Trump’s ‘Law and Order’ Gambit Isn’t Crazy

The politics of “law and order” have long been a repository of cultural and racial grievance. In his 1999 book, “From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: Race in the Conservative Counterrevolution, 1963-1994,” Dan T. Carter, a celebrated historian of the American South, describes a pioneering political advertisement from Wallace’s 1970 campaign for governor of Alabama:

Radio spots depicted the dramatic sounds of a police siren, two cars pulling to the side of the road, and then the ominous narration: “Suppose your wife is driving home at 11 o’clock at night. She is stopped by a highway patrolman. He turns out to be black. Think about it . . . Elect George Wallace.”

The highway patrolman, the literal embodiment of “law and order,” is cast as the threat to the (obviously White) woman’s safety. The implicit promise of “law and order” is not to protect people from crime per se. It’s to protect White people, and White people’s status, from Black people and Black aspirations.

Five decades later, President Donald Trump’s embrace of law and order — or “LAW & ORDER!” as he tweeted May 31 — is no more shrouded in mystery than Wallace’s. It’s yet another of Trump’s unsubtle reminders that he will protect White power and status from a diverse coalition of Democrats and young social activists.

Like Trump’s all-out defense of Confederate iconography at a time when majorities tell pollsters that they support the protests of the Black Lives Matter movement, and when even Mississippi is at last surrendering to Union forces, Trump’s deployment of the “law and order” trope looks desperate. It is. But it’s not crazy, given Trump’s aversion to more decent and popular forms of politics.  

The phrase worked for Richard Nixon in 1968, when Wallace ran for president as an independent, threatening Nixon from the right. As the historian Kevin Kruse notes, it wasn’t much help to congressional Republicans in 1970. Yet the attempt to redeploy it is telling. Violent crime rose every year of Nixon’s presidency. That Republicans nonetheless resorted to the “law and order” slogan shows the phrase was more than a response to crime.

“Make America Safe Again” was a theme of the first night of the 2016 Republican National Convention. Like Trump’s campaign, the convention simply ignored the dramatic decline in crime in previous decades. Because crime is not what the red hats of MAGA seek protection from.

As my colleague Jonathan Bernstein has pointed out, it’s more complicated for Trump to run on “law and order” this time around. He has had more than three years to deliver on his promise. In lieu of law or order, Trump’s presidency has produced a parade of convicted felons and a whirlwind of chaos that envelops him like the dust cloud perpetually trailing the Peanuts character “Pigpen.”

If “law and order” constitutes a symbolic pinky swear rather than a commitment to control crime, however, the president is on firmer ground. He has always pledged to annihilate the forces on the other side of the culture war. Trump’s invocation of the phrase is no more tied to national crime rates than his “THE SILENT MAJORITY IS STRONGER THAN EVER!!!” tweet is a measure of his uniquely unpopular presidency. In the lexicon of Trumpism, “silent majority” is a euphemism conveying his commitment to sustaining White political and economic power. “Law and Order” is just another way to say “Lock Her Up.”

For Trump’s racial campaign to gain traction, disruptive events must intervene — or he will have to will them into existence. Fox News is doing its part, featuring old or doctored videos to chronicle a race war that has yet to be birthed. Surely one reason Trump keeps invoking Confederates and racial tropes is to provoke protesters into violence. So far, few have taken the bait.

To obscure the catastrophe that his incompetence has induced, with more than 130,000 dead and counting, Trump needs a different threat, one with protagonists whom he can elevate and attack.

He hasn’t summoned such a target yet. But no legal or moral guardrails constrain him. He will keep prodding and searching for the conflict to which “law and order” is the answer. He still has four months.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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