Law and Order and Trump
Donald Trump has taken a stand for "law and order." He may be the first Republican presidential nominee since Richard Nixon to dare pronounce those words, so thoroughly has the GOP internalized the Democrats' canard that "'Law and order' are code words for racism." In the opinion of one Nixon scholar, however, Trump doesn’t measure up to the Old Man’s standard.
Rick Perlstein, author of a splendid series of works on Goldwater, Nixon, and Reagan, faults Trump's acceptance speech for failing to rise to the heights of the one Nixon gave in 1968. Perlstein calls that speech Nixon's "masterpiece: poetic, shot through with rhythm and imagery and propulsion, layered into a carefully constructed latticework," etc., etc. Not like Trump’s speech at all.
We all know that Trump is no Lincoln. Most of us understand he's no Reagan. Now we find he's not even Nixon, for crying out loud. Even so, in calling for law and order while the Democrats kiss up to its enemies, he's this year's indispensable man. For the sake of crime victims everywhere, Trump should be elected.
But what, besides rhetoric, can he offer them? Here is where, in Perlstein's view, Trump falls most woefully short. "Nixon never said it would be easy," Perlstein writes. "Trump says nothing else. It was the theme of his convention. ... The spirit of magic pervaded everything: Trump, with his wand, making awesome things happen instantaneously."
Leading Perlstein's list of particulars is this from Trump's speech: "I have a message for all of you: The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon -- and I mean very soon – come to an end. Beginning on January 20th 2017, safety will be restored."
How in the world can that happen? "Don’t ask how," says Perlstein. "If you ask how a trick is done, then it loses its magic."
The Donald does indeed make a fat target. One of Perlstein's points, however, is not so well considered. He writes that "in 1968, Nixon could reasonably speak of 'unprecedented lawlessness' and 'unprecedented racial violence' because these things were unprecedented. ... The number of violent crimes in the U.S. in 1960, according to the FBI, was 288,460. In 1968, it had exploded to more than twice that, 595,010. Now? The murder rate is down from eight homicides per 100,000 people in 1995, to under six in 2006, to four-and-a-half now."
Two things are wrong with that. First, long-term murder comparisons should never be made without taking into account modern improvements in emergency trauma care. Between 1960 and 1991, the per-capita murder rate doubled, but the rate of aggravated assault quintupled. Why the difference? Because each victim saved in ER reduces a murder to an aggravated assault. In 2002, researchers at Harvard and UMass Amherst calculated that without medical advances, 45,000 to 70,000 homicides would have happened annually -- more than three times what we've suffered with those advances. Today, per-capita aggravated assault remains almost three times what it was in 1960. Americans continue to suffer murderous attacks far more frequently than we did two generations ago.
The second wrong thing is this: How much more mayhem are we supposed to take? It's fine to downplay the great crime wave we've been suffering when it is slowly receding, but ever since the "Black Lives Matter" movement stymied proactive policing, violent crime is resurgent -- at a cost of hundreds, prospectively thousands, of innocent black lives. Trump notices this, decries it, and vows to stop it. Who can argue with that?
The fact is that crime could have been crushed long ago. Public safety can be restored quickly -- not by magic, but by blood. American history proves it.
My authority for saying so is Professor Richard Maxwell Brown, scholar of the American frontier.
When crime first started getting out of hand in the 1960s, Dr. Brown contributed a report to the urgently assembled National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. His report's title? "The American Vigilante Tradition."
Before proceeding, let me make clear that neither Brown, nor I, nor Trump, is an advocate of lynch law. Swift and certain enforcement of the death penalty against murderers can indeed make criminals fear the law. The trick, pace Perlstein, is to achieve that goal without sacrificing due process. But for now, let's just see what can happen when outlaws are confronted with a credible threat of sudden death.
Brown wrote that from 1767 until the closing of the frontier around 1900, "vigilante activity was an almost constant factor in American life." Brown counted 326 vigilante movements; among them they killed more than 700 known victims and frightened away countless others. In most cases, he wrote, the vigilantes’ immediate impact was "socially constructive." By brandishing the hangman's noose, they overthrew and scattered even powerful outlaw gangs, pacifying large areas with amazing speed.
"Movements which lasted as long as a year were long lived," Brown wrote. "More commonly they finished their business in a period of months or weeks." Their effectiveness brought vigilante movements the approval, and in some cases the participation, of prominent Americans including Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Leland Stanford. Across the frontier, several governors, state legislators, and U.S. senators had vigilante backgrounds.
(President Jackson recommended vigilante action to a group of citizens who had petitioned him in the White House regarding a local crime problem. Roosevelt as a young rancher in South Dakota applied to join the deadliest such movement on record, Granville Stuart's vigilantes of Montana; perhaps judging TR a tenderfoot, they turned him down. Stanford, founder of Stanford University, was a member of the largest movement, the San Francisco Vigilance Committee of 1856.)
All this notwithstanding, Brown's overall assessment of vigilantism is negative, for two reasons. First, the vigilantes' violent methods often provoked equally violent countermovements, resulting in an anarchy that sometimes dwarfed the original disorders. Second, the vigilantes' example fostered a persistent disrespect for the law. Groups as varied as the KKK (which targeted minorities rather than outlaw gangs) and the black militants of the 1960s (who proclaimed that "violence is as American as cherry pie") have shown a taste for mob action that far outlived the chaotic conditions of the frontier.
President Roosevelt, who had wanted to be a vigilante, came to understand this very well. In a 1903 letter commending the governor of Indiana for taking a stand against what Brown calls "neovigilantism," TR wrote: "All thoughtful men must feel the gravest alarm over the growth of lynching in this country, and especially over the peculiarly hideous forms so often taken by mob violence when colored men are the victims." He urged that Americans unite to denounce such lynchings and to support those engaged in putting them down. "As a people we claim the right to speak ... for fair treatment of all men without regard to differences of race, fortune, creed, or color," he wrote. In tolerating lynch law, "we forfeit the right so to speak."
But Roosevelt coupled this with some words to which no Democrat today would assent:
It certainly ought to be possible by the proper administration of the laws to secure swift vengeance upon the criminal; and the best and immediate efforts of all legislators, judges, and citizens should be addressed to securing such reforms in our legal procedure as to leave no vestige of excuse for those misguided men who undertake to reap vengeance through violent methods. Men who have been guilty of a crime like rape or murder should be visited with swift and certain punishment, and the just effort made by the courts to protect them in their rights should under no circumstances be perverted into permitting any mere technicality to avert or delay their punishment.
There is a winning issue here for Trump, if he cares to take it up.