Welcome to a world without rules. (I want you to read this paragraph in your super-scary movie trailer voice.) Welcome to a world in which families are mowed down by illegal immigrants, in which cops die in the streets, in which Muslims rampage the innocents and threaten our very way of life, in which the fear of violent death lurks in every human heart.
Sometimes in that blood-drenched world a dark knight arises. You don’t have to admire or like this knight. But you need this knight. He is your muscle and your voice in a dark, corrupt and malevolent world.
Such has been the argument of nearly every demagogue since the dawn of time. Aaron Burr claimed Spain threatened the U.S. in 1806. A. Mitchell Palmer exaggerated the Red Scare in 1919, and Joe McCarthy did it in 1950.
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And such was Donald Trump’s law-and-order argument in Cleveland on Thursday night. This was a compelling text that turned into more than an hour of humorless shouting. It was a dystopian message that found an audience and then pummeled it to exhaustion.
Will it work?
Well, this fear builds on the sense of loss that was the prevailing theme of this convention. We heard from a number of mothers who lost sons and siblings who lost brothers.
The argument takes the pervasive collection of anxieties that plague America and it concentrates them on the most visceral one: fear of violence and crime. Historically, this sort of elemental fear has proved to be contagious and it does move populations.
Finally, a law-and-order campaign calls upon the authoritarian personality traits that Trump undoubtedly possesses. The GOP used to be a party that aspired to a biblical ethic of private charity, graciousness, humility and faithfulness. Mitt Romney’s convention was lifted by stories of his kindness and personal mentorship.
Trump has replaced biblical commitments with a gladiator ethos. Everything is oriented around conquest, success, supremacy and domination. This was the Lock Her Up convention. A law-and-order campaign doesn’t ask voters to like Trump and the Republicans any more than they liked Richard Nixon in 1968.
On the other hand, there are good reasons to think that this law-and-order focus is a significant mistake, that it over-reads the current moment of Baton Rouge, Dallas and Nice and will not be the right focus for the fall.
In the first place, it’s based on a falsehood. Crime rates have been falling almost without fail for 25 years. Murder rates have been rising just recently among gangs in certain cities, but America is much safer than it was a decade ago. In the first half of 2015, for example, the number of shootings in New York and Washington hit historic lows.
Trump dwells on illegal aliens killing our children. Between 2010 and 2014, only 121 people released from immigration custody later committed murder; that’s about 25 a year. Every death is a horror, but the number of police officers killed each year as a result of a crime is about 55, in a nation of over 320 million people. The number of police deaths decreased by 24 percent between 2005 and 2015.
The main anxieties in this country are economic and social, not about crime. Trump surged to the nomination on the back of his supposed business acumen, not because he’s a sheriff. By focusing so much on law and order, he leaves a hole a mile wide for Hillary Clinton. She'll undoubtedly fixate at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia on economic pain. Trump could end up seeming strangely detached.
But if Trump is detached from the country, and uninterested in anything but himself, he’s also detached from his party. Trump is not really changing his party as much as dissolving it.
A normal party has an apparatus of professionals, who have been around for a while and who can get things done. But those people might as well not exist. This was the most shambolically mis-run convention in memory.
A normal party is united by a consistent belief system. For decades, the Republican Party has stood for a forward-looking American-led international order abroad and small-government democratic capitalism at home.
Trump is decimating that, too, along with the things Republicans stood for: NATO, entitlement reform, compassionate conservatism and the relatively open movement of ideas, people and trade.
There’s no actual agenda being put in its place, just nostalgic spasms that, as David Frum has put it, are part George Wallace and part Henry Wallace. Trump’s policy agenda, such as it is, is mostly a series of vague and defensive recoils: build a wall, ban Muslims, withdraw from the world.
This is less a party than a personality cult. Law and order is a strange theme for a candidate who radiates conflict and disorder. Some rich children are careless that way; they break things and other people have to clean up the mess.