Never Underestimate the Power of the “Law and Order” Rhetoric

5 mins read

Photo by Jacob Morch on Unsplash

Trump seems to be on the ropes. June has shown his poll numbers evaporate as growing numbers of Americans question his incompetent response to COVID-19 and perhaps even more, his lack of empathy regarding murders of Black Americans by police. Mainstream news organizations speculate it is only a matter of time before Republicans in Congress bail on him. Biden supporters salivate at the prospect of an overwhelming electoral win as well as decisive victories in both the House and Senate.

But wait!!! Not so fast!!!! How many times have we counted Trump out? And even though his campaign has stumbled badly in the last couple of months, he is now reverting to a tried and true strategy that has worked well for Republicans in the past: an emphasis on law and order.

Never underestimate this country’s fear of lawlessness, chaos and anarchy, and the destruction of their way of life. While most of us are listening to our democratic leaders and media celebrating an awakening to issues of systemic racial inequality and injustice, we are ignoring a rising tide that could, if not stemmed, put Trump back in the White House.

Fox News and conservative media, GOP leaders and Trump, are sounding the alarm bells. Fox News provides a steady diet of lawlessness, anarchy, looting, burning and murder permeating our cities while Democratic mayors and governors allegedly cheerlead from the bleachers. GOP folk heroes are the hard-working middle class who take up arms against the mob as they invade their suburban neighborhoods.

The vandalism and toppling of statues and renaming of our military installations is an assault on our heritage and values. These actions are seen as a first step towards a liberal agenda to destroy America and replace it with Venezuelan and Cuban totalitarianism.

Trump’s rhetoric espouses that he is the only one who can restore law and order. He brags that the use of the National Guard restored order in Washington, D.C. and that in Minneapolis they cleared the streets of crime one night like “a knife through butter.” He advocates for the use of the military to clean up the five-block “autonomous zone” in Seattle. He calls for 10-year prison terms for those defacing statues. He claims Biden and Democrats want to abolish the police. He encouraged police and the National Guard to use tear gas and clubs against protestors in Lafayette Square, all for a photo op portraying him as a fighter helping to stop the assault on Christian institutions and churches.

History shows that this strategy has worked before. Richard Nixon would likely have lost in 1968 if he hadn’t defined himself as the “law and order” candidate. Michael Dukakis held a 17- point lead over George H. Bush in the summer of 1988, until a heavy-handed Republican campaign painting Dukakis as soft on crime led to the Democrat’s overwhelming defeat in November 1988.

Trump is hijacking America’s conversation about racial injustice and turning it into a conversation about decay and crime. That focus on preventing lawlessness historically seems to appeal most to white voters, but clearly minorities also fear lawlessness. If Trump could convince voters that he is for law and order and also for racial justice, Biden could see his lead erode among both white and minority voters.

The rhetoric is heated these days. The Republicans have reframed the passion around issues of racial inequality as calls for violent revolution and police reform as advocacy for enabling criminality. In truth, reform allows our police to more effectively do their jobs by establishing trust and cooperation in the communities they serve. Democrats are not fighting to disempower law enforcement but to transform that system by recognizing and rooting out both unconscious and conscious bias. Only through that process can police and communities work together to achieve the common goal of establishing order, safely, hope, opportunity and full empowerment. 

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