This article was updated on Tuesday, June 2 at 4:40pm
“When I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order to our country,” Donald Trump said four summers ago in Cleveland, as he accepted the nomination at the Republican National Convention. “In this race for the White House, I am the law-and-order candidate.”
On Monday in the Rose Garden, he echoed those words.
“I am your president of law and order, and an ally of all peaceful protesters,” Trump said, as police teargassed and corralled peaceful protesters just outside the White House. “But where there is no law, there is no opportunity. Where there is no justice, there is no liberty. Where there is no safety, there is no future.”
These words ring hollow today. After nearly a full term in office, Trump has delivered only chaos. Violent protests sweep the streets of cities across the nation, from large to small. Police are rioting, dealing with complaints about brutalizing civilians by brutalizing civilians. Heavily armed militias have invaded state legislatures. Nazis have marched in the streets of a bucolic college town. Mass shootings haunt the nation’s high schools and Walmarts and churches and commercial districts and music festivals and fairs. (To say nothing of more than 100,000 dead from COVID-19 and millions out of work.) If this is what a law-and-order presidency looks like, what is the alternative?
The president is not to blame for all these problems, though in many cases he has exacerbated them. But in that same RNC speech, Trump also assured the nation, “I alone can fix it.” It is now clear not only that the problems are larger than one man, but also that Trump is at a loss for how to use the powers he does have to solve them.
Law and order was not just a major theme of the convention speech. Throughout the campaign, and again during his inaugural address, Trump vowed that he would bring safety to the streets of the nation. The Obama years had seen extensive protests: in St. Louis, New York, Baltimore, and other cities. They had seen many mass shootings, the most horrifying in Newtown, Connecticut. Though violent crime overall continued its decades-long decline during the Obama presidency, Trump was able to capitalize on fears in the populace, in part by simply lying about crime numbers.
The power of the presidency to actually solve all these problems is strictly limited, as Barack Obama had found. He was stymied in his attempts to enact stricter gun controls, and though the Justice Department embarked on some attempts to control police violence, its authority was limited. This is the reality of the presidency: The chief executive has to work with Congress and within the bounds of what courts will allow.
Trump insisted that “nobody knows the system better than me,” and adopted a strongman vision of an all-powerful presidency, apparently influenced by his career in business, wherein he could do nearly anything he wanted as head of the Trump Organization. But from the start of his presidency, his naïveté about the system has been on display. His attempts at unilateral moves—such as his Muslim travel ban—quickly ran into resistance from courts. Even a unified Republican Congress wouldn’t give him funding for his border wall.
Now, after nearly four years, the shortcomings of Trump’s approach are clear. The country is painfully divided. Police continue to kill black men and women. Mass shootings continue.
Not only did Trump fail to promote law and order, but he failed to improve even the perception of law and order. Crime rates haven’t gone up—in fact, they continue to fall—but fear is rising. Gallup found that 37 percent of Americans were afraid to walk alone at night in their neighborhood in 2019, up from 30 percent in 2017. A small majority, 52 percent, told Gallup they think crime is a serious problem, up from 48 in 2018. That was all before the demonstrations of the past few days.
“My plan will begin with safety at home—which means safe neighborhoods, secure borders, and protection from terrorism. There can be no prosperity without law and order,” Trump said in Cleveland. “The first task for our new administration will be to liberate our citizens from the crime and terrorism and lawlessness that threatens their communities.”
Does anyone believe this has come true? As John Harwood reports, a new Morning Consult poll shows that just 30 percent of the country gives Trump positive marks for his handling of the protests—in a polarized era when pretty much anything Trump does can garner 35 to 45 percent through simple tribalism. Even among those who identify themselves as Trump voters, only 62 percent rate his response good, very good, or excellent, with 23 percent rating it poor or fair.
Many Trump voters no doubt believed in 2016 that Trump could fix these problems, and although there were plenty of warning signs that he couldn’t, they wouldn’t be the first voters to be disappointed by a politician’s shortcomings. But another contingent, difficult to poll but amply represented in anecdotal reporting, seemed to support Trump because they were disgusted with all the options and wanted chaos. They didn’t vote for Trump to fix the system; they voted for him to destroy it. These nihilistic voters might be the only ones getting what they want. But if they are, they are a small portion of the electorate. Less than a third of Americans believe that the U.S. is on the right track, according to RealClearPolitics’ average, against 60 percent who say it’s on the wrong track.
Once again, it would be foolish to claim that Trump is solely or even mainly responsible for the problems facing the United States. Police violence against people of color in the U.S. stretches back to the very origins of American law enforcement. The coronavirus came from nature, efforts to prevent a pandemic were hampered by the Chinese government’s incompetence and dishonesty, and the economic crash is an outgrowth of the pandemic. But Trump has often made things worse: He rolled back police-accountability efforts, celebrated police violence, and has struggled to understand the current protests, viewing them as the work of outside agitators and promoting self-defeating police escalation. He has never had a plan for the pandemic or the economic destruction it has wrought.
Trump owns these problems because he assured the country that he and only he had the answers. Now he has bumped up against the limits of the American presidency, though his threat Monday night of major military deployments inside the U.S. is a step toward true strongman behavior. A massive troop presence on the streets might be enough to quell the immediate protests, for now, but it won’t do anything to combat the underlying problems that have caused the protests. Nor has he found solutions to the others. He alone couldn’t fix it—he could only make it worse.