Daniel Denvir is a Rhode Island-based contributing writer to CityLab and a former staff reporter at Philadelphia City Paper.
Donald Trump’s presidential campaign rhetoric carries with it a deeply unsubtle context.
As we attempt to take stock of the second Republican presidential primary debate, it’s worth unpacking the fact that Donald Trump has managed to maintain his sizable lead in the polls in no small part by repeatedly referring to his followers as the “silent majority.” Recently, he even complained that Baltimore has been set “back 35 years in one night because the police weren’t allowed to protect people. We need law and order!”
“I know cities where police are afraid to even talk to people because they want to be able to retire and have their pension,” Trump said. “They don’t want to be pulled off the police forces. And then you wonder what’s wrong with our cities. We need a whole new mind-set.”
The “new” mindset Trump describes here is, of course, very old, part of a long tradition of American politicians eager to mobilize white voters using (often thinly) veiled racism by tying civil rights activism to crime panics.
“That’s not a dog whistle; that’s a dog siren,” as Republican strategist Rick Wilson put it to The New York Times. “When he first started saying ‘silent majority,’ I didn’t think he understood the historical antecedents, but now I believe they very much do.”
Trump may currently be the standard-bearer for the tactic, but he is by no means alone. Scott Walker and Ted Cruz have both blamed Obama for hostility toward law enforcement, and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, nationally celebrated for taking down the Confederate flag, has claimed that Black Lives Matter has “laid waste to Ferguson and Baltimore.”
"There are deep roots, and historically these roots are related to the intersection between race and crime, at least as to how whites perceive it and imagine it," says Michael Flamm, an historian at Ohio Wesleyan University. "Part of what makes ‘law and order’ such a powerful slogan is its amorphous quality, its ability to appeal to different people at different times with different issues."
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, conservative political figures from both major parties, including big city mayors like Philadelphia's Frank Rizzo and Los Angeles' Sam Yorty, pointed to crime, riots and black activism in the urban north as a pretext for a law-and-order crackdown. Among the most consequential events of this era was Baltimore's 1968 Holy Week uprising, when then-Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew claimed that Baltimore's fires were “kindled at the suggestion and with the instruction of the advocates of violence,” like Stokely Carmichael, rather than being “lit from an overwhelming sense of frustration and despair.”
Agnew further complained “that lawbreaking has become a socially acceptable and occasionally stylish form of dissent,” taking a swipe at black activists and the anti-war New Left.
Agnew and the New Right, of which he became a leader, drew from a law-and-order discourse in part rooted in the Jim Crow South, where segregationist politicians had long claimed that integration and protest fueled black crime and disrespect for the law, as the Princeton political scientist Naomi Murakawa has chronicled. In the late 1940s, Mississippi Representative John Rankin complained that anti-lynching legislation “ought to be called a bill to encourage rape,” while White Citizens’ Councils formed after the 1954 Brown v. Board decision warned that “savages stalk corridors in northern ‘blackboard jungles.’”
“We do have this conventional story that the majority of white Americans were very happy to go along with the civil rights movement ... until they were really upset with things like rising crime and urban uprisings,” says Murakawa. “This was an argument in play before crime rates started rising in the late 1960s, and before the rise of black power and before the most prominent uprisings of ‘67 and ‘68. So what does that tell us? It's probably not a story of good faith and integration.”
Southern Democrats compared their region unfavorably to the violent streets of the urban north, making the case that segregation maintained peace—a notion dating back to picturesquely paternalistic depictions of slavery. After slavery's destruction, the most extreme Southern whites initiated a frequently violent campaign to overturn Reconstruction and reimpose white supremacy. All in the name, of course, of law and order.
“Slavery created its own system of ‘law and order,’” emails Columbia University historian Eric Foner, “obviously a very unequal one. The destruction of slavery and then the granting of basic civil and political rights to blacks destroyed that order; whites felt a sense of chaos, blacks of opportunity. The Klan sought to impose the old ‘order’ of white supremacy, and used violence to accomplish this.”
As Jim Crow displaced Reconstruction, the Klan’s version of law and order ultimately prevailed over Southern blacks’ plea for federal intervention. Modern conservatives have gone back to the same vocabulary again and again to make their case not only for “law and order,” but also for a government so small that it cannot help black people, tying not only civil disobedience but also welfare dependency to violence in the streets. Indeed, in the New Right's libertarian framework, “law and order” would be one of the few domestic governmental functions that remained.
The conflation of black protest and integration with crime, however, was not limited to Southern white supremacists. In Detroit, to take one example explored in great depth in Tom Surgue's classic book Origins of the Urban Crisis, white homeowner groups organizing against integration warned of black crime and then committed widespread violent crime themselves to keep black people from moving into their neighborhoods.
In 1964, Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign took the “law and order” agenda to the national stage.
"The growing menace in our country tonight, to personal safety, to life, to limb and property, in homes, in churches, on the playgrounds, and places of business, particularly in our great cities, is the mounting concern, or should be, of every thoughtful citizen in the United States," he warned in his nomination acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. "Security from domestic violence, no less than from foreign aggression, is the most elementary and fundamental purpose of any government, and a government that cannot fulfill that purpose is one that cannot long command the loyalty of its citizens. History shows us, demonstrates that nothing, nothing prepares the way for tyranny more than the failure of public officials to keep the streets from bullies and marauders.”
Four years later, the segregationist George Wallace mounted a third-party presidential bid that attracted support not just from Southern whites but from Northern blue-collar workers and union members as well. Crime rates had shot up, factories were moving, the Great Migration was transforming demographics—and people wanted a clear explanation. Wallace offered one.
“The first thing I would do as President is to make an announcement that I'd give my Moral Support as President to the policemen of this country and to the firemen of the country,” Wallace declared in a brochure. “I’d say, ‘We stand behind you because you are the thin line between complete anarchy in the streets and the physical safety of our person.’”
In that election, Richard Nixon eventually refashioned Goldwater's platform to attract both Wallace supporters as well as those who found Wallace’s brazenness distasteful. Agnew, whose law-and-order style had been forged in Baltimore’s ashes, soon followed suit.
“Agnew was somewhat of a moderate until ‘68,” Peter B. Levy, a York College historian, told me back in April. “This is what caught Nixon and people like Patrick Buchanan’s attention. He got an incredibly favorable response from a lot of conservatives.”
Before President Nixon ever went on television to rally his “silent majority” around the Vietnam War, his presidential campaign was busy claiming that freedom from street violence at home was actually the “first civil right.” Though most protesters featured in the ad were white, it was a not very subtle suggestion that 1960s civil rights laws had encouraged crime and disorder, and that it was whites, and not blacks, who truly needed protection and aid.
Plenty of liberals joined the call for “law and order,” including many in the black communities most damaged by violence and drug addiction. This is the case made in the new book Black Silent Majority by Michael Javen Fortner, a professor of urban studies at CUNY.
As crime grew worse, many blacks in the 1960s and ‘70s called “for harsher sentencing, more policing,” says Fortner. People began to blame the results of segregation and marginalization “on drug addicts and pushers, and began to look to prisons and police for solutions to those problems.”
While crime was real, the idea that prisons were the solution, says Marie Gottschalk, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, need not have directly followed. Whereas white criminality had long been perceived as a failing that is either individual or structural, black criminality was deemed pathological.
As historian David Levering Lewis put it, “whites commit crimes, but black males are criminals.”
Over the decades since, “law and order” has become a critical feature of bipartisan politics, from Bill Clinton's support of harsh anti-crime legislation to his elimination of welfare as we knew it. The platform even attracted the early attention of an idiosyncratic New York real estate tycoon, who in 1989 took out a full-page ad in New York newspapers condemning the city’s handling of the brutal "Central Park jogger" rape case.
It turned out the five young black and Hispanic teens originally accused of that crime, of course, were wrongfully convicted. Last year, New York City finally agreed to settle with them for nearly $41 million—about a million dollars for each year the men spent behind bars. Predictably, Trump took to the Daily News to rail against the city.
In 2015, violent crime in the United States remains at historic lows. But the reality of street crime has always had a tenuous relation to law-and-order politics that seeks to confront it. Take, for example, the fact that crime rates are lower among immigrants than the native born.
“Trump’s phantasmagorical visions of marauding immigrants are part of a genre in which immigration and race are intermingled,” writes The New Yorker's Evan Osnos. And street crime is the nexus of it all. As one white supremacist told Osnos, Trump is tapping into a “an unconscious vision that white people have—that their grandchildren might be a hated minority in their own country.”
Or as Trump put it in July, “This has become a movement because people don’t know what’s happening.”