President Trump blistered Representative Elijah Cummings on Twitter, calling out the chairman of the House Oversight committee for raising the hue and cry over conditions on the Mexican border, “when actually his Baltimore district is FAR WORSE and more dangerous. His district is considered the Worst in the USA.” Trump went on to describe Cummings’s West Baltimore constituency as “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess. If he spent more time in Baltimore, maybe he could help clean up this very dangerous & filthy place.”
Predictably, the Left—including most of cable news—rushed to condemn Trump as a racist. Speaker Nancy Pelosi — whose father was once mayor of Baltimore — called Cummings “a beloved leader in Baltimore, and deeply valued colleague. We all reject racist attacks against him and support his steadfast leadership.” Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted, “Donald Trump’s tweets are ugly and racist.” Beto O’Rourke called him “the most openly racist president we’ve had in modern history.” Senator Bernie Sanders chimed in, too.
The operative rule in politics these days seems to be that any criticism of a non-white politician from anywhere to their right is, by definition, a racist attack. Nothing Trump said pertained in any way to Elijah Cummings’s skin color or ethnicity, only to his failure as a legislator and political leader to do anything to improve his district. The real question is: Is he right?
In May, the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story called, “The Tragedy of Baltimore.” The story details how, in the wake of the 2015 riots—or “uprising” in the view of those who imagine the torching of a neighborhood CVS and the intentional sabotage of the firefighters’ equipment to be revolutionary actions—Baltimore went from bad to horrible: “nothing less than a failure of order and governance the likes of which few American cities have seen in years.”
By any measure of systemic urban collapse, Baltimore is, as Trump said “very dangerous & filthy.” Among the largest 30 American cities, Baltimore has the highest crime rate, and is a close second to Detroit for the highest rate of violent crime. But for murders, Baltimore is second to no other city, with more than 50 homicides per 100,000 people. That puts Charm City in the ranks of Jamaica, Venezuela, and El Salvador in terms of lethality.
“You would think that you were in a Third World country,” said a noted senator during a tour of Representative Cummings’s district in 2015. “There are hundreds of buildings that are uninhabitable.” Was it Ted Cruz or Jeff Sessions who sneered, “residents of Baltimore’s poorest boroughs have lifespans shorter than people living under dictatorship in North Korea. That is a disgrace”? No, it was Democratic candidate for president Bernie Sanders, whose comments about Baltimore were not condemned as sickeningly racist, but contemplated as brave reflections on the failure of America to help its struggling communities.
Hollywood producer David Simon, who has grown spectacularly rich from depicting the misery of the city through TV shows like “Homicide” and “The Wire,” condemned Trump’s comments, saying, “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.” But doesn’t that mean Trump was right?
Some have suggested that it’s unfair for the president to blame Elijah Cummings for his district’s woes, since congressmen don’t control local issues like trash pickup or law enforcement. But Cummings is a Democratic powerbroker in Baltimore, which has been run by a succession of failed mayors—one of whom stole gift cards meant for poor children, and another who “sold” thousands of copies of her unreadable book to the public hospital system. Local state’s attorney Marilyn Mosby is credited with bungling the investigation into the death of Freddie Gray. Cummings is an integral part of a corrupt, dysfunctional political machine that is directly responsible for Baltimore’s misery.
Because it doesn’t have to be that way. Cummings’s district has relatively high rates of college education and home values, and many solid employers, including Johns Hopkins and the federal government. The failure to develop the failed parts of the district lies with pols like Elijah Cummings, whose four decades in elected office have been a long story of wasted opportunities and neglect.
Seth Barron is associate editor of City Journal.