Francis Scott Key’s old question in Baltimore
In the closing lines of the lyrics for our national anthem, their author asked in 1814: “O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
Of course it does, at least figuratively. The original flag that flew over Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor on the dawn’s early light during the War of 1812-14 against the British now resides at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
But 205 years later, the city of Baltimore bears new scars in the scathingly derogatory words of President Donald Trump, who has labeled it a “rat- and rodent-infested mess” unfit for human habitation.
Yet the city remains an essential part of the land of the free and the home of the brave despite Trump’s assault that also specifically castigated one of its foremost citizens, House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings. He happens to be black and is investigating Trump on sundry allegations of obstruction of justice.
The chairman’s response has been to invite the president to visit Baltimore, but to nobody’s surprise the welcome has been met with silence. Were Trump to go there, he would find a “Ballmer,” as the locals call it, that remains vibrant if a bit run down after a series of setbacks over the years.
Those indignities range from the midnight kidnapping of the beloved football Colts to Indianapolis in1984, to killing of the city’s Evening Sun by folding it into the morning Sun under absentee owner Los Angeles Times in 1995.
For all that, freedom of the press in Baltimore has managed to survive as a thriving community of mixed racial, ethnic and political components that continues to look and sound like America.
Yet if Francis Scott Key lived today, he might wonder how secure Americans — especially those of color and those of recent immigrant stock, who now number in the tens of millions — feel about being in this land of the free and home of the brave under the presidency of Donald J. Trump.
It’s hard to imagine any other American president, in less than four years in office, befouling our nation’s moral and political character and its traditions of individual freedom, equality and opportunity, and its reputation as a haven for the world’s oppressed, as Trump has done.
In the process, Trump has succeeded in dividing us openly by race, by ethnicity, by party, by religion and by gender. It has reached the point that, judging by the viewing habits and tastes of our television and social-media watchers, we have become a nation of social and political backbiters.
Beyond pitting conservatives against liberals, educated elites against the man and woman in the street, now for all the progress by the civil rights revolution, white supremacy has reared its ugly and divisive head as seldom since the Civil War.
Politically, this and other corrosive poisons have eroded the tenets of the old Republican Party in Congress. It has reached a level where there is no significant pushback whatever against Trump and Trumpism within the party he has captured on Capitol Hill. He leaves a shell of what once was an ethical and responsible Grand Old Party willing to mount a fight for national decency and pride.
Do we as a nation no longer care about our history, our pillars as a welcoming refuge for the poor, the neglected and the disadvantaged, and as a haven for lofty ideas and invention? Or are too many of us blinded by the self-delusion, the ignorance and the social irresponsibility of one pied piper of hate and division?
The answer could come sooner if the House of Representatives impeaches Trump, although conviction by the Republican-controlled Senate is unlikely. Or it could come later in the next presidential election in November 2020. Until then, Baltimore and the rest of us must endure our self-inflicted political calamity and hope for the best, as the Star-Spangled Banner still waves o’er what is left of our imperiled democracy.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is
“The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books.