“I am the law and order candidate,” Donald Trump declared halfway through his Republican National Convention acceptance speech on Thursday night. He had used that familiar phrase three times already.
This might seem like an odd rhetorical decision. Despite a small uptick this year, crime in America has been in steep decline since 1992 and is currently near a four-decade low. “Law and order” made sense as a slogan in 1968, when Richard Nixon and George Wallace ran separate campaigns with that message, but polling shows that crime is much less of a concern now. As Republican consultant Stuart Stevens noted, crime isn’t an issue in Senate races, which are usually the battleground where new issues come to the fore. According to Gallup, only 3 percent of Americans rate crime as “the most important problem facing the country today.” By comparison, “the economy in general” rates 18 percent and unemployment 8 percent.
So why were these issues downplayed by Trump while crime was the central theme?
For Trump, crime serves multiple political purposes that make it the most important cord to hit, even if it’s not a top concern of the public. Crime links together the various strands of Trump’s politics that might otherwise be diffuse: immigration (enforcing the law at the border), racial resentment (supporting police in the age of Black Lives Matter), foreign affairs (a tough military stance being a form of international crime control), and partisan politics (“Crooked Hillary” being an imagined criminal).
Trump is running to be a strong man, and as such it’s in his interest to stir up fear and anxiety about a world spinning out of control, which only he can bring order to. His primordial message is one of imminent risk: You could be killed, and I’m the one who can save you. He hit this note right from the start:
I have a message for all of you: the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon -- and I mean soon -- come to an end. Beginning on January 20th 2017, safety will be restored.
The most basic duty of government is to defend the lives of its own citizens. Any government that fails to do so is a government unworthy to lead.
Trump’s message of fear stood in sharp contrast to speeches earlier in the night, which offered a much more cheerful view of politics. Tech businessman Peter Thiel said Trump would make America great again by returning the government to the research spending that gave us the space program and the internet. Thiel also called for an end to the culture wars and became the first openly gay person to address a Republican convention. Ivanka Trump, the nominee’s daughter, celebrated her father as a progressive on gender and racial issues, and called for a childcare program and equal pay for equal work (neither policies that the Republican Party or her father have articulated).
In contrast to the optimism and forward-looking visions of Thiel and Ivanka, Trump was grotesquely focused on death, his speech a reflection on how the country is going to hell and innocent people aren’t being protected from the monsters (illegal aliens, radical Islamic terrorists) who want to destroy them.
The darkness and stark despair of Trump’s message is a reflection of his political dilemma. He is widely disliked by the American people, with an unfavorability rating consistently in the 60 percent range. The only way to overcome numbers like that is to convince a majority of the population that the world situation is so dire they need his aggressive leadership, whether they like him or not. He paints a dire picture to play up a lawlessness that discredits the status quo (as represented by Clinton).
It’s a measure of the success of Trump’s slogan that “Lock Her Up” has become the favorite chant of Clinton-haters at the convention in Cleveland. The message of restoring “law and order” might not comport very well with the facts about crime in America today, but it allows Trump to make a broad critique of the existing political system and to present himself as the savior. While some Trump supporters might dream of a more positive message, this is the hot button that is most effective in overcoming pervasive doubts about Trump that even many Republicans have.
The doubts about Trump have many sources: his temperament, his lack of basic knowledge about policy, his history of political inconsistency. But when Trump raises the issue of crime and how dangerous the world is, questions about his character become secondary to the issue of: Who can protect us? And Trump feels, rightly, that many in the GOP do respect him for his toughness and trust him to fight fiercely against threats. That’s why his polls numbers consolidated in the Republican Party after terrorists attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. It’s unclear whether the same dynamic will work in a national election: Trump enjoyed no national surge after the Orlando attack. But even if the crime and violence issue isn’t a sure bet, it’s something that has paid off for Trump before and just might again.