the black vote, that was better than 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s 6%. Today, Mr. Trump touts criminal justice reform and low African American unemployment in his messaging to black voters.

But even with a strong economy, which would normally put a first-term president in strong position for reelection, Mr. Trump’s racially divisive rhetoric is already alienating voters in key electoral battlegrounds. Take Ann Pigeon, a businesswoman in suburban Atlanta and a fiscal conservative who voted libertarian in 2016 and was willing to consider Mr. Trump in 2020, until his rhetoric about “rat-infested” Baltimore and warnings over socialism. His comments strike her as desperate attempts to talk past Americans like her.

“Sure, I care about the economy, but he’s not the only one who can manage it,” says Ms. Pigeon. “I have given him a chance, I have watched, and I have one answer to whether or not I will give him my vote: hell, no. He has proven himself unworthy.”

This week’s spree of attacks on Mr. Cummings and Baltimore shines a spotlight on a long Republican practice of throwing shade at cities, many of them under decadeslong Democratic rule. Mr. Trump’s supporters say that it’s not about race – he’s just calling out the failures of liberal governance.

Mr. Trump himself points to a 2015 speech by Sen. Bernie Sanders, in which the social democrat from Vermont compared living conditions in Baltimore to a “third-world country.” The context, however, is completely different. Senator Sanders was denouncing income inequality and linking it to structural racism, not blaming the residents or elected officials.

In going after Mr. Cummings, Mr. Trump takes his critique one step further: It’s the congressman who’s the racist, not himself. Mr. Haney says this is the classic pattern: Don’t just play defense, go on offense.

“What we’re seeing with the attack on the squad and on Elijah Cummings is a purposeful strategy to make the public face of the Democratic Party people of color,” he says. “That’s how Trump did really well in 2016,” by running against both President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, “who had a strong racial justice message.”

Range of Republican reaction

Mr. Trump’s rhetorical approach has sparked a range of reactions among Republicans. On Thursday night, late-night TV host Seth Meyers asked Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a popular moderate Republican in a blue state, about his “weak” response to Mr. Trump’s attacks on Baltimore. The governor pleaded for calm.

“The last thing I need to do is have more angry reaction to the angry reaction, back and forth,” Governor Hogan replied. “Let’s stop all the tweeting. Let’s focus on how we’re going to solve some of these problems by working together.”

The GOP is also seeing a wave of retirements by House members, a blow to the party’s chances of retaking the House next year. Some are explicitly mentioning the rhetorical climate in Washington in their announcements. Among the retirees are two of House Republicans’ 13 women members and the party’s only African American member, Rep. Will Hurd of Texas. Congressman Hurd was one of four House Republicans who voted last month for a resolution denouncing Trump tweets against the squad as racist. 

Cities facing real issues

In Democrat-dominated New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio is facing pushback from constituents over his run for president and his plan to open a homeless shelter on “Billionaire’s Row.” A group bought billboard space in Iowa, where the mayor has been campaigning, that reads, “Hey, Bill de Blasio! It’s New York ... Remember Us?”

Indeed, the public relations stunt calls attention to a real issue: that homelessness is on the rise in New York – a city once run by Republican Trump ally Rudy Giuliani – and that there are legitimate critiques of Democratic rule in American cities, regardless of leaders’ race.

But that doesn’t make life easier for urban Republicans in the Trump era.

“I think President Trump’s words over the past two weeks have been very polarizing,” says Juan Carlos “J.C.” Polanco, a New York attorney and son of Dominican immigrants who has run for office. He’s known as “the Hispanic voice of New York Republicans.”

“I grew up in the inner city, so I understand the issues of poverty and violence, drugs and gangs, and even rodents in the inner city, something that is prevalent,” Mr. Polanco says. “But it’s one thing to point that out, and to talk about solutions to solve those issues, and it’s another thing to use it to disparage people, and the people that represent those areas.”

For Democrats in New York who are willing to see Mr. Trump with some nuance, any possibility of supporting the president is snuffed out by his rhetoric. Eduardo Giraldo, a small-business owner in Queens and pro-growth Democrat, gives Mr. Trump credit for standing up to China on trade practices. But the president’s rhetoric toward the squad and black members of Congress, he says, is “racist.”

“His actions, his words, are really divisive,” says Mr. Giraldo. “He’s polarizing the country in a very concerning way in a lot of different aspects – the social aspects of the country, from the political divisions to economics.” 

“He is right, you know”

In suburban Alpharetta, Georgia, located in the state’s 6th Congressional District – which went Democratic last November by a nose – women voters in particular are being watched for their reactions to Mr. Trump’s rhetoric. Some, like Ms. Pigeon, see it as a disqualifier. But others think he’s spot on.

When Marilyn Ford points, she might as well be pointing with President Trump’s finger.

“He is right, you know,” says the silver-haired septuagenarian, referring to Mr. Trump’s recent racially tainted fusillades on liberal cities, which have in the past included Democratic Rep. John Lewis’ urban Atlanta district.

“I don’t think he’s racist, and I don’t want to be racist, but I look at these places like Baltimore and I see black politicians lining their pockets. And the crime: There’s murders every night down in Atlanta.” (In fact, Atlanta had 93 murders in 2017, according to the FBI, near historic lows.)

Ms. Ford is a stalwart of these once reliably conservative northern Atlanta suburbs. Former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich hatched the Contract With America here, amid the horse farms.

Yet it is a microcosm of the central Trump argument about the failures of Democratic leadership – particularly black officials like Mr. Lewis and Mr. Cummings.

“He is standing up to what I think my grandchildren will see and I won’t be around for, socialism,” she says.

It is a battleground where “the shooting would start if they were to impeach him,” Ms. Ford frets. Her friends – “all old like me” – agree. Mr. Trump’s mouth is a growing liability, and upsets her Southern sensibilities. “There’s no need to be rude to people,” she says. Yet she also appreciates his candor, his directness, his willingness to attack for people like her.

“I appreciate that he sticks up for us,” she says.

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