It was surreal to hear America described as a bleak, crime-ridden nation by the newly inaugurated 45th president of the United States.
That America didn’t sound familiar to me, yet that was the picture painted by President Donald Trump, who spoke about “the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
Words matter, particularly when they are spoken by America’s chief executive. That’s why it’s so unfortunate that “American carnage” may well become the most enduring line from Trump’s 16-minute speech.
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It’s hopeless imagery laced with fear. It’s an assertion that’s not supported by statistics and seems more like a dog whistle blown for the Trump supporters who gathered to hear him speak Friday on the Capitol Mall, and who watched him on TV.
With the exception of cities such as Chicago, violent crime is not the plague Trump makes it out to be.
“Violent crime increased about 4 percent in 2015, but that is a small blip in a decades-long decline in crime,” wrote The New York Times’ Matt Apuzzo on Friday. “The United States remains far safer than it has been in generations.”
In Sacramento, communities such as Meadowview, Oak Park, Del Paso Heights, Strawberry Manor and Mack Road experience violent crimes at higher rates than more affluent communities. Crime also rose in Sacramento in 2015, but the city still has lower crime rates than it had 20 years ago.
A main driver of violent crime is poverty and a lack of upward mobility. In each of those neighborhoods I mentioned, there are scores of people trying to make life better for others.
Community activists such as Darrell Roberts, of Roberts Family Development Center in Del Paso Heights, spend untold hours trying to create opportunities to help neighborhood kids. In south Sacramento, pastor Les Simmons walks the streets at night with other clergy members in an effort to connect with people who feel disconnected.
There are many other good people working to improve lives in Sacramento. In each of these neighborhoods there are faith groups, citizen groups and after-school programs manned by people who care. There are parents who are trying to do the right thing, as well as teachers and school administrators.
In his speech, Trump paid lip service to unifying the country and helping all Americans, to listening to “the forgotten men and women.” But underneath the blunt rhetoric and the dystopian hyperbole was the specter of the other. He alluded to African American and Latino neighborhoods with the same coded, retrograde language he used throughout his campaign, mentioning “mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities” as well as “drugs” and “gangs.”
This is not a way to create inclusivity. What Trump’s words did was connect with an audience of people who already voted for him. But the rest of us?
Speaking for myself, I needed to hear more. I wanted to hear more. I watched Trump’s speech live and then replayed it. I went online and read the transcript several times. It wasn’t just my imagination. His was a partisan and populist speech meant to satisfy his base, with only passing references to creating unity.
“We are one nation, and their pain is our pain,” he said, speaking of the forgotten Americans. “Their dreams are our dreams, and their success will be our success. We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny.”
His supporters cheered, and Trump proceeded with an overly simplified plan for prosperity.
He said: “One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores, with not even a thought about the millions and millions of American workers that were left behind. ... The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world.”
America has lost many jobs to free trade, but many also have been lost to automation and efficiency initiatives that have become commonplace in 21st-century workplaces – including my own.
What can a president do to stop a company from downsizing because automation is cheaper than hiring people? Nowhere did we hear about what the country can do to retrain people so they can better compete in a complex economy. Instead, we get the impression that factories are coming back to “rusted out” towns. Instead, we get the impression that the U.S.-Mexico border will finally be fortified when it already has been.
At one point, Trump said: “We’ve defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own.” The Obama administration spent roughly $18 billion a year on border enforcement, more than what was spent on all other federal law enforcement agencies combined, according to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.
When his speech was over, we were left to ponder the imagery of “carnage” in cities where crime rates have actually gone down. We were left to ponder “school districts flush with cash,” when I know many public school teachers and parents who pitch in to pay for materials and field trips. We were left to ponder porous borders that are hardly porous.
People who voted for Trump may have liked what they heard, but as Saturday’s protests around the nation suggest, many others didn’t. More than half the country didn’t vote for Trump. As one of those people, I was prevented from following or appreciating his message because I didn’t recognize the picture he was painting of our nation.
If that doesn’t change, it’s going to be a long four years.