(AP/Charles Krupa)

Donald Trump's "law and order" obsession is rooted in the distant past — and points toward a dystopian future

Trump's ideas about crime, police and the death penalty go back to 1970s stereotypes — but present a real danger


Heather Digby Parton
January 17, 2017 6:10PM (UTC)

When Donald Trump tweeted out his angry reaction to Rep. John Lewis' announcement that he would not attend the inauguration, a lot of people were aghast that he would accuse a civil rights icon of "all talk, talk, talk — no action."

They couldn't believe the incoming president would so crudely caricature Lewis' district as being "in horrible shape and falling apart not to mention crime infested" when Lewis represents Atlanta, which Forbes recently ranked as the ninth-best place in America for businesses and career development and among the best for job growth and education. The city's crime rate has also been steadily declining since the '90s.  In other words, as usual, Trump was not telling the truth.

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It's important to recognize what was really going on there, however. It seems obvious to me that Trump had never heard of Lewis and had no idea where he is from. He was reflexively repeating his standard campaign talking points about the "inner city" in which he complained that nobody has ever done anything about the dystopian hellholes that he believes all African-Americans inhabit. Trump claimed to be the only man in the country who could fix the problem, although he never shared the details. If you look at his history, however, it's not hard to figure out what he plans.

Trump's view of race in America is very simple: If the police could take the gloves off, this would fix whatever problems exist. He is particularly adamant about applying the death penalty. He famously took out a full-page ad in New York newspapers after the arrests of the young men known as the Central Park Five (four being black and one Latino) in the rape and beating of a white jogger in 1989. The five men spent years in prison before being exonerated by DNA evidence and the confession of another man, a career criminal with a long prison record. Trump has said that he still believes they are guilty.

The big, bold title of the ad was "BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY, BRING BACK OUR POLICE!" Even then, Trump wanted to make America great again by returning to the days of his youth when the cops could crack some heads. The ad said:

When I was young, I sat in a diner with my father and witnessed two young bullies cursing and threatening a very frightened waitress. Two cops rushed in, lifted up the thugs and threw them out the door, warning them never to cause trouble again. I miss the feeling of security New York's finest once gave to the citizens of this City. Let our politicians give back our police department's power to keep us safe. Unshackle them from the constant chant of "police brutality" which every petty criminal hurls immediately at an officer who has just risked his or her life to save another's. We must cease our continuous pandering to the criminal population of this City. Give New York back to the citizens who have earned the right to be New Yorkers.

Trump has a few bedrock beliefs that he has held for decades: The world is laughing at America, Asian nations are making fools of the U.S. on trade, we must bring back the death penalty and law enforcement must be given more power. These represent the the fundamental philosophy that propelled him to the presidency.

Throughout the campaign Trump reiterated his strong pro-police stance. But it wasn't until July's mass shooting of police officers in Dallas that he came out roaring out with his declaration:

The attack on our Dallas police is an attack on our country. . . . It's time for our hostility against our police and against all members of law enforcement to end and end immediately right now. . . .

I am the law and order candidate.

He used the line repeatedly from then on, including during his angry acceptance speech at the Republican convention. Eventually he was endorsed by the National Fraternal Order of Policethe unions representing Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and numerous local police organizations throughout the country. Trump was celebrated by cops everywhere he went, and there are many pictures to prove it. He likes them and they like him.

After the election, the Fraternal Order of Police issued a wish list for the first 100 days. It includes reinstituting racial profiling, deporting Dreamers (undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children and ending sanctuary-city programs. Whatever advances we may have made toward reform of the criminal justice system don't look as if they are going to hold.

Trump's loyalty and reverence for the police and his racist 1970s stereotypes of African-American communities make for a dangerous brew, particularly considering a recent Pew Research center report about attitudes in law enforcement. This research painted a highly disturbing portrait of police officers who increasingly see themselves as under siege and who long for more power and authority — with important differences in attitudes between white and black police officers, particularly regarding the protests against police shootings. That points to a potentially volatile situation.

Trump often brings up the distressing gun violence in Chicago as if it were emblematic of all major American cities. It's not, actually. This week the Justice Department released a new study about Chicago's finest, suggesting that the gloves are already off: Police in the Windy City routinely use whatever force they deem necessary, and there is very little accountability for it. Illinois recently repealed the death penalty after it was revealed that at least 13 men had been wrongly condemned to death row.

Apparently, Trump's "get tough" policing doesn't work in real life. Not that he is likely to believe that. As he said during the campaign and as far back as 1990 in a Playboy interview:

In order to bring law and order back into our cities, we need the death penalty and authority given back to the police. . . . It sets an example. Nobody can make the argument that the death penalty isn't a deterrent.

In reality, anyone who knows anything about the subject will make precisely that argument. Trump simply won't listen. He believes what he believes, and from what we can tell, he is incapable of changing his mind about any of it.


Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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