The Administration

What Donald Trump learned from Barack Obama

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President Donald Trump’s speech at last week’s CPAC meeting was a stirring reiteration of themes deployed throughout his campaign and in his inaugural address. Like a rock star packaging a series of concerts, the President has undertaken an “American carnage” tour. Everywhere he goes, he takes pains to remind his listeners that the country he now leads is “a mess. At home and abroad, a mess.”

At the center of the mess that Trump conjures is the problem of violent crime. At CPAC, he again highlighted it and promised to work with the “Department of Justice to being (sic) reducing violent crime.”

{mosads}As he has done so often, he turned his attention to Chicago, a city that has become for him a metaphor for the breakdown of law and order and for America’s carnage. “I mean,” Trump said, “can you believe what’s happening in Chicago as an example? Two days ago, seven people were shot and I believe killed. Seven people, seven people, Chicago, a great American city, seven people shot and killed.”


Trump’s Chicago would seem to be worse off today than it was during the notorious crime era of the Roaring Twenties. And, listening to the President you would think that Chicago is America’s most dangerous city.

That “honor” actually goes to Detroit, and a recent study based on crime rates and economic data did not even find Chicago to be one of the “25 Most Dangerous Cities in America.” 

It turns out that 7 of the 10 America’s most dangerous cities 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.

These are, of course, the kind of inconvenient facts that 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 percent lower than the 2011 level and 16.5 percent below the 2006 level.

The murder rate shows a more dramatic decline: in 2014 there were 4.5 murders for every 100,000 people in the US. That figure has fallen consistently since its high point of 10.2 in 1980. Today’s murder rate is lower than it has been since 1950 when it was 4.6 per 100,000 people

But these inconvenient facts make no dent on Trump’s current law and order rhetoric which he began ratcheting last July, after the tragic mass shooting of police officers in Dallas, Texas. Accepting the Republican nomination, he pointed out that “America was shocked to its core when our police officers in Dallas were brutally executed…. An attack on law enforcement is an attack on all Americans. I have a message,” he said, “to every last person threatening the peace on our streets and the safety of our police: when I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order our country…In this race for the White House, I am the Law and Order candidate.”

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.”

Sarah Palin made fun of Obama’s wording in the 2008 campaign, but it expressed a sentiment that was all too well understood by the Republican candidate in 2016. Donald Trump saw an enormous opportunity to capitalize on those frustrations if he could wrap himself in the flag, patriotism, the Second Amendment, and the rhetoric of law and order.

He has relied on this rhetoric to deliver a coded message about race and to stoke racial fear, while allowing him to deny allegations of racism or that he is responsible for escalating racial and ethnic tensions in the US.

Lest there be any doubt about Trump’s intentions, his current message echoes views vividly expressed in an ad he ran in New York newspapers after the arrests of one Latino and four black men (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!” It 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 is far easier for the President to praise American law enforcement and to rail against “bad dudes” and “bad hombres” than it is to address the real causes of crime and violence in American cities or to restore America’s manufacturing base and improve the economic lives of our workers.

Americans need to come to terms with this shrewd but cynical move. We need to understand the political work that Trump’s 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 is found not on the streets of Chicago, but in the Oval Office.

Austin Sarat is Associate Dean of the Faculty and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College. He is author or editor of more than 90 books on American law and politics.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.


Tags Barack Obama Donald Trump electorate Mike Pence Obama Trump

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