Editor’s Note: Austin Sarat is associate dean of the faculty and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College and the author of “Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty.” The views expressed here are solely his
Austin Sarat: After President's speech you would think Chicago is America's "most dangerous" city, but that's just not true
Trump's new "presidential" tone hasn't changed his obsession with crime or improved his erroneous claims about it, he writes
In Tuesday’s address to Congress, Donald Trump seemed determined to change his tone and sound presidential. But his supposed pivot did not conceal his reiteration of themes deployed throughout his campaign and in his inaugural address. The President continued to remind his listeners that the country he now leads is “a mess. At home and abroad, a mess.”
Tuesday night was no different, as again he recited a litany of the problems he inherited from his predecessor. He described a nation beset with massive unemployment, deep poverty, staggering debt and “a series of tragic foreign policy disasters.”
He situated violent crime as a main focus, calling on Congress to join with him to break what he labeled “the cycle of violence.”
And, as he has done so often, he singled out Chicago – a city that has become for him a metaphor for the breakdown of law and order – and reinforced statements he made to the nation’s governors on Monday: “You look at what is happening in our cities,” Trump told that audience, “You look at what is happening in Chicago. What is happening in Chicago?”
If you believed his statements to the governors, to Congress and to the world, Trump’s Chicago would seem to be worse off today than it was during the notorious Roaring ’20s. Listening to the President you would think Chicago is America’s most dangerous city. But here’s the problem: That is far from being the truth.
Looking just at rates of violent crime, that “honor” actually goes to Detroit. Moreover, it turns out that seven of the 10 American cities with the highest rates of violent crime are found in states that Trump won. These are cities like Memphis, Tennessee; St. Louis, Missouri; Birmingham, Alabama; Cleveland, Ohio; and Indianapolis, Indiana. The last should especially draw a wince from Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, who was Indiana’s governor from 2013 to 2017. And, Chicago is not on the top 10 list.
Another recent report from 24/7 Wall St., which combined crime rates and economic data, like poverty and unemployment, did not even find Chicago to be one of the “25 Most Dangerous Cities in America.”
These are, of course, the kind of inconvenient facts Donald Trump likes to avoid.
If we think about crime in the country as a whole, there are more inconvenient facts. FBI crime statistics estimated that 1,197,704 violent crimes were committed around the nation in 2015. While that was an increase from 2014 figures, the 2015 violent crime total was 0.7% lower than the 2011 level and 16.5% below the 2006 level.
The murder rate alone shows a more dramatic decline: Even with the increase the President highlighted, today’s murder rate is lower than it has been since 1950.
But these facts made no greater dent in what Trump said to Congress than they have since he began ratcheting up his law and order rhetoric last July.
Accepting the Republican nomination, he pointed out, “An attack on law enforcement is an attack on all Americans,” and pledged: “When I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order to our country.”
Others have noted how this turn echoes the law and order campaigns of President Richard Nixon. True, but I think Trump also learned an important political lesson from an insight Barack Obama offered during the 2008 presidential campaign, when he imprudently noted that older, white men in the United States seemed angry and politically confused, such that they would vote against their own economic best interest.
As Obama put it, “You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. … And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
Donald Trump saw and capitalized on those frustrations by wrapping himself in the flag: patriotism, the Second Amendment, and crucially, the rhetoric of law and order.
He has used this rhetoric to transmit coded messages about race to his base and to stoke racial fear while denying allegations of racism and evading responsibility for escalating racial and ethnic tensions in the United States. For all his talk about the crisis of law and order and the cycle of violence, the President has not addressed the causes of violence or offered solutions, other than urging Americans, as he did Tuesday night, “to work with, not against, law enforcement.”
Trump’s thinking about the politics of law and order goes back further than 2008; in 1989, he ran an ad in New York newspapers after the arrests of one Latino and four black men (now known as the Central Park Five) in the rape and beating of a white jogger in 1989.
The ad was titled “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY, BRING BACK OUR POLICE!” Its text, which will seem eerily familiar to anyone who watched Tuesday night’s speech, read: “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.”
How little things have changed for Donald Trump since the 1980s. Once again, it was far easier for the President to praise American law enforcement and to rail against “bad dudes” and what he called “the bad ones” than it was to address the real causes of crime and violence in Chicago or any of America’s more violent cities.
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Despite his changed tone, President Trump continues to promote a distorted vision of America.
Americans need to remain vigilant about this shrewd but cynical move and should not be fooled by Trump’s effort to sound presidential. We need to understand the political work that his law and order rhetoric does for him, but also the damage it does to the social fabric of the nation he leads. We must resist its divisive allure and recognize that the most significant threat to law and order in the United States still is found in the Oval Office, not on the streets of Chicago.