The Shaky Basis for Trump's 'Law and Order' Campaign

The presumptive Republican nominee is delivering racially tinged warnings that “crime is out of control,” but the numbers suggest otherwise.

Jim Bourg / Reuters

Donald Trump, grasping for some traction in the polls and for a posture of leadership in the wake of several violent incidents, has landed on a new slogan, telling attendees at a rally in Virginia Beach on Monday that he is “the law-and-order candidate.”

He reprised the line again Tuesday morning on Twitter:

Like one of Trump’s other favorite phrases, “the silent majority,” this one is borrowed from Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign. (Trump is an expert recycler of slogans. “Make American Great Again” was first popularized by Ronald Reagan; “America First” was once associated with pro-fascist isolationists, including Charles Lindbergh, in the lead-up to World War II.)

“Law and order” was a potent mantra for Nixon during the 1968 campaign. The nation seemed like it was on fire—and parts of it actually were. In April, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. In June, Robert F. Kennedy was killed. Riots swept through major cities. After an unprecedented period of low crime after World War II, the violent-crime rate was in the midst of a sharp rise that would taper off slightly in the early 1980s before rising again, finally peaking in 1991. Americans were afraid, and Nixon’s promise to get tough on crime and stop the growing violence exercised a powerful appeal. (It was a promise he couldn’t fulfill. Crime continued to rise during his presidency.) The second, smaller spike up to the 1991 high is also essential context for Bill Clinton’s own tough-on-crime posture in the 1992 election—an approach for which he, and his wife Hillary Clinton, have been strenuously criticized by activist groups like Black Lives Matter during this election.

Listen to Trump now and you’d think something similar is going on today:

In fact, crime rates in the U.S. have in recent years experienced a major decline:

This chart cuts off in 2012, but the decline has mostly continued. In the first half of 2015, crime rates ticked up 1.7 percent, but they remain well below those historic highs. Criminologists don’t have conclusive answers about what might be driving the tick upward. Although there may be some unsettling parallels with that annus horribilis, 2016 is not 1968. That means Trump is trying to make a case for a year of chaos after more than two decades of steady improvement.

But that may not actually be all that challenging, even if it is counterfactual. First, Americans’ attitudes about violence haven’t tracked actual crime rates over the last 15 years. Even though crime rates fell significantly between 2008 and 2012, there was never as steep a corresponding drop in concern, and worries have actually increased over the last couple years.

It’s hard to know exactly what’s driving that increase, but there are a few of obvious suspects. One is the increase in non-terrorist mass shootings, which has received a large amount of media attention, but which Trump hasn’t offered much in the way of proposals to stop. A second is the increase in gun crime in some cities, especially in Chicago and in Baltimore, which has also been heavily covered. (Other cities continue to experience historic levels of peace, including Trump’s home town of New York.) The third is the many protests spurred by the killings of African Americans, some of which have involved sporadic violence, including in Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore; and most recently in Dallas. For activists fighting police violence, these outbreaks are unfortunate or tragic side effects of a necessary movement against police violence.

For Trump, and for his supporters, however, these incidents are the story. Trump has to a great extent taken the side of police in the brutality debate, and on the stump he makes a point of applauding U.S. law-enforcement personnel. Foregrounding unrest makes it seem more prevalent than it is, reinforcing or creating a sense of lawlessness.

Increasing urban crime rates in the mid- and late-20th century were often associated (rightly or wrongly) with the migration of blacks from the rural South into cities. Nixon was skilled at leveraging racial tension and resentment to get white votes. Trump is pursuing a similar strategy. Although Trump insists that “the blacks” and “the Hispanics” love him, his fate likely depends on how well he performs among white voters, given his incredibly low favorability ratings with minorities. That helps explain why, in an interview with the Associated Press, Trump harshly criticized Black Lives Matter, and why he predicted more violence to come. Trump also said that racism is “a bigger problem than people understand,” but he seemed to pin some blame for that on President Obama. In his AP interview, he argued (as he has done before) that black anger can be placated with jobs, while only barely acknowledging that communities of color may have legitimate grievances with the police.

One irony here is that to the extent that there are increases in crime, they’re concentrated in urban areas. (Trump’s use of the dated term “inner cities” in the tweet above is itself a historical artifact.) Rising crime in the 20th century not only elected Nixon; it also drove many whites, especially conservative ones, to abandon cities. The result is that the United States is now strongly polarized between urban areas, which are more racially diverse and vote heavily Democratic, and rural ones, which are whiter and tend Republican. The people who are most likely to be affected by rising violence in city centers are those who are least likely to support Trump. But if talking about “inner-city” crime motivates rural voters to go to the polls and vote for him in November, what does it matter?