The Bitter History of Law and Order in America

During his heady first days in office, Donald Trump developed his now-familiar ritual for signing executive orders. He began by swapping a large sheet of paper for a hinged portfolio, then he started revealing the signed documents to onlookers a little awkwardly, crossing his forearms to hold the folio up, or bending it backward to show the press his signature. Finally, he perfected the motion by turning the open folder completely around to face the audience, displaying it from three angles, as if delivering tablets of law from Mount Sinai. By the end of the week, he seemed pleased with this bit of theater in which he could star as the president. The ritual, of course, became a meme.

Shortly after he perfected this performance, Trump signed three executive orderspromoted by the White House under the heading “Law and Order.” The first required the Attorney General to look at crimes against law enforcement; the second directed the AG to create a task force on crime reduction and public safety, with specific mention of illegal immigration; the third delegated cabinet members to review strategies for finding and prosecuting international drug cartels. All three called for studying crime rather than implementing new programs—they also heightened anxiety over purported crime by blacks and immigrants while making it seem like only Trump was willing do something about it.


“Law and order” has been a popular catchphrase for Trump—he used it repeatedly on the campaign trail going back to 2015. In doing so, Trump followed in the footsteps of Richard Nixon, who gets much of the credit for perfecting this disingenuous approach to crime in American politics. In a diary entry from 1969, White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman paraphrased Nixon’s thinking: “You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.” During the campaign Nixon’s team tackled this challenge by adopting a strategy of “law and order”—by playing to racist fears, they could cloak divisive rhetoric in an unobjectionable demand for security during a chaotic era.

The crime wave seized on by Nixon was not imaginary. Beginning in the 1960s, the United States faced a surge in criminal violence: Across the decade, the murder rate rose by 44 percent, and per capita rates of forcible rape and robbery more than doubled. The reasons for the surge in offenses—as well as the cause of its decrease in the early 1990s—are still not fully understood, though historians believe that the high rate of male baby-boomers coming of age likely played a critical role.

Nixon was responding to “soft on crime” rhetoric by President Lyndon Johnson, who in a 1966 statement to Congress on crime and law enforcement had described “social justice and personal dignity for all Americans” as a path to preventing violence. Johnson’s greater attention to rehabilitation and bail reform provided fodder for conservatives who argued the country was coddling criminals. Ambitious politicians found it easy to pair anxiety over the end of Jim Crow and the beginning of the women’s liberation movement with this fear of all-too-real violence.

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Chris Alexakis