You might think that a politician who spent the better part
of the last two weeks defending himself against charges of racism would be
careful about what he says. In the case of Donald Trump, you’d be wrong.
After drawing intense criticism for his tweets telling unnamed “’Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from
countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe” to “go
back” to their home countries, President Trump was at it again this morning
with a series of tweets attacking Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.). In the tweetstorm,
Trump called Cumming’s Baltimore district “a disgusting, rat and rodent
infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.” To top the rant,
Trump alleged that Cummings was a thief.
Where Trump’s “go back” seemed bigoted and tiptoed up to the
line of racism, today’s tweets jump over the line with both feet. The statement
that “no human being” would want to live in the district, which is 55
percent black, has clear racial overtones.
There are several accurate statements that President Trump
could have made about Cummings’ seventh congressional district. It is the poorest
district in the state with almost 18 percent of its residents below the poverty
line per data from BiggestCities.com.
It ranks dead last among Maryland districts for income per household. Crime is
a problem in parts of the district. On the other hand, the Washington
Examiner points out that the district is in the upper half of House
districts nationally and also includes many upscale neighborhoods, including
one named the safest place in the country in 2018.
I’m not going to call Trump a racist. I don’t pretend to
know what is in his heart. What I am going to say is that Donald Trump says things
sound bigoted on a fairly regular basis. He seems to relish the controversy and
the attention that his outlandish statements bring, perhaps holding to the theory
that any publicity is good publicity.
That doesn’t necessarily hold true in politics.
Trump’s antics regularly distract from the news cycle in a
self-defeating way. His “go back” tweets unified Democrats who had been in the
midst of a veritable civil war. The president’s attack on Cummings comes only
hours after the Supreme Court handed him a
victory on funding for the border wall. On a day when Republicans should
have been gloating over their judicial triumph, they suddenly find themselves once
again explaining why Donald Trump is not a racist.
If President Trump wanted to drive minority voters en masse
from the GOP, he wouldn’t have to act very different from how he already
behaves. After three years of Trump, the Republican Party has precious few
minority voters to lose, but there are many white voters who will flee a
party that they perceive to be headed by a racist. Trump’s long list of quasi-racist
statements is akin to making Hillary Clinton’s “deplorable” comment a dozen
If Republicans don’t want to be thought of as racists, the
obvious solution would be to not say things that sound racist and to condemn
and retract statements that break the first rule. However, Republicans are once
again caught between a rock and a hard place by the president’s unforced error.
They must explain away Trump’s statements by focusing on Baltimore’s crime and poverty
and not the fact that the president singled out a black congressman
representing a predominantly black district in a predominantly black city. If
they break ranks from the president, Republican officials risk alienating the
Trump base in their primary election. Republicans have the choice of tarring
themselves with the racist brush in the eyes of moderates and minorities or
looking like a squish to the Republican base.
Maybe Donald Trump’s defenders are right. Maybe he isn’t a
bigot and only has a bad habit of making clumsy statements (although being a
straight talker was supposed to be one of his big advantages over other
politicians). On the other hand, when Trump keeps stepping into the same
steaming pile of excrement over and over, it lends credence to the theory that
he is saying exactly what he means.
If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, maybe it’s a