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President Donald Trump delivered a campaign speech this week at an airport hangar in Latrobe, Pennsylvania and boasted about his commitment to “law and order.”
The president said Democrat Joe Biden wants to “surrender your nation to the radical left-wing mob” that includes rioters and looters who have burned businesses and “attacked law enforcement” during recent protests, reported the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Trump’s law and order rhetoric is not new. He argued during his 2016 convention address that Barack Obama had “made America a more dangerous environment for everyone” and declaring himself “the law and order candidate.”
The GOP law and order strategy goes back more than 50 years.
In 1964, Barry Goldwater, the GOP nominee for president, introduced campaign operatives to the concept of crime as a divisive, hot-button issue and America has never been the same. Goldwater used the civil rights movement, protests and riots to promote a sense of lawless black communities. Although Goldwater was thrashed by Lyndon Johnson in 1964, later candidates saw value in crime and race as a political tool in American politics.
When Richard Nixon was making his second bid for president in 1968 the Civil Rights Act had passed, riots had erupted in cities across the country after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., and murder rates had increased 50% since 1950. Race relations were tenuous, at best, and Nixon knew it. Crime control became a surrogate for race control.
The conservative mantra of “law and order” also worked for Ronald Reagan. His “War on Drugs” single-handedly created an explosion in incarceration. The Reagan administration’s disparity in punishing the use of crack cocaine, predominately used in the black community, and powder cocaine, predominantly used in the white communities, subjected black men and women to much harsher sentences.
For half a century before 1964, prison population had remained stable at about 110 inmates per 100,000 people. Since then, that number rose to 480 inmates per 100,000. Today, African Americans make up 12.6% of the general population and 43% of the prison population.
In 1988, when crime rates were soaring, George H.W. Bush clobbered Michael Dukakis with Willie Horton – a racially charged commercial attacking Dukakis for his state’s prisoner furlough program.
Even Democrats got into the law and order business. During Bill Clinton’s first campaign violent crime was at its peak and easily exploited. According to Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow, during Clinton’s 1992 campaign he vowed “He would never permit any Republican to be perceived as tougher on crime than he.”
Alexander pointed out that Clinton’s attack on racial minorities was even more insidious, “(Clinton) slashed funding for public housing 61% and boosted corrections 171%, ‘effectively making the construction of prisons the nation’s main housing program for the urban poor.’”
Joe Biden does not have clean hands when it comes to “law and order.” According to the Washington Post, some criminal justice experts say Biden’s collaboration with segregationist senators like Jesse Helms “helped lay the groundwork for the mass incarceration that has devastated America’s black communities.”
Trump has been more aggressive in his rhetoric on race and crime. The word “thug” has a negative racial connotation. Trump has referred to “Black Lives Matter” protesters as thugs.
In 2015, following the death of African American Baltimore resident Freddie Grey and city-wide protests, Trump tweeted, “Our great African American president hasn’t exactly had a positive impact on the thugs who are so happily and openly destroying Baltimore.” As president he labeled Baltimore as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested, dangerous and filthy mess” and claimed that “no human being would want to live there.”
Unfortunately, this is not a national debate about crime rates or police funding. This is about the politics of racial division and fear.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.
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