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Trump plants racial explosives in the urban-rural divide

Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

President Trump's onslaught of disparaging tweets calling Baltimore a "disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess" — and characterizing Maryland Democrat Elijah Cummings as failing to fix it — extends Trump's streak of vilifying big American cities and adds a racial spin that scores points with parts of his base.

The big picture: Cities, particularly coastal ones, are Democratic strongholds that have been protesting Trump policies like immigration and health care since day one of his administration.

  • Attacking cities and their mostly Democratic leaders helps to drive a wedge between urban and rural America, a strategy that served Trump well in 2016. Earlier this month, Trump called out Los Angeles and San Francisco for homelessness and filth.
  • And Trump's advisors tell the Washington Post that the overall message — coming on the heels of his "go back" tweets aimed at 4 non-white congresswomen —resonates well with his political base, including white working-class voters he needs in 2020.

The backdrop: Trump called the district of Rep. Elijah Cummings a "very dangerous & filthy place" and a city "no human being would want to live" in Saturday tweets, which were quickly condemned as offensive and racist by city leaders and Democrats —including Baltimore native Nancy Pelosi.

  • City supporters and Trump detractors took to social media, with #WeAreBaltimore and #BaltimoreStrong trending on Twitter.
  • Victor Blackwell, CNN anchor and Baltimore native, gave an emotional on-air response to Trump: "He's insulted thousands of people, many different types of people. But when he tweets about infestation, it's about black and brown people."

The latest: The Baltimore Sun came out swinging in a scathing editorial Sunday reminding Trump that Baltimore "is part of the United States that he is supposedly governing" and that its "[b]etter to have some vermin living in your neighborhood than to be one."

  • Trump fired back on Sunday, calling Cummings a racist and incompetent leader. He also turned his ire on Pelosi, calling her San Francisco district "unrecognizable."
  • “The Democrats always play the Race Card, when in fact they have done so little for our Nation’s great African American people,” Trump tweeted. “Now, lowest unemployment in U.S. history, and only getting better. Elijah Cummings has failed badly!"

The reality: Cummings' district, which includes a large portion of Baltimore, is about 55% black, per the Baltimore Sun. Violent crime is a persistent problem: the city has had more than 300 homicides for 4 straight years.

  • Cummings' district also includes well-off suburban areas and some rural parts. It's the second-wealthiest and second-most well-educated majority-black district in the country, 538's Nate Silver pointed out on Twitter.
  • Its median household income is about $60,000, and it is home to more college graduates than the country as a whole, per the Washington Post.

Between the lines: Distressed districts are held by both Republican and Democratic members of Congress. And racial, geographic and economic divides are far more nuanced than tweets and headlines convey.

  • "Because two things can be true at the same time: Our national economy is strong & prosperous; it's also severely divided," tweeted John Lettieri, CEO of the Economic Innovation Group.
  • Places where educated workers cluster are doing well. But even in a booming economy, millions of Americans live in communities that haven't yet recovered.
  • "Be careful when attempting to weaponize local economic conditions and party representation," Lettieri tweeted.

The irony: Trump has one of the most urban backgrounds of any U.S. president, growing up in New York City and making his fortune on Manhattan real estate.

The bottom line: The perpetually combative stance "places Trump in the strange position of frequently disparaging parts of his own country," writes New York's Jonathan Chait. "This is surely unique in American history."

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