Vox Populi: A Public Sphere for Politics and Poetry
The president once more painted a bleak picture of a country besieged by crime and terror. His unexpectedly cheery tone shouldn’t obscure the falsehoods at the heart of his rhetoric.
Drugs “pour in at a now unprecedented rate” across our borders, the president said, and “criminal cartels have spread across our nation.” Trump pledged to stop the country’s “terrible drug epidemic,” return order to our “neglected inner cities” and address “an environment of lawless chaos.”
Despite Trump’s bluster, though, crime in the United States actually remains at or near historic lows. The president continues to dish out alternative facts on crime to justify a reactionary agenda. From a wall along the border with Mexico, to a revised “travel ban” on Muslims, to a likely crackdown on drug users, Trump needs to distort the truth to feed these policies to the American people.
For a sitting president to stand in front of Congress, and the country, and misrepresent the dangers facing us should be cause for alarm. Indeed, it’s rare for a president to make the state of the union sound worse than it is.
But it’s not unprecedented: Richard Nixon framed his 1968 presidential campaign around a promise to return “order” to the United States. Trump modeled his promise to restore “law and order” on this approach, stoking fears about crime and warning that out-of-control violence in inner cities represents an imminent threat.
In his inaugural address, he famously invoked “American carnage.” He falsely told a group of sheriffs in February that the homicide rate is “the highest it’s been in 47 years.” (Trump did use the correct statistic Tuesday night at least, noting that “the murder rate in 2015 experienced its largest single-year increase in nearly half a century.”)
On Tuesday morning, Attorney General Jeff Sessions echoed Trump’s language about drugs flooding across the border and bringing violence. “My worry,” he said, “is that this is not a ‘blip’ or an anomaly, but the start of a dangerous new trend that could reverse the hard-won gains of the past four decades — gains that made America a safer and more prosperous place.”
And later, Trump strained to trace rising crime to immigration, terrorism and national security. He promised to deliver on his signature campaign promise — a border wall with Mexico — as well as locking out terrorists and restoring order to the nation.
What we heard doesn’t square with reality.
Nationally, crime remains at the bottom of a 25-year downtrend, half of what it was at its peak in 1991. Last year, rates of overall crime fell for the 14th year in a row. It’s true that homicides increased in some cities in 2016, as Trump stated. He spoke about Chicago, saying “more than 4,000 people were shot last year alone — and the murder rate so far this year has been even higher.”
But here’s what he didn’t mention: Chicago is an extreme outlier. In 2015 and 2016, increases in the homicide rate were highly concentrated in a few cities. Last year, Chicago alone accounted for almost half of the total urban increase in killings. The national homicide rate remains at about 2009 levels — at nearly half of the 1991 peak.
Despite those facts, the president frequently invokes Chicago as an example of the average. Any increase in violent crime is cause for concern, and this is no exception. But it’s no national crime wave.
The president’s attempt to connect immigration to rising crime is also dishonest. Research has consistently demonstrated that immigrants, regardless of their country of origin, are less likely to commit violent crimes than American-born citizens.
Other presidents have preyed on Americans’ darkest fears. “If there is one area where the word ‘war’ is appropriate, it is in the fight against crime,” Nixon warned in his 1970 State of the Union address. “We must declare and win the war against the criminal elements, which increasingly threaten our cities, our homes, and our lives.” Even President Bill Clinton used his 1994 State of the Union address to make a case for his famous crime bill, now a source of controversy, saying that “violent crime and the fear it provokes are crippling our society, limiting personal freedom, and fraying the ties that bind us.”
But Trump is the first president to manufacture a cause for panic out of an aberration. In 1970 and 1994, homicide rates were well above what they are today. In the mid-1990s, crime and drugs were at the forefront of public worry. Today, though, the border wall, travel ban and renewed drug war are all solutions in search of a problem.
Fear sells. The public generally thinks that crime is higher than it actually is, making it easy for the president to convince people to support a controversial, overbroad agenda. But bad facts make for bad policy.
In fact, Trump’s commitment to alt-facts on crime distracts us from true threats, risking an increase in crime in the process.
In Chicago, for example, homicides increased by 50 percent last year. Theories include more gang violence, fewer police officers on the streets and long-simmering economic malaise. Trump said he would “send in the feds” to help fix the problem. But he has yet to respond to repeated requests from Chicago police officials, asking for training, money and federal officers to stem rising violence. These officers know what will help them fight crime, and it isn’t a border wall.
And although some communities are struggling with an opioid crisis, a renewed drug war won’t break the cycle of addiction and crime — it will only send more low-level drug users to prison without any help or treatment. Law enforcement officials have repeatedly urged the president not to return to these archaic, ineffective policies they now know don’t work.
Flashy proposals such as walls and travel bans may play well at rallies, and overwrought rhetoric about crime certainly grabs headlines. But the real work of “making America safe again” calls for a little less bombast, and a lot more focused action.
First published by The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.
Inimai M. Chettiar is the Director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program.
Ames Grawert is Counsel in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program.