Donald Trump has taken a strange turn lately. OK, he has taken a lot of strange turns – that’s what happens when you nominate a short-attention-span candidate who knows nothing about policy and refuses to sit still for more than three minutes. But never mind what passes for Trumpian policy ideas. What’s odd is the shift in what the problem is supposed to be.
When the Trump campaign started, it was, at least nominally, about economics. Foreigners are stealing your jobs, the candidate declared, both through unfair trade and by coming here as immigrants. And he would make America great again with punitive tariffs and mass deportations.
But the story changed at the Republican convention. There was remarkably little economic discussion on display; there wasn’t even much economic demagogy. Instead, the focus was all on law and order, on saving the nation from what the candidate described as a terrifying crime wave.
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That theme has continued in recent weeks, with Trump’s “outreach” to minority voters. His notion of a pitch to these voters is to tell them how horrible their lives are, that they are facing “crime at levels that nobody has seen.” Even “war zones,” he says, are “safer than living in some of our inner cities.”
All of this is really strange – because nothing like this is actually happening.
Back when the Trump campaign was ostensibly about the loss of middle-class jobs, it was at least pretending to be about a real issue: Employment in manufacturing really is way down; real wages of blue-collar workers have fallen. You could say that Trumpism isn’t the answer (it isn’t), but not that the issue was a figment of the candidate’s imagination.
But when Trump portrays America’s cities as hellholes of runaway crime and social collapse, what on earth is he talking about? Urban life is one of the things that has gone right with America. In fact, it has gone so right that those of us who remember the bad old days still find it hard to believe.
Let’s talk specifically about violent crime. Consider, in particular, the murder rate, arguably the most solid indicator for long-run comparisons because there’s no ambiguity about definitions. Homicides did shoot up between the early 1960s and the 1980s, and images of a future dystopia – think “Escape From New York” (1981) or “Blade Runner” (1982) – became a staple of popular culture. Conservative writers assured us that soaring crime was the inevitable result of a collapse in traditional values and that things would get even worse unless those values were restored.
But then a funny thing happened: The murder rate began falling, and falling, and falling. By 2014 it was all the way back down to where it was half a century earlier. There was some rise in 2015, but so far, at least, it’s barely a blip in the long-run picture.
Basically, American cities are as safe as they’ve ever been. Nobody is completely sure why crime has plunged, but the point is that the nightmare landscape of the Republican candidate’s rhetoric – call it Trump’s hellhole? – bears no resemblance to reality.
And we’re not just talking about statistics here; we’re also talking about lived experience. Fear of crime hasn’t disappeared from American life – today’s New York is incredibly safe by historical standards, yet I still wouldn’t walk around some areas at 3 a.m. But fear clearly plays a much diminished role now in daily life.
So what is all of this about? The same thing everything in the Trump campaign is about: race.
I used scare quotes when talking about Trump’s racial “outreach” because it’s clear that the real purpose of his vaguely conciliatory rhetoric is not so much to attract nonwhite voters as it is to reassure squeamish whites that he isn’t as racist as he seems. But here’s the thing: Even when he is trying to sound racially inclusive, his imagery is permeated by an “alt-right” sensibility that fundamentally sees nonwhites as subhuman.
Thus when he asks African-Americans, “What do you have to lose by trying something new, like Trump?” he betrays ignorance of the reality that most African-Americans work hard for a living and that there is a large black middle class. Oh, and 86 percent of nonelderly black adults have health insurance, up from 73 percent in 2010 thanks to Obamacare. Maybe they do have something to lose?
But how was he supposed to know? In the mental world he and those he listens to inhabit, blacks and other nonwhites are by definition shiftless burdens on society.
Which brings us back to the notion of America as a nightmarish dystopia. Taken literally, that’s nonsense. But today’s increasingly multiracial, multicultural society is a nightmare for people who want a white, Christian nation in which lesser breeds know their place. And those are the people Trump has brought out into the open.