WASHINGTON – So far, Donald Trump’s outreach to African-Americans has consisted of stereotyping them as impoverished, as attending failed schools and as unemployed, and then asking what the hell they have to lose by supporting him.
If this sounds like a typically biased media summary of Trump’s views, here he is: “You live in your poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs ... . What the hell do you have to lose?”
Most people, it turns out, don’t like being referred to as part of an undifferentiated mass of failure and despair, particularly when the assertion is wildly inaccurate (most African-Americans don’t live in poverty). And this message is particularly difficult to swallow from a white guy who initially could not bring himself to repudiate David Duke, who has retweeted bogus and racist crime statistics, and whose campaign chairman ran a web site that legitimizes white nationalism.
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In his (very partial) defense, Trump often seems unaware that he is spouting offensive drivel. In speaking to “the blacks,” Trump is Archie Bunker on an outreach tour (the youngsters should look it up). But this is part of the problem for the GOP. Archie Bunker didn’t realize he was acting like Archie Bunker.
In many ways, Trump’s campaign seems like a rerun of politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s. On foreign policy, the Republican nominee sometimes sounds like George McGovern’s “Come Home America.” In appealing to racial division and blue-collar resentment, Trump echoes George Wallace’s “Stand Up for America.” In placing “law and order” at the center of his campaign, Trump is channeling Richard Nixon, who played to a silent majority’s fear of social disorder.
But political nostalgia can have major policy implications. For example, when Nixon employed “lock ‘em up” rhetoric, only about 100 people were incarcerated per 100,000 of the population (a level that had not substantially changed since the 1920s). Now that figure is more than 700 – lower than at the peak, but still the highest rate in the world. Trump is addressing the crime issue near the end of a massive, unprecedented experiment in routine incarceration. And he seems to have no idea what he is doing, or undoing.
Trump is correct that people in poor and minority communities suffer first and most when crime is rampant and violent recidivists go free. Poor people depend on public order; wealthier people can purchase order with gates, guards and moving trucks. But an understandable response to high crime rates has had a series of unintended consequences. Some neighborhoods feel like they are under military occupation. Mass incarceration removes large numbers of men and women from communities, then returns large numbers to communities with even worse problems and prospects -- a constant churn of downward mobility. Children are hurt in countless ways when their parents are imprisoned. Young people are too easily sucked into a criminal justice system that too often recruits them into criminal careers.
The elements of our criminal justice system that are most destructive and criminogenic have become the focus of a remarkable reform movement in recent years. Steven Teles and David Dagan tell the story in their recent book, “Prison Break: Why Conservatives Turned Against Mass Incarceration.” Unexpectedly, they argue that the almost complete consolidation of Republican power in certain states has reduced the political motivation for attacking Democrats as soft on crime. Deep red states such as Texas and Georgia have taken the lead in juvenile justice reform that offers alternatives to incarceration without making the streets less safe.
Libertarians such as the Koch brothers are predictably skeptical of denying liberty, as a matter of course, to more than 2 million people at any given time. But they have been joined by religious conservatives who are prone to believe in the possibility of human redemption and influenced by the prison reform work of the late Chuck Colson. House Speaker Paul Ryan would probably fall into both categories. “I think we need to let more people earn a second chance in life,” he has argued. “Instead of locking people up, why don’t we unlock their potential?”
With his misguided, simplistic and offensive rhetoric, Trump has been blowing up bridges across ideological divides for more than a year now, which may take many Republican presidential campaigns to rebuild. But this is one area – if he and his advisers are smart and willing to reverse course – that he might abandon a slogan from 1968 for a policy more suited to our time.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.