Trump is a fan of law and order, something he makes clear when he constantly attacks protestors (peaceful or not). Every man is! no sane person considers lawlessness and chaos an end, and few consider it a means to one. As humans, we appreciate peace and continuity, especially when it works in our favour, and this belief is often put into play in politics. Where politicians can campaign on an end to chaos – especially unpopular chaos – as a centre point of their platform. This is “law and order politics”. It was a strategy that worked for Richard Nixon in 1968. He was elected president with a backdrop of race riots and Vietnam War straining the lives of the average American. Republican strategists today see Nixon’s campaign as a model, which has caused an upswing in law and order politics and rhetoric from Trump’s campaign. Yet, there is a deep irony inherent in this strategy, as the law and order politics Trump is currently attempting to use actually reinforce the chaos he so desperately wants to end.
Ignoring the question of whether Trump is one of the root causes of these racial protests against police brutality, this is a fairly straightforward conclusion. Law and order is “a situation in which laws are obeyed, and people behave in an organized and peaceful way,” and there are two potential ways this situation can be achieved. First is repression, which requires an authoritarian regime with institutional safeguards against protest, dissent, and chaos. This strategy can be seen in events like the Tiananmen Square Massacre or when Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary, and are characterised by secret police forces, jailing political dissidents, and a lack of civil rights. A second strategy, appeasement, can happen under any regime, and consists of solving the underlying problems which allowed for the breakdown in law and order in the first place, like the Civil Rights Acts of the 50s and 60s. Under most circumstances, we can consider the first solution politically simpler – silencing people is easier than giving into demands – but the second more effective, especially when the state is not particularly good at repression or claims to defend rights.
This is where the irony comes in. Trump is attempting a strategy of repression against a popular movement of mostly peaceful protesters in a country that claims to defend the rights of free speech, free press, assembly, and fair trials. He has: suggested sending in the military to deal with protesters, sent unmarked DHS vehicles to arbitrarily abduct protesters for questioning, built a massive wall around the White House, and refused any meaningful reform (only offering very token instances of it). All of these are, according to Trump, necessary measures to promote law and order. They are the staples of his law and order politics. Yet, the protests continue, and turn even more violent (see: Chicago). That is the irony of Trump’s law and order politics. The President is attempting authoritarian strategies without an authoritarian state apparatus, which leads to more people protesting and more protesters turning violent. The root causes of these protests are racial inequality and police brutality, not inadequate policing, and trying to solve the former with the latter will only reinforce the violence currently occurring. Martin Luther King Jr. claimed that “a riot is the language of the unheard” and knowing that, it is obvious that crushing protests won’t stop riots. Instead, it will encourage them as more and more people feel unheard. Only in a world where every rioter is evil and mean-spirited could Trump’s strategy work, and that world is clearly not ours.
This gets to a second, related irony. The Democratic party, led by its presumptive Presidential nominee Joe Biden, promise meaningful reform and rarely if ever condemn the riots across the country. This has allowed Republicans to accuse them of being pro-chaos and not doing enough to create the calm Americans want. Yet, the promised reforms, if they go far enough and are advertised successfully, will likely create more law and order than Trump could ever provide. This is the appeasement strategy, and in this situation, it allows the Democrats to do two things at once – increase racial justice and create law and order conditions on the ground. By hitting at the root cause of rioting and protests, the Democrats will calm society down while also achieving one of their long-standing goals. In this sense, the party that focuses on solutions will create more peace than the one which focuses on law and order.
There is no need for Democrats to accept Republican characterisations of them as a party of revolution and chaos. It is true that America wants calm, but it is also clear that Trump has stoked the flames rather than extinguishing them. There is absolutely no reason law and order should be a winning issue for this president, especially since these protests are occurring during Trump’s administration. Furthermore, the American people do not want to have to choose between justice and peace. The protests are popular, even if riots are not. The Democrats should show that they are the party of both justice AND peace, whereas the Republicans are the party of neither. If they can spin Trump’s argument in that way – in other words, if they can weaponise the irony of law and order politics – Democrats will find their path to Congressional and Presidential victories a lot less bumpy.
The views in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The Liberty Club.
“Trump calls protesters ‘terrorists,’ pledges ‘retribution’ for tearing down statues” – Politico
“The ‘law and order’ campaign that won Richard Nixon the White House 50 years ago” – The Washington Post
“Trump Is Reviving the Disgraceful Legacy of ‘Law-and-Order’ Politics” – New York Magazine
Law and Order – Cambridge English Dictionary
“Amid Protests, Majorities Across Racial and Ethnic Groups Express Support for the Black Lives Matter Movement” – Pew Research Center
“Trump Threatens To Send U.S. Military To States To End Violent Protests” – NPR
“Federal Officers Use Unmarked Vehicles To Grab People In Portland, DHS Confirms” – NPR
“The White House is building a massive ‘anti-climb’ wall following protests. These photos show the evolution of White House fencing over the years” – Business Insider
Ex-prosecutor calls Trump’s police reform a ‘slap in the face’ – CNN
“Chicago protests: Restrictions imposed after chaotic night of unrest” – BBC News
September 27, 1966: MLK—A riot is the language of the unheard – Youtube
“U.S. House Democrats promise bill on policing, race within weeks” – BNN Bloomberg
“Republicans seek to equate protesters with rioters and violent criminals — and link them all to Democrats” – Market Watch