In the greedy, gaudy early 1980s, known as the era of “wretched excess,” President Trump – then derisively known as “The Donald” – dispatched his 281-foot super yacht, the “Trump Princess,” then the world’s largest, to drop anchor at Baltimore’s showplace Inner Harbor for a few days, ostensibly so the hoi polloi could gawk at his gilded symbol of success and marvel at his mogul life.
Trump now describes the same safe harbor and anchorage city as a “rodent infested mess” and a “very dangerous & filthy place,” specifically the Seventh District portion which is real estate represented by Rep. Elijah Cummings in Congress. The Inner Harbor is in Cummings’ district.
The people in Baltimore are “living in hell,” Trump tweeted. Trump made no mention of the thousands of rats’ nest apartments owned in the Baltimore region by his son in-law, Jared Kushner and his family, but local officials and the media did. Trump hadn’t thought this one through, as he usually doesn’t. Trump’s tweets will be history’s graffiti.
At about the same time in the Eighties, Trump had been badgering Forbes Magazine and other chroniclers of wealth to include him on their lists of the privileged few to pump up his borrowing power as well as feeding the New York tabloids phony information under an alias to buff up his billionaire-about-town credentials.
Trump, it turned out, was the Reagan era’s Piltdown Man – a total fraud.
Several years later, in 1991, Trump was $900 million in debt. He turned the yacht, the Trump Princess, over to creditors. It was then bought by Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal Abdulaziz al Salud, a member of the Saudi royal family.
In the same default mode, he lost the Trump Shuttle, formerly Eastern Airlines, and surrendered the legendary but bankrupt Plaza Hotel, for which he paid $407.5 million in 1987, as well as defaulting on several other investment properties which he lost to creditors. A couple of casinos soon followed into financial disaster.
What goes around, comes around. In another ironic turn of the screw, a New York rival, Ben Ashkenazy, chairman of Ashkenazy Acquisitions, Inc., later acquired a 7% interest in the Plaza Hotel, which Trump had bankrupted in only four years. And by 2018, Ashkenazy aligned with Prince Al-Waleed and was prepared to pay $600 million for the storybook Plaza Hotel.
Ashkenazy was also the owner of Harbor Place, across the water from where Trump’s yacht had anchored years before, but recently defaulted on his loan on the run-down and partly vacant twin pavilions (Banana Republic just announced its departure), and the city’s tourist magnet was placed in receivership. Ashkenazy is also fond of ostentatious yachts, though his is usually docked in Europe during summers.
The contrast is stunning.
Here comes an ego-tripping bombast of a businessman cum president who can’t manage his own affairs assessing life and living conditions in a down-at-the-heels working person’s town. Trump even dispatched one of his mountebanks, Dr. Ben Carson, the Housing and Urban Development secretary who ordered a $31,000 dining set for his office, to try and patch over the damage. Carson was shooed from church property.
Trump’s world view, as every political hobbyist knows, is mainly Fox News. Anyone who wants to score points or get Trump’s attention employs the continuous loop between Fox and the White House. And so it was with a local twit, Kimberly Klacik, a black woman who identifies as a Republican consultant, who provided Fox with the damning video of Baltimore’s underside that caught Trump’s rheumy eye.
But Baltimoreans have refused to get sucked into Trump’s name-calling game. For the most part, Baltimore officials and citizens alike have responded with respect and restraint, acknowledging the city’s problems and inviting help from Washington (and Annapolis) while defending Cummings and his inner-city district in which abandoned housing co-exists with some of Baltimore’s prime properties and world-renowned institutions.
The local responses included any number of invitations for Trump to visit Baltimore and bring help to resuscitate the city to its former medieval grandeur. Even Maryland’s former lieutenant governor and ex-Republican National Committee chairman, Michael Steele, extended a mocking “come on down to Baltimore, brother” to the defiantly non-brotherly Trump, a germophobe and habitual handwasher who no doubt would be visibly uncomfortable in the ‘hood.
Even Cummings eventually turned the other cheek and broke silence. He invited Trump to come to Baltimore “and see the beautiful neighborhoods of our city, and I’d be happy to have him,” Cummings said at a community gathering, according to reports.
There are any number of explanations for Trump’s very non-presidential and decidedly racist behavior. It began with his attacks on four congresswomen of color and continued with a medley of tweets jamming Cummings and Baltimore for more than a week without let-up, even during a speech/rally in Cincinnati. Trump even seemed to mock the attempted burglary of Cummings’ house, with a sneering “too bad” that the congressman scared off the perp.
Cummings, as chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, has led a relentless pursuit of Trump through investigations, subpoenas and court actions. What riled Trump, apparently, was Cummings’ condemnation of the Trump administration’s border policies and the treatment of migrants, especially children, in the containment camps. Trump characterized Cummings as “a brutal bully.”
Trump often uses twitterbolts to deflect attention from his personal problems as well as those that besiege his inept revolving-door administration of sycophants who are often called upon to publicly profess their loyalty. His push-pull approach to governance is simplistic: He starts a fuss, then walks away.
But Trump’s behavior is more than a tantrum. Trump appears hell-bent on dividing red from blue, urban and suburban from rural, black from white, hard hats from hard heads – one nation divisible and injustice for some. Trump is campaigning for 270 electoral votes and not a majority of popular votes, which he knows he can’t win. Three of the last four presidents – including Trump – were elected with less than a majority of votes, with Barack Obama the exception. Nothing rankles Trump more than his 2016 loss of the popular vote to Hillary Clinton.
There are still folks around who pine for the long-gone days of the idiosyncratic William Donald Schaefer, as the city’s manic mayor, and wonder how he would have handled Trump’s bluster. Well, the truth is, Schaefer was pretty much like Trump, only shrewder.
In his later years, Schaefer likely would have been a Trump supporter – Schaefer was always a closet Republican (he endorsed President George H. W. Bush in 1992) – and not the Pied Piper leading a legion of Schaeferiacs with pitchforks and torches to sanitize the swamp. It was during Schaefer’s years as mayor that Trump’s yacht parked in Baltimore’s harbor.
But in his madcap prime, Schaefer was an accomplished performer. At his best, he successfully conflated himself and the City of Baltimore into one and the same existential being. An attack on either was an attack on the other. Trump uses Twitter; Schaefer wrote nasty notes (I personally have at least a half dozen.)
So if Schaefer were alive through the current Trump rampage, Schaefer would likely have feigned everyman tears for the TV cameras, asked Trump why he’s picking on the city (one of his favorite defenses), and before too many days Schaefer would have had Trump in Baltimore with a fat federal check in hand. It worked with Harry R. Hughes as governor, and with Jimmy Carter as president.
But Schaefer is gone, and so is the past, though never too far behind. Throughout the Trump torment, those representing the city – both officials and citizens – have presented themselves and the case for Baltimore with honesty, clarity and fairness, denying nothing about conditions but asking for a helping hand through a difficult time.
And whenever Trump fulminates against Baltimore, remember the old ethnic saying: “When a fish goes rotten, it stinks from the head.”