Separate but equal” is a segregation-era term — one that most Americans are trying to put behind them, not delightedly apply to the armed forces.
.. Another Trump administration favorite is “law and order,” a holdover from Richard M. Nixon’s 1968 campaign. Candidate Trump reclaimed it in 2016 and has been repeating the term ever since. It’s not about actual law and order, of course (otherwise, something would have to be done about the array of grifters and criminals parading through the White House and Cabinet), but about creating a perception of growing crisis. The purpose of the term is to spawn nightmares of violence and criminality, controllable only from the top down. And it’s best applied in a racialized manner —
- to “illegals,”
- immigrant “animals” and
- purveyors of inner-city “American carnage.”
.. Which brings us to “America First,” the phrase that rolls off Trump’s tongue — and Twitter feed — with a gleefulness that belies its distasteful history. That particular slogan rose to prominence around 1915, when President Woodrow Wilson used the phrase to defend American neutrality in World War I. Its nativist undertones lent it credibility as a Ku Klux Klan slogan, and, grounded in nationalism and xenophobia, the phrase was again famously deployed by anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh to advocate for keeping America out of World War II.
.. What Trump’s go-to word associations have noticeably in common is that they are all phrases of division, plucked from the uglier chapters of the past century of American history. They are racialized. And they are used to stoke a fear of the other while promoting self-serving — Trump-serving — ways of quashing dissent and asserting authority.
.. Just a day after using “separate but equal,” Trump branched out to using shameful episodes in other countries’ recent histories to supply the vocabulary for his spur-of-the-moment public statements. In a tweet Tuesday morning, he attempted to lay the family separation policy at the feet of Democrats, saying that “they don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13.” An outside population “infesting” a nation, like vermin. Where have we heard that before?
.. Trump’s flights of language are bizarre but not entirely accidental. This Space Force announcement should remind us that even when our administration talks about the future, we should beware attempts to pull us back into the past.
No president since Richard Nixon has embraced the weaponized rhetoric of “law and order” as avidly as Mr. Trump. “When I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order to our country,” he said during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in 2016. “I will work with, and appoint, the best prosecutors and law enforcement officials in the country to get the job properly done. In this race for the White House, I am the law and order candidate.”
Time and again, the president denounces “illegals” and “criminals” and the “American carnage” they wreak on law-abiding Americans. He even advised an audience of police officers to rough up suspects they were arresting.
.. Yet this tough-guy stance disappears when the accused are in the president’s inner circle. In defending Rob Porter, the White House senior aide accused of abuse by both of his ex-wives, the president wondered whatever happened to due process while praising a man accused of giving his wife a black eye. (Mr. Porter denies the abuse.)
.. Where was this concern for due process, they asked, when the president and his supporters chanted “Lock her up” about Hillary Clinton, who hadn’t even been formally accused of a crime? Where was his devotion to due process when he called for the Central Park Five to be executed, and then, after their exoneration, still maintained that they were guilty?
.. The president’s boundless benefit of the doubt for the Rob Porters and Roy Moores of the world, combined with off-with-their-heads capriciousness for immigrants accused of even minor crimes, is not a contradiction. It is the expression of a consistent worldview that he campaigned on and has pursued in office.
.. In this view, crime is not defined by a specific offense. Crime is defined by who commits it. If a young black man grabs a white woman by the crotch, he’s a thug and deserves to be roughed up by police officers. But if Donald Trump grabs a white woman by the crotch in a nightclub (as he’s accused of doing, and denies), it’s locker-room high jinks.
This view is also expressed by many of the president’s staff members, supporters and prominent allies. During the same week that the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, repeatedly vouched for Rob Porter’s integrity, Mr. Kelly also mused that hundreds of thousands of unauthorized immigrants who did not fill out the paperwork for DACA protections had refused to “get off their asses.”
A political movement that rails against “immigrant crime” while defending alleged abusers and child molesters is one that has stopped pretending to have any universalist aspirations.
The president’s moral framework springs from an American tradition of cultivating fear and contempt among its white citizens against immigrants, indigenous people and people of color, who are placed on the other side of “the law.” It’s a practice that has taken on new strength at a time when many white people fear they may be outnumbered, outvoted and out of time.
This is the opposite of what we like to tell ourselves is the traditional American civic creed: one symbolized by a blindfolded Lady Justice who applies the law without fear or favor to whoever may come before her. It is one of Mr. Trump’s most insidious victories that he has given his supporters permission to drop any pretense of insisting that their actions and views should conform to this principle.
If all that matters when it comes to “law and order” is who is a friend and who is an enemy, and if friends are white and enemies are black or Latino or in the wrong party, then the rhetoric around crime and punishment stops being about justice and is merely about power and corruption.
And this is what “law and order” means: the preservation of a certain social order, not the rule of law.
.. The history of the United States is the story of a struggle between the desire to establish certain universal rights and the countervailing desire to preserve a particular social order.
We are now witnessing a president who wholly embraces the latter. America can have that kind of social order, or it can have justice for all. But it can’t have both.