“America is once more a nation of laws,” President Trump said near the end of a speech Friday afternoon in Brentwood, New York. He meant it as a boast, but one could be forgiven for thinking it was a lament, given the rest of the speech.
Trump has portrayed himself, like Richard Nixon, as a president who can bring law and order, but on closer examination, his rhetoric is far more about order (understood in a particular way) than about law. In fact, the president often evinces an impatience with the tendency of the rule of law to get in the way of toughness and vengeance, and his dark, blood-stained speech Friday about the gang MS-13 was no different.
“They stomp on their victims and beat them with gloves; they slash them with machetes, and they stab them with knives,” Trump said. “They have transformed peaceful parks and beautiful quiet neighborhoods into bloodstained killing fields.”
The imagery was remarkable, as though Nassau County were a war zone. There have been 17 murders attributed to MS-13 on Long Island since the start of the year, though crime in Nassau in 2016 was the lowest in decades. And as New York Times reporter Frances Robles pointed out, anti-gang raids by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement have proven inefficient at catching immigrants or gang members.
The Long Island speech was planned before the early-morning collapse of the latest Republican Obamacare replacement initiative, but the recent reemergence of some of Trump’s ugliest and most inflammatory rhetoric is likely not mere coincidence. With his legislative initiatives failing, Trump and his family in increasing legal jeopardy, and his West Wing somehow even more acrimonious than before, the president is returning to the bloodiest red meat he has, both out of comfort—he is much more at ease discussing violent crime than the nuances of insurance markets—and for political gain.
Many of the moments that Trump sees as his greatest successes have come when he is at his fearmongering peaks: his campaign announcement with its warnings of Mexican rapists, which he mentioned Friday; his doomsaying acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention; and his bleak inaugural address. It is also a place where he can continually insist that the answer to the problem is simply more toughness.
“I said, ‘Hey Tom [Homan, acting head of ICE], how tough are these guys in MS-13?” Trump said. “He said, ‘They’re nothing compared to my guys, and that's what you need.’”
But Trump’s idea of toughness often comes at odds with the law. Disturbingly, his speech on Friday, with law-enforcement agents behind, was a long paean to systemic police brutality and lament for the ways the law restrains officers. He praised officers from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement for their toughness. For example, he recounted meeting a man, apparently a would-be vigilante, with whom he discussed the high crime rate in Chicago:
He said the problem could be straightened out. I said, “How long would it take you to straighten out this problem?” He said, “If you give me the authority, a couple days. I really mean it.” I said, “You really think so?” He said, “We know all the bad guys. The officers know all the bad ones in the area. We know them all. A couple of days.” I said, “You've got to be kidding.” I said, “Give me your card.” He gave me his card and I sent it to the mayor. I said, “You want to try using this guy.” Guess what happened? Never heard and last week they had another record.
It’s not hard to read between the lines here: If only police could do whatever they wanted without fear of reprisal, they could solve the problem. Now, why would Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel not have wanted to take the vigilante up on his offer? There’s no evidence to suggest that Chicago’s problem is its cops are too soft. The city’s force has repeatedly brutalized and killed citizens and violated civil rights, as a Department of Justice report in January chronicled. Protests against police brutality nearly brought the city to a halt in 2015.
Trump also took what appeared to be a shot at New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has curtailed stop-and-frisk in the city: “I've met police who are great police that aren't allowed to do their job because they have a pathetic mayor or a mayor that doesn't know what is going on.”
In case the implication of police brutality was too vague, he made it explicit later on:
When you see these towns and when you see these thugs being thrown into the back of the paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in, rough. I said please don't be too nice. Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you're protecting their head, you know, the way you put your hand over? Like don't hit their head and they’ve just killed somebody. Don't hit their head. I said you can take the hand away, okay?
Of course, the idea of roughing suspects up in transit is not one that Trump invented. In fact, it is distressingly common, as became clear after Freddie Gray’s death while in a Baltimore police van in 2015.
When police violence happens, defenders often say that the culprits are just a few bad apples. And while Justice Department reports have demonstrated again and again that often the problem is systemic, Trump’s speech represents the president of the United States exhorting police to use (likely illegal) violence against suspects.
Also notable is the fact that Trump gave the speech on Long Island. While he was trounced in his home of New York City, Trump ran only 5.5 points behind Hillary Clinton in Nassau County, and beat her in Suffolk County, on the eastern end of the island. While Trump’s nativist and xenophobic rhetoric is said to resonate in middle America and the Rust Belt, it also works well in places like Long Island. As Jon Stewart memorably pointed out to Bill O’Reilly, his childhood home in Levittown was a segregated community. Trump is astute at playing to racial politics not just in the South and the Midwest, but also in the suburbs and outer boroughs of New York—where his family first made its fortune developing housing, and where he and his father later settled a Department of Justice lawsuit alleging that they had systemically refused to rent apartments in one development to black tenants.
This is his native territory, and he knows how to inflame its anxieties. When Trump suggested that police rough up suspects, the crowd—and the uniformed officers sitting behind him on stage—applauded.
This article is part of our project “The Presence of Justice,” which is supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge.