“When I am president, I will work to ensure that all of our kids are treated equally, and protected equally,” Donald Trump declared on July 22, 2016, as he accepted the Republican Party’s nomination for president. “Every action I take, I will ask myself: does this make life better for young Americans in Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Ferguson who have the same right to live out their dreams as any other child in America?” He concluded that speech, as he did using almost identical language in his inaugural address six months later, with a grand and glorious pledge:
To all Americans tonight, in all of our cities and in all of our towns, I make this promise:
We Will Make America Strong Again.
We Will Make America Proud Again.
We Will Make America Safe Again.
And We Will Make America Great Again.
But candidate and President Trump didn’t mean what he said about “all Americans.” He never meant it. His campaign, highlighted by his birtherism, his grotesque slanders of undocumented Mexican immigrants and even an American judge of Mexican ancestry, was the perfect distillation of five decades of Republican electoral strategy which “has trafficked in casual race-baiting, incendiary racial rhetoric, zealous xenophobia, and even Confederate idolatry to manufacture a terrified and furious GOP white majority.” Within a year of his victory, a mountain of studies confirmed what seemed pretty clear after Election Day: “Trump won because of racial resentment.”
Now, as his 2020 reelection effort ramps up, Donald Trump is once again turning to his favorite recipe for electoral success by feeding the reddest of red meat to a right-wing base with an apparently insatiable appetite for it. Breaking new ground in political bigotry by putting names and faces onto every group his supporters hate, Trump—like George Wallace and Richard Nixon—has also deployed the ABCs of racist euphemisms to focus white rage. In Trump’s color-coded geography, Atlanta, Baltimore, and Chicago serve as stand-ins for “black.” For Trump’s GOP, Los Angeles and Puerto Rico are shorthand for “brown” or Hispanic, while “gay” is signified by the rainbow flag conservatives equate with San Francisco. And while he demonizes entire cities in states he is guaranteed to lose or certain to win, the president of the United States is using tax, immigration, health care, and other policies to punish Americans in blue states for the sin of voting for his Democratic opponent.
That Donald Trump wants to party like it’s 1968 is pretty clear. (Leave aside for the moment that it is generally rural America, and not its urban centers, gripped by unbreakable poverty, economic decline, and despair.) Watching Donald Trump today, George Wallace’s daughter Peggy Wallace Kennedy lamented, is worse than watching her segregationist father’s race-baiting run in 1968. “Unfortunately, it does look like the '60s now,” she said, “I've never seen anything like it.” Americans appear to agree with her; recent polling showed that 51% consider Trump to be a racist, compared to 41% who said the same of Governor Wallace in September 1968. The raucous rallies 50 years later, with their racially loaded language and none-too-thinly veiled threats of violence look and sound an awful like Wallace events held in the North and the South.
But, Princeton historian Kevin Kruse recently warned, Trump’s campaign powder kegs have reached a new level of danger. Wallace spoke in abstractions about “hippies,” “agitators,” “anarchists,” and “communists.”
Mr. Trump, in pointed contrast, has used his rallies to single out specific enemies. During the 2016 campaign, he demonized his political opponents in the primaries and the general election, and also denounced private individuals. […]
At recent rallies, he has targeted four Democratic House members who have criticized him and his administration — Representatives Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley.
Participants at Mr. Trump’s rallies have been moved to attack individuals he’s singled out. For most rally participants, the attacks have been confined to ominous but nevertheless nonviolent chants — from the 2016 cries of “Lock her up!” to the recent refrain of “Send her back!” But a handful have gone further, targeting the individuals named by the president with death threats and even attempts at violence.
Trump doesn’t have to warn his faithful followers about blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, and Arabs. He gives them each a name and a face. “They” are Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. As Vox explained, “they” are the “other.” For Trump’s political purposes, they equal the Democratic Party. “Send her back” in reference to these American citizens is yet more shorthand, this time for “threats to the body politic who need to be purged if it is to be preserved.”
Trump, along with numerous Republicans and Fox News hosts, have made this an explicit feature of their rhetoric. At a June rally in Florida, just weeks before Trump’s racist attacks on Omar and the rest of “the Squad” began in earnest, he cast the Democratic Party as a threat to the very lives of his supporters. “They want to destroy you and they want to destroy our country as we know it,” he thundered.
But if putting the crosshairs on specific Democratic politicians is a novelty for this Republican president, slandering entire American cities as the lawless hellholes inhabited by African Americans is not. In his RNC acceptance speech, Trump warned his voters:
Americans watching this address tonight have seen the recent images of violence in our streets and the chaos in our communities. Many have witnessed this violence personally, some have even been its victims. I have a message for all of you: the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon – and I mean very soon – come to an end. Beginning on January 20th of 2017, safety will be restored.
As David Smith wrote in The Guardian, Trump was just updating Richard Nixon’s acceptance speech from 1968. As Tricky Dick put it that night:
As we look at America, we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame. We hear sirens in the night. We see Americans dying on distant battlefields abroad. We see Americans hating each other; fighting each other; killing each other at home. And as we see and hear these things, millions of Americans cry out in anguish. Did we come all this way for this?
But that’s hardly the only page Donald Trump stole from the playbook of the 37th president. Trump, after all, has focused his ire on Chicago for years. Chicago isn’t just the home city of Barack Obama. The Windy City is also home to gun control, Democratic politics, and roughly 900,000 African Americans. Which is why Trump has called it “the crime capital of the world.” On June 29, 2015, he declared, “I read that somebody said—it just stuck with me—that Chicago is more dangerous than Afghanistan.” A year later, he tweeted:
Crime is out of control, and rapidly getting worse. Look what is going on in Chicago and our inner cities. Not good!
That same day, he told an audience in the Indianapolis suburb of Westerfield, “Since President Obama became president, almost 5,000 killings in Chicago and nobody talks about it.” In October, he asked of Chicago, “Is this a war-torn country?” Four days after his inauguration, Trump slammed Mayor Rahm Emanuel for the “horrible ‘carnage’” in his city. On February 27, 2019, former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen testified to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about his boss’s true feelings about the residents of the Windy City:
"While we were once driving through a struggling neighborhood in Chicago, he commented that only black people could live that way."
“Look what is going on in Chicago and our inner cities” could easily have been lifted from any number of Nixon speeches and interviews after 1965. After the Watts Riots in Los Angeles in 1965, Nixon put “urban” violence and the need for law and order at the center of both his 1966 midterm campaigning and his back-from-the-dead 1968 presidential. And as Rick Perlstein explained in his classic Nixonland, that precise brand of racial fearmongering played a central role in reversing LBJ’s 1964 landslide. In anticipation of his White House pursuit two years later, Richard Nixon campaigned hard for GOP congressional candidates in 1966. As Perlstein documented, Nixon’s strategy was all about fueling the racial blowback:
He was campaigning in traditionally Republican districts where a Democratic congressman had won in 1964 on Lyndon Johnson's coattails, but was likely to be swept out in the conservative backlash.
For instance, Iowa's first district. A five-term Republican, Fred Schwengel, was running to recover the seat he'd lost to a young political science professor from the Bronx named John Schmidhauser. One day, Representative Schmidhauser appeared at a farm bureau meeting, prepared for a grilling on the Democrats' agricultural policies. The questions, though, were all on rumors that Chicago's Negro rioters were about to engulf Iowa in waves, traveling, for some reason, "on motorcycles." The liberal political science professor was as vulnerable as a sapling...Now that farmers were afraid that Martin Luther King would send Negro biker gangs to rape their children, the Republican restoration seemed inevitable.
In Republican politics, “Chicago” wasn’t the only placeholder for “black.” Baltimore, historically one of the most segregated cities in America, underwent a transformation in the 1960s. As the city’s economic fortunes faltered, “white flight” left Baltimore heavily African American. “Meanwhile,” CityLab reported four years ago, “suburban Baltimore County witnessed a population explosion, rising from less than 250,000 in 1950 to 600,000 in 1970.” When the city experienced the Holy Week Riots after the assassination of Dr. King in 1968, a little-known, formerly liberal Maryland governor named Spiro Agnew emerged as a hero of the Republican backlash movement.
As Robert Mitchell reported a year ago in the Washington Post, Agnew’s hardline response to Baltimore’s civil rights leaders catapulted him to the number two slot on the GOP ticket in 1968.
On April 11, following days of rioting in Baltimore that erupted after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Agnew met with African American leaders and accused them of failing to stand up to militants. More than half of the audience of 50 walked out in protest as Agnew continued his remarks, which gained nationwide attention.
Agnew later conceded that his “manners” may have contributed to tensions at the meeting, but in the aftermath of the episode, he showed no regrets. By the middle of June, Agnew “was openly wearing his confrontation with the black leaders in Baltimore as a badge of honor, and a not-so-subtle advertisement of his political value to the law-and-order campaign that Nixon was already running on his own,” journalist Jules Witcover writes in his book on the Nixon-Agnew relationship.
In his meeting, held even as the protests were subsiding, Agnew accused the state’s mainstream black leaders of harboring a "perverted concept of race loyalty" that "inflamed" militants.
Baltimore's fires were not "lit from an overwhelming sense of frustration and despair," he said, but were instead "kindled at the suggestion and with the instruction of the advocates of violence," like Stokely Carmichael.
Language like that drew the attention of Nixon hardliners like Patrick Buchanan. “Agnew’s reading of the riot act to the civil rights leaders who had gone silent in the face of wholesale violence,” Buchanan later wrote, “was a major factor in Nixon’s choice of him for vice president."
And, it had turned out, a template for conservatives once again looking to capitalize on the violence in Baltimore after the 2015 killing in police custody of Freddie Gray.
Among those opportunists was soon-to-be Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. And in his bashing of Baltimore in 2015, Trump made sure to blame the nation’s first black occupant of the Oval Office. In a series of tweets on April 27 and 28, 2015, Trump proclaimed:
Our great African American President hasn't exactly had a positive impact on the thugs who are so happily and openly destroying Baltimore!
President Obama, you have a big job to do. Go to Baltimore and bring both sides together. With proper leadership, it can be done! Do it.
"@Vanderpunked: Can we drop @realDonaldTrump off in the middle of #Baltimore so he can show Obama how it's done?" I would fix it fast!
Well, over four-plus years later, now-President Donald Trump hasn’t done anything to help the people of Baltimore. But now, Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland is the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and, among other things, has subpoenaed the personal emails of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. So naturally Donald Trump, whose father and son-in-law both managed rat-infested properties there, once again turned his fury on Baltimore.
When Trump charged that Cummings’ 7th District of Maryland, which includes part of Baltimore, was “disgusting” and a “rat and rodent infested mess,” the president of the United States was only resurrecting a grotesque stereotype which dates back to slavery. As Carl Zimring, a historian at the Pratt Institute put it, “The rhetoric and imagery of hygiene became conflated with a racial order that made white people pure, and anyone who was not white dirty.” When Donald Trump says Baltimore is “rat infested,” a “dangerous & filthy place” where “no human being would want to live,” it’s no accident.
This is all helpful for understanding why Trump’s attacks on Baltimore have been so sharply criticized. But it also helps to show why Trump used this argument in the first place. The president’s use of stereotypes when speaking about black communities and communities of color — attacks that he doesn’t use on poor white communities affected by the opioid crisis, or predominantly white regions struggling economically — have been well-documented, with places like Baltimore, Chicago, Oakland, and Ferguson being presented as uniquely violent and dangerous, and therefore unworthy of Trump’s support or protection.
It’s also no wonder Trump on Wednesday reformulated his “Chicago as Afghanistan” slander for Baltimore:
"Baltimore happens to be about the worst case. If you look at it statistically, it’s like, the number of shootings, the number of crimes, the number of everything — this morning, I heard a statistic: Baltimore is worse than Honduras."
Trump’s calculus of hate explains why he brands African American politicians and reporters with slurs such as “thief,” “not qualified,” and “stupid.” And his geography of bigotry is why he slandered Atlanta, a big blue dot in a big red state. In 2017, he targeted one of the fastest growing cities in the country and home of critic Rep. John Lewis.
"Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk - no action or results. Sad.”
Somewhere, the ghost of legendary whites-only restaurateur and segregationist Georgia Governor Lester Maddox was swinging his pick axe with glee. As we learned this week, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan probably would have had a good laugh over Trump’s tweet, though probably not in public:
The day after the United Nations voted to recognize the People’s Republic of China, then–California Governor Ronald Reagan phoned President Richard Nixon at the White House and vented his frustration at the delegates who had sided against the United States. “Last night, I tell you, to watch that thing on television as I did,” Reagan said. “Yeah,” Nixon interjected. Reagan forged ahead with his complaint: “To see those, those monkeys from those African countries—damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!” Nixon gave a huge laugh.
(If Nixon in 1968 kicked off what would be a long term “Southern Strategy,” Reagan in 1980 accelerated its successful completion. Candidate Ronald Reagan traveled to Philadelphia, Mississippi, to kick-off his 1980 general election campaign. There, where civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were slaughtered in 1964, Reagan declared "I believe in states' rights." Reagan, who had denounced the so-called "welfare queen" and the "strapping young buck," also declared the 1965 Voting Rights Act "humiliated the South.")
For his voters, Donald Trump will see a blue city and paint it black. But that’s not where his color-coded electoral map ends. Trump may say “I love Hispanics!” but routinely uses Puerto Rico and Los Angeles to signal his supporters about Hispanics they believe are undeserving at best and illegal at worst. San Francisco, that most liberal of American cities, is “not recognizable” and “disgusting.” To his ardent Republican backers, the city and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi herself are simply culture war euphemisms for “gay.” When Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized “western liberalism” as “becoming obsolete,” the mind-numbingly stupid Donald Trump revealed more than he knew when he answered that Los Angeles and San Francisco are “sad to look at” because they are “run by a group of liberal people.”
Which brings us to a unique dimension of Donald Trump’s politics of punishment. The 45th president of the United States tries to use public policy to inflict suffering on precisely those blue states “run by a group of liberal people.” Where the people vote for Democrats, Donald Trump wants to bring the pain.
Take, for example, the Trump tax cuts which became law in late 2017. Among the biggest changes in “The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” was capping the 100-year old state and local tax deduction (SALT). Why would the GOP states rights’ crowd want to do that? Exactly because it would hurt blue states most. As the Tax Policy Center explained, high-tax/high-service states led by Democrats would get hammered:
What is clear is that residents in states that impose the highest combination of property taxes and individual and corporate income taxes would pay the most. Taxpayers in 10 states — California, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia — claim more than half of the total amount deducted.
Now, for years taxpayers in wealthy blue states have generally provided a one-way flow of funds to red states for education, health care, infrastructure and other federal programs. In fact, this “red state socialism” is probably the defining feature of American federalism. The blue states’ reward for their largesse towards their red state neighbors is now austerity enforced by Republicans in Washington. In June 2017, then-House Speaker Paul Ryan gave the game away on CNBC when he was asked how he would sell the idea to his GOP colleagues in states like New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and California:
“I would say two things. First of all, look at tax reform in its totality. Second of all, let’s get the tax rates as low as possible for everybody. Not based upon where you live. And third of all, let’s stop masking profligate governments, let’s stop disguising the inefficiencies of some of these state governments you just mentioned and make taxpayers and all of those other states … pay for these states don’t have their act together.”
For his part, Trump in April blamed New Yorkers for not successfully opposing the SALT deduction limits which were part and parcel of his own bill.
“People are fleeing New York State because of high taxes and yes, even oppression of sorts. They didn’t even put up a fight against SALT - could have won.”
On health care, too, Donald Trump has been hoping to punish states which supported and successfully implemented Obamacare. While the White House and its Republican allies are pursuing a host of measures in the executive branch and in the courts to gut the Affordable Care Act, Republican = Senators Mitt Romney of Utah, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina are trying to come up with a replacement. In 2017, it was Graham who put together what almost became Trumpcare. Its centerpiece? Medicaid block grants to the states. And how would these smaller, less expansive block grants be funded? By taking the money from the (mostly blue) states which chose to expand Medicaid under Obamacare in the first place. As Graham explained his proposal:
[T]his will repeal the individual and employer mandate, and medical device tax. We left the other taxes in place and created a block grant. Under Obamacare, 4 states got 40% of the money. That’s New York, California, Maryland, and Massachusetts. They’re 20 percent of the population and so by 2026 our goal is to have parity. It will be roughly the same no matter whether you live in South Carolina or California. We help states that did not expand their Medicaid under Obamacare catch up. High-cost expansion states will have a glide path down to a number that will be parity by 2026.
And so it goes. From the beginning of his presidency, Donald Trump tried—mostly without success—to deny federal law enforcement funds to so-called “sanctuary cities” refusing to upend police-community relations by joining Trump’s immigration crackdowns. Trump has even threatened to “dump” Central American asylum seekers on the streets of these cities. And then there’s federal emergency funding in response to natural disasters. In the aftermath of tornadoes that killed 20 across the South, Trump declared that “FEMA has been told directly by me to give the A Plus treatment to the Great State of Alabama and the wonderful people who have been so devastated by the Tornadoes.” Alabama voted for Donald Trump by 28 points in 2016. But incompetent Puerto Rico backed Marco Rubio in the GOP primary. And then there’s California, which went to Democrat Hillary Clinton by a 30-point margin. As he tweeted less than two months earlier:
Billions of dollars are sent to the State of California for Forest fires that, with proper Forest Management, would never happen. Unless they get their act together, which is unlikely, I have ordered FEMA to send no more money. It is a disgraceful situation in lives & money!
Trump may have emphasized the “A Plus treatment” for Alabama after some of the criticism he received for the government shutdown in January. The double-whammy of the shutdown on top of a hurricane in Florida and Mississippi led some Trump-backing government workers to question their support. Thirty-eight-year-old prison employee Crystal Minton expressed her frustration with President Trump this way:
“I voted for him, and he’s the one who’s doing this. I thought he was going to do good things. He’s not hurting the people he needs to be hurting.” [Emphasis mine.]
Which is why Donald Trump is making sure his voters know exactly who he plans to hurt in his second term. It’s as simple as red and blue, and as clear as black and white.