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DICKERSON: Why Trump won't give Detroit the Baltimore treatment

• Aug 1, 2019 at 4:00 PM

It’s a predominantly African-American city with a history of poverty, violent crime and racial tension, and it’s represented by a first-term congresswoman of color who celebrated her swearing-in by pledging “to impeach the mother(expletive)” in the White House.

So, it’s a no-brainer that as Detroit hosts the second round of Democratic presidential debates, President Donald Trump is poised to unleash his next social media blitz against the Motor City and U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a founding member of the Squad. Right?

Well, no – for the simple reason that Detroit and its suburbs sit at the hub of a state whose 16 electoral votes are critical to Trump’s re-election.

The president’s weekend Twitter tantrum targeting longtime Democratic Congressman Elijah E. Cummings Jr. and dismissing Cummings’ Baltimore congressional district as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being would want to live,” may have been more impulsive than strategic. It means more awkwardness for Trump’s Republican apologists in Congress, who are finding it increasingly difficult to find non-racial explanations for the president’s ever-more-naked appeals to bigotry.

But Maryland is one of the most Democratic states in America. Trump lost the state by more than 600,000 votes in 2016, and vilifying Cummings and his home city won’t cost Republicans a single one of Maryland’s 12 electoral votes in 2020, because they’re already pledged to whatever warm-blooded biped the Democratic Party chooses as its presidential nominee.

It’s impossible to know whether the president paused to consider any of this before he decided to unload on Cummings, whose House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has subpoenaed Trump’s financial records and former top advisers in its continuing investigations into his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the oligarchs who support him.

But it’s likely Trump long ago dismissed Maryland and its lone Republican congressman, Rep. Andy Harris, as irrelevant to the needs and comfort of Trump Nation.

That’s hardly the case with Michigan, one of three industrial swing states (along with Wisconsin and Pennsylvania) whose electoral votes were decisive in 2016. Trump carried Michigan three years ago with less than 48 percent of the popular vote, winning a photo-finish victory facilitated by anemic turnout in Democratic Detroit and the indifference of about 75,000 Michigan voters who cast ballots in 2016 but expressed no preference in the contest between Trump and Hillary Clinton.

While it might play well in exurbs and rural communities where Detroit is resented, a full-frontal attack on Michigan’s largest city risks mobilizing constituencies whose complacency the Trump campaign depends on. So although Tlaib, who is Muslim, might continue to be a favorite White House target, Trump will likely be more cautious about dissing the city she represents, lest its resentful residents tip Michigan out of Trump Country a year from November.

About the writer: Brian Dickerson is the editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press. You may contact him at bdickerson@freepress.com.

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