When President Trump delivered his inaugural address in 2017, it was in an unfamiliar style. Gone was the jokey off-handedness of Trump-on-the-trail. In a stilted, elegiac tone the freshly-minted president spoke of “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones” and “young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge.” The content of the speech was familiar, though: Trump would bring America back from the brink. “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” President George W. Bush called it “some weird shit.”
Trump ran on law and order — “I am the law and order candidate” he helpfully explained — even if empirical evidence suggested nothing was wrong with the law and order Americans were already living under. The country’s rates of violent crime were trending downward when he ran — falling 51 percent between 1993 and 2018 — and the economy was churning along, but Trump tapped into some Americans’ dissatisfaction with the status quo. Law and order was about the restoration of a certain social configuration favorable to white Americans as much as it was a concern with crime.
As the strange election year that is 2020 marches on, Trump has returned to his 2016 rhetoric, but it may register differently. Late Thursday night, Minneapolis residents burned down a police station after the death of George Floyd, a black man in police custody. The president tweeted in response that, “These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!”
It was a familiar law and order message from Trump. But he tweeted it into an unfamiliar America: Over 100,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 in the past few months. One out of every four workers has filed for unemployment. As the country lives through actual American carnage, will Trump’s law and order message resonate as it once did? Or will the bleak realities of 2020 prove inhospitable to the man who once proclaimed, “I alone can fix it”?
In 2016, voters seemed excited by Trump’s verbal promiscuity, the lurid way that he painted the state of the nation. In his telling, America had descended into disarray thanks to porous borders that allowed in terrorists and job-stealing immigrants. He was engaging, if not accurate (the economy was doing well in many parts of the country and President Obama had actually deported more immigrants who were living in the country illegally than previous administrations). Pew Research surveys show that 2016 Trump supporters ranked the economy, terrorism, and immigration, along with foreign policy, as the most pressing issues of the election. And according to another Pew survey, 78 percent of voters who supported Trump in 2016 felt crime had gotten worse since 2008.
Trump’s law and order framework was a sturdy way for him to talk about a more elusive idea — nostalgia for a mid century America with robust domestic manufacturing and a clearly-defined, if racist, social order. While Trump is no wonk and couldn’t talk particularly compellingly about globalization, the consolidation of industry and the widening gap between CEO and worker pay, he could talk about “the good old days” when you could smack someone around. It evoked something deep, that call for everything and everyone in their proper place.
The law and order message might not sit so well in 2020. The country has now lived through years of controversies over video-taped killings by police, and the pandemic makes the world feel more chaotic day by day. We’ll have to wait to see the social and political reaction to the demonstrations in Minnesota, but there might be more sympathy for the turbulent feelings that make people riot or protest. While many will still roundly condemn looting, it’s perhaps easier for a greater number of us to imagine the kind of jagged anger — grief, if we’re being concise about it — that causes it than it was four years ago.
Understanding the catharsis of looting — if not approving of the act — is something that has long eluded the understanding of white America, including liberal white America. “Shoot to kill arsonists and shoot to maim looters” was the order from Chicago’s white, Democratic Mayor Richard Daley during the 1968 riots following Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. King, for his part, called riots, “the language of the unheard.” Even Obama struggled with his reaction to the Ferguson, Missouri riots of 2014, receiving criticism from voices on the black left when he said he had “no sympathy at all for destroying your own communities.” He later said he would have done some things differently in his response to the Ferguson crisis, writ large.
Minnesota has also proven a difficult testing ground for Trump’s return to law and order rhetoric. Reaction to the violence in the state — and the killing of Floyd — has unfolded somewhat differently than past violent deaths in police custody. Police chiefs from around the country swiftly condemned the officer who killed Floyd. Even as police on the ground in Minneapolis arrested a black journalist on live TV, the mayor and governor — both Democrats — called for calm while saying they understood and were sympathetic to the anger behind the rioting. Fox News guests and analysts condemned the officer’s actions, though it remains to be seen how conservative media and the right will react to the ongoing protests and violence. In a YouGov poll, 78 percent of surveyed adults thought the officer in the Floyd case should be arrested (he was on Friday afternoon).
It seems unlikely, though, that Trump will easily give up the race-baiting language of “thugs” and the like. For Trump, who is famously ideologically flexible, the idea of law and order is perhaps his deepest-held, most sincere political belief. In 1989, in the midst of the Central Park Five controversy, when five black and Latino men were accused of the brutal rape of a white jogger, he took out full-page advertisements in New York City newspapers to decry waffling over the punishment of the men. (Later, they were famously found to have been wrongly convicted). “What has happened to law and order, to the neighborhood cop we all trusted to safeguard our homes and families?” Trump wrote. “I am not looking to psychoanalyze them or understand them, I am looking to punish them,” he said of the alleged criminals. “I no longer want to understand their anger. I want them to understand our anger. I want them to be afraid.”
In 2016, Trump was able to echo these sentiments from 1989 easily — he was on the outside looking in. But in 2020 it will take more dexterity to run a campaign angry at authority when he is the authority. Once you have promised to end an imagined carnage, only to encounter actual death and societal destruction, the misdirection of your talking points risks exposure. But on this point, Trump has always been true to himself: He is the law and order candidate once again.