At the peak of the “Black Lives Matter” protest in June 2020, against the brutal killing of George Floyd by the police, the US President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order on Safe Policing for Safe Communities. It is now September, and as Black Lives Matter protests— and the police brutality that ignited them— continue amidst a pandemic leaving over two hundred thousand Americans dead and millions infected, Trump’s fear-mongering distortions of events also continues.
The executive order sets requirements for police “certification and credentialing” of law enforcement agencies, and links the credentials to discretionary funding. It bans chokeholds except where deadly force is allowed by law. A database will be created to share information and track incidents of excessive use of force, terminations or de-certifications of officers, criminal convictions for on-duty conduct, and so on. Additionally, the order asks for surveys and community support programs to address mental health, homelessness and addiction in context of law enforcement’s response to them. Lastly, the order proposes that new legislation be developed to increase funding and resources provided to law enforcement.
While announcing the executive order, Trump called for a “restoration of law and order” and more funding for police at a time when Americans are protesting in cities across the country to reduce police funding and presence in order to combat police brutality. He claimed to want to put a stop to “looting and arson,” further remarking that Americans want law and order even if they “may not say it” or may not “even know that’s what they want”. Additionally, he believed the percentage of bad police officers to be very tiny.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) responded to the announcement, and called Trump’s call for “law and order” a racist dog-whistle specifically intended for his voter base in light of the upcoming election, and reiterated the need for lesser police presence. Allocation of discretionary funds, mentioned in the executive order, has been known to lead to increased militarisation of the police. They observed that Trump used the word “race” once and never used the word “racism,” and that he was surrounded by law enforcement officers throughout the announcement and his prepared remarks.
Use of fear-mongering to shore up the support for electoral benefit is not something new which Trump is employing, but a time-tested tool for many leaders in the Republican Party. The phrase “law and order” has a long cultural history in America, even before its use by politicians was popularised, and therefore racialised (if it wasn’t already).
President Richard Nixon’s TV ads in the 60s showed middle-aged white women walking nervously down city streets at night. Trump’s false claims of Biden wanting to defund the police are complemented by his recent campaign ad that shows an elderly woman at home alone, who calls the police when a burglar breaks in. However, she is told that the police can no longer serve her due to being defunded. Setting aside the misconceptions about what defunding the police would look like, the ad is clearly designed to create panic at the thought of a fantasised future, one that Trump and his family like to call “Biden’s America” every time they post pictures of present-day Trump’s apocalyptic America.
It is definitely not unlike Trump to use racist rhetoric about crime meant to cause fear. It was one of his biggest selling points in the 2016 election as well, promising a border wall and anti-immigration policy to keep out immigrants— mostly Mexicans— who he claimed would bring crime and drugs into America. This year Trump has revived the argument by acting as the saviour of the suburbs, who he claims are under the attack of calls for desegregation. To that extent, at the 2020 Republic National Convention, Trump invited the McCloskeys, the couple who brandished firearms at Black Lives Matters protestors, to speak about “forced rezoning,” which they alleged would make their suburban neighbourhood unsafe. Nixon’s comments about the “city jungle” threatening the suburbs come to mind.
Many would notice that the racism in Trump’s statements is often barely covered up by his abstract and vague choice of words. The message, whether in 2016 or 2020, remains unmistakably the same: he is telling rich and middle class white people— painted as the peaceful victims— that he will protect them from violence caused by the ‘other,’ i.e., poor people of colour.
This fear of the ‘other,’ the angry Black American, is the same fear used by Republican Presidential candidate (and later President) Richard Nixon in 1968. The law-and-order rhetoric that evolved during that election period can be connected to 21st century ‘tough-on-crime’ policies, both of which have heavy racial undertones and are weaponized by Republicans as well as Democrats.
Is Donald Trump the new age Richard Nixon? That might seem to be overstretched, but quite a few traits and similarities can be drawn between 2020 and 1968, perhaps most of all due to the widespread protests and clashes with police that erupted after the assassination of civil rights champion Martin Luther King Jr. Another major political and cultural event of the time was the Vietnam War, which led to a feeling of disorder that many Americans might be feeling at present as well. Trump is using promises of imposing “law and order” to project a strongman image; the desire to project such an image, however, hypocritically leads Trump to encourage violence where it benefits him.
However, these strategies aren’t as successful as Trump wants them to be— least of all successful enough to cover up his gross mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, the suburbs have not remained as ‘pure’ as they might seem in Trump’s eyes; they have grown in diversity of wealth and race, almost parallel to cities. Trump is out of his depth when forced to reckon with mass unemployment, preventable deaths, and science, and he would do anything to bring the focus back to his comfort zone, which is why it is unsurprising when he uses Black Lives Matter protests and renewed conversation around policing to spread unfounded alarms about increased crime and violence.
According to recent polling data, while neither Trump nor Biden are viewed favourably by any significant margin when it comes to law enforcement, Biden is surely being viewed as more trustworthy when it comes to handling a crisis like the pandemic. Trump’s constant barrage of tweets and other announcements are less appreciated or supported when they cause further confusion in an already extremely chaotic environment. It is hard to imagine trusting a President who tweets “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” to remain calm, organised or level-headed in any manner.
While many may have expected Trump’s voter base to fall for the same old, recycled talking points, the public health crisis and economic meltdown took the conversation away from it. Now President Trump is desperately trying to take control of the narrative and scare voters to back him in November 2020.
There is some method to his apparent madness. The US President is not elected by securing the majority of the popular vote, they are chosen by securing a majority of votes in the electoral college. There are different modelling of US poll results which predicts that Trump may lose by over five million popular votes but still win the Presidency due to scoring a majority of electoral college votes.
The constant hammering of being the “Law and Order” President and painting Joe Biden’s support for Black Lives Matter protest as the “support for lawlessness” is the only plausible way for Trump to gain a majority of the electoral college vote and retain the US Presidency in November 2020. It is to be seen whether the voters fear the COVID-19 & economic meltdown more than the Law and Order.