Speaking from the convention stage in Cleveland in 2016, Donald Trump made a solemn promise to the American people: that “the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end. Beginning on January 20, 2017, safety will be restored.”
It was, at the time, a striking promise. Starting in 1994, the US murder rate had fallen consistently for 20 years. Violent crime had fallen so much that nobody talked about it anymore as a political issue, and the “tough on crime” politics of the 1980s and 1990s was widely viewed as embarrassing.
After Michael Brown’s death at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri, the mainstream conversation in the United States was about criminal justice reform, not reducing crime. But crime went up a bit in 2015 and then up by a larger amount in 2016. Progressives didn’t really want to talk about it, but Trump — a man who seems unafraid to be seen as an embarrassing throwback to the 1980s — did.
It’s not entirely clear how many voters found this particular gambit persuasive and appealing, but obviously Trump thinks it works because he’s saying the same stuff again. And if Trump were just some guy on Twitter, that would make sense: Murder is on the rise again after ticking down for a few years, and acts of looting and vandalism are occurring in cities across the country.
But Donald Trump is the president of the United States.
He promised four years ago to restore safety and bring law and order to our streets. He never bothered to articulate a message about how he would do that, but it didn’t matter. He was the “law and order” candidate. But today he’s a candidate with a record. A record of rising crime and urban disorder, and a record that makes it clear he has no idea how to make any of it better — and is intervening in several ways to make it worse.
One of the greatest oddities of the 2020 election season is that while it offers many examples of Republicans accusing Democrats of wanting to “defund” the police, the exact opposite is happening on a policymaking level.
Trump has been very critical of the 1994 crime bill and the 2009 economic recovery act, both of which increased federal support for local police. He’s also submitted four budget proposals to Congress, each of which proposed cuts in police spending. More to the point, right now politicians are debating what to do about the expiration of bonus unemployment insurance money that was provided by the CARES Act.
Democrats and Republicans are arguing, in part, about the structure of UI benefits. But they are also arguing about Democrats’ desire to provide state and local government with a massive injection of emergency aid money to plug giant budget holes created by the Covid-19 pandemic. With no aid forthcoming due to GOP opposition, cities are cutting budgets.
And while the abstract defunding debate plays out among intellectuals, real cities are cutting. Not just liberal enclaves, either. Oklahoma City, one of the most conservative cities in America, is cutting its police budget because it’s cutting spending across the board.
If you believe in the empirical evidence that more cops equals less crime — which Trump seems to pretend to — then this trend would appear to make America less safe. And that’s only more so the case, given that the cutbacks in policing will be paired with cuts to mental health and other social services and occur at a time of high unemployment. But while Trump undermines public safety, he also undermines citizens’ efforts to demand accountability for the actions of law enforcement officers.
From day one, the administration’s standpoint has been to deny that any increased accountability from police is needed. In February 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the administration would no longer pursue civil rights lawsuits or investigations of alleged police abuses. Sessions characterized federal consent decrees, a powerful tool DOJ can use to fight abuses, as “an insult.” In August, he reversed course on another Obama-era policy and restarted the flow of military equipment to police departments.
Trump himself has written in praise of rough police tactics, tweeting one day about White House protests that “whenever someone got too frisky or out of line, [the Secret Service] would quickly come down on them, hard — didn’t know what hit them,” before fantasizing about scenarios in which protesters would breach the White House fence only to be “greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen.” He pardoned crooked cop Joe Arpaio, and defied the top brass of the military to issue pardons for suspected and convicted war criminals.
Encouraging bad policing is bad on the merits. It also creates a very different political dynamic from what prevailed from 2014 to 2016. The federal government is openly contemptuous of the basic goals of police reform advocates who are now taking to the streets in mass in protest.
Protesters have spent the summer on the streets as part of what some historians have said could be the “largest movement in American history.” If Trump’s goal is to disband protests to eliminate the adjacent violence, the best tool he has is the legislative process. Mitch McConnell could send him a sweeping package setting forth plans for real reform that satisfy most protesters and signal to others that the political process is responsive to community concerns. Ideally, then, it would be far easier to identify troublemakers who are more interested in stealing things than advancing a political cause. It would also make it easier for police departments to expend their resources on conventional crime prevention, rather than focussing on nightly standoffs with predominantly peaceful protesters.
In this optimal world, the reforms would work, police misconduct would diminish, community trust would rise, and a virtuous circle where a higher level of confidence leads to more crimes being solved and a greater sense of public security could emerge.
That optimal path is hard to get on. Trump isn’t even trying.
Senate Republicans blocked major policing reform legislation, and from the president down to governors and state legislators, Republicans are taking the side of police unions in way conservatives would recognize as irresponsible with regard to any other form of public sector union.
Unions try to deliver wins for their members. Elected officials don’t like to raise taxes. That makes it perennially tempting to compensate public sector workers with things whose costs don’t show up on an official budget document — things like a level of job security bordering on impunity that can actually prove to be very costly to society as a whole. But today’s Republicans are more interested in using cops and their unions as props in political campaigns than in pointing out that a classic piece of conservative policy analysis speaks directly to one of the main concerns in the contemporary United States.
This creates a situation in which people are not only angry but frustrated with the prospects for political change. NBA athletes have successfully used their clout to increase voter participation efforts. But the GOP Senate majority that’s blocking reform is already elected by a minority of voters, precisely because the Senate map systemically underweights the political voice of Black people and residents of big metro areas — exactly the people the NBA is in a position to influence.
From the courts to the Senate to the Electoral College to gerrymandered state legislatures, Republicans have managed to put themselves in a position where ordinary participation in the political process doesn’t suffice to get rid of them.
That’s not to excuse random acts of theft or destruction. But it is a reality that makes it much more challenging for responsible people to try to redirect the less responsible into more constructive activities.
But what does Trump have on tap beyond angry tweets and absurd posturing? He’s been the president for years, and he’s flailing even with the issues he does want to talk about. Vice President Mike Pence ended his speech last week by asking the American people to let him and Trump “Make America great again, again.” In context, it was essentially a request for a mulligan on Covid-19, which is absurd. But it’s exactly what Trump is pushing on crime as well — that we should just ignore the parts of the presidency where his ideas don’t work and his administration fails on its own terms.
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