Dorothy Roberts is the George A. Weiss University Professor of Law and Sociology and the Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights; Jeffrey Vagle is the Executive Director of the Center for Technology, Innovation & Competition.
When Donald Trump described himself at the Republican Convention as “the law and order candidate,” his words recalled a scene from a past political era. During the 1968 presidential campaign, both Richard Nixon and George Wallace ran on a “law and order” platform, a racially- and culturally-coded appeal to white voters, many of whom felt threatened by the dramatic changes brought about by the civil rights movement. Trump’s platform is a direct descendant of this dog whistle message, with two important differences: He has been far more willing than his predecessors openly to base his platform on bigoted ideas and attitudes, and he inherits a militarized law enforcement, surveillance, and carceral infrastructure that has become even more autocratic and racially biased since Nixon’s time in office.
Long before he was a candidate for president, Trump has been quite clear about his “tough on crime” leanings. In 1989, for example, just two weeks after five teenagers—four of them African-American, one of them Latino—were arrested as suspects in a brutal mugging in New York’s Central Park, Trump spent $85,000 on a full-page advertisement in the New York Times calling for the application of the death penalty in this case, stating that these teenagers “should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes. They must serve as examples so that others will think long and hard before committing a crime or an act of violence.”
The Central Park Five, as they came to be known, were all found guilty by a jury who had been immersed in this “tough on crime” rhetoric for weeks leading up to the trial. Every one of these convictions was vacated in 2002 after DNA evidence proved that someone else had committed the crime. Despite this fact, Trump has since refused to apologize for his public calls for their deaths, and in fact restated his belief in their guilt, despite all evidence to the contrary.
Since the first days of his campaign, Trump has made it clear to voters that race and xenophobia were the foundations for significant portions of his platform. From claims that Mexican immigrants were “rapists” bringing “drugs” and “crime” into the country, to Islamophobic calls for a ban on all Muslims entering the country, Trump has revived the “southern strategy” message that has reliably garnered the support of white voters.
But these dire warnings of the dangers posed by violent criminals—almost always imagined as African-American or Latino by white Americans—come at a time when the country’s violent crime rate is at historic lows. Less than half as many police officers are killed in the line of duty as in the 1970s, and according to polls, “crime and violence” ranked below issues like the economy, unemployment, racism, and dissatisfaction with the government, as important issues facing our nation.
Despite these realities, the “law and order” message resonates with white voters who see movements like Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, immigration reform, and the Standing Rock protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline as assaults on an eroding natural order dominated by whites and long to “make America great again” by cracking down on these subversive elements. To that end, America’s police forces have become hyper-militarized, acquiring weapons and materiel once reserved for the battlefield, and adopting the attendant warrior mentality of an occupying force.
Abuses within this growing police infrastructure have long been claimed by minority communities who were forced to bear the brunt of expanding law enforcement regimes, but it has only been recently—when video evidence of these abuses became more common—that the country as a whole began to become conscious of the extent of the brutality. The carceral state has also continued to expand, with a criminal justice system that allows mass misdemeanors, a corrupted bail system, the widespread abuse of monetary sanctions that disproportionately punish minorities and the poor, all of which has left the United States with the dubious distinction of being the world’s largest jailer.
President-elect Trump now inherits this system, and based on his platform, is likely to embolden it. Trump’s explicit support for torture, the death penalty, nationwide stop and frisk, a federal “deportation force” and his unquestioning embrace of the “Blue Lives Matter” movement point to the increased militarization of law enforcement and policies that support over-policing like stop and frisk and the war on drugs, which disproportionately target African-Americans and Latinos. These policies must be seen—and resisted—as inhumane, unconstitutional, and anti-democratic threats to the struggle to make America a free society for everyone.