Donald Trump has decided to stake his reelection on a message of “law and order.” He said the phrase seven times in the presidential debate last week alone. Periodically, he just tweets them in all caps. Other Republicans have followed suit. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, for example, characterized the election as “law and order versus chaos” in his debate with Jaime Harrison.
The idea is that Americans—white Americans outside major coastal urban centers, to be precise—are unnerved by a summer of protests against racial injustice and police violence. A promise to bring tranquility to the streets (and, probably more importantly, the TV screens) of the country will sway them to vote Republican.
It’s a plausible strategy, even if the evidence suggests it’s not working very well right now. But whatever its merits as a strategy, the law and order message is, like so many things involving Trump, founded on a lie. It has nothing to do with actual respect for the law or commitment to a flourishing social order.
It’s telling that the “law” in question is almost always the anti-vagrancy ordinance meant to criminalize poverty or the arbitrary curfew meant to criminalize protest or the labyrinthine immigration code meant to exclude the migrants most in need of a new home. Only rarely is it the statute prohibiting tax evasion for the very wealthy or, I don’t know, the one that says, “Don’t lie to the FBI.”
“One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
This law is often baldly, egregiously, stupefyingly unjust. The police can legally seize your property if you’re simply suspected of a crime, for goodness’ sake! It is law as civilized fig leaf barely covering the arbitrary exercise of power and self-interest.
Somehow the purported “order” is even worse. It is two-year-olds locked up at the border in so-called “Residential Centers.” It is right-wing militiamen shaking hands with the police before both harass and beat protestors against police violence. It is an economy that can add nearly a trillion dollars of wealth to billionaires’ pockets at the same time as millions (of humans, not dollars) lose their jobs and their houses.
In the same sense that a dystopia is not the absence of place but the presence of a hellish one and dysfunction isn’t non-operation but aberrant operation, this order is a dys-order. It has some of the trappings of order—regularity, coherence, and the like—but twisted into a grotesque parody.
The whole trick of the “law and order” message is to dress up this lawless law and dys-order in dignified, apparently unimpeachable language. Who in their right mind can be in favor of lawlessness, disorder, chaos? Our opponents are trying to tear apart the very foundations of society!
But reality gives the lie to that ploy.
“Law-enforcement” officers killing scores of unarmed people each year is not law and order. It is murder.
Partisan legislatures gerrymandering their districts and passing endless voter restriction measures is not law and order. It is cheating.
Amazon firing employees who try to form a union while Jeff Bezos rakes in billions is not law and order. It is oppression.
That the person leading today’s law and order crusade is a man who in his personal, professional, and political lives has not shown one sliver of a shred of respect for the law or any order other than his own interest is the hypocritical cherry on top of a movement that has given up on even the pretense of principles or impartiality.
One crucial effect of the corrupt use of “law and order” rhetoric is that what looks like disorder and lawlessness from within the “law and order” frame is often anything but. Opposition and protest can be expressions of commitment to a better order, loyalty to a higher law.
As the ancient Christian bishop Augustine of Hippo said, “An unjust law is no law at all.” Martin Luther King, Jr. drew the practical conclusion: “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” There is a plaque near where I live that marks the place where two English judges who had signed the death warrant of King Charles I hid from royal authorities after Charles’s son gained the throne. It says, “Opposition to tyrants is obedience to God.”
Now, there’s no doubt it’s a risk—a serious risk—to side against what’s labeled law and order. What if your judgment about what’s an unjust law or who’s a tyrant is wrong? What is all too easy to overlook, however, is that it’s just as much of a risk to side with the order of the day. Complacent accommodation to dys-order is a moral failure of all-too-common occurrence.
Trump’s “law and order” is a challenge to each of us. We can buy in to his distorted vision of what law and order are. Or we can call it the lie that it is.