In his speech to the Republican National Convention, Donald Trump talked a lot about murder. Specifically, he suggested that an enormous increase in our nation’s homicide rate has turned America into a blood-drenched hellscape (where young, white women are constantly being killed by undocumented immigrants).
“I will present the facts plainly and honestly,” Trump said. “These are the facts: Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement. Homicides last year increased by 17 percent in America’s 50 largest cities. That’s the largest increase in 25 years. In our nation’s capital, killings have risen by 50 percent. They are up nearly 60 percent in nearby Baltimore.”
Trump is correct that preliminary FBI data show a significant increase in big-city homicides in 2015. But he is extremely incorrect in asserting that decades of progress in reducing the incidence of violent crime have been reversed by the Obama Administration’s (unspecified and unsubstantiated) “rollback of criminal enforcement.” In fact, violent crime has fallen dramatically since the current president took office.
The recent uptick in violent crime is concentrated in the economically disadvantaged neighborhoods of a few major cities. The trend is not national, nor common to all urban centers. In New York City, there were fewer shootings over the first six months of this year than during any similar time span in its recorded history.
There’s no question that the runaway homicide rates in Chicago and Baltimore are problems worthy of national attention. But they are local problems, that require targeted solutions. According to most criminologists, two of those solutions would be to reduce the availability of handguns in these areas, while increasing the availability of jobs. Trump’s speech offers no specific policy proposals to address either of those goals, focusing instead on the threat posed by “180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records” who “are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens.”
It seems doubtful that most residents of West Baltimore would name undocumented immigrants as their number one public-safety concern.
Regardless, Trump wants to run a national campaign as the "law-and-order candidate," and to do that, it’s helpful to pretend that the Democratic president has overseen a drastic increase in violent crime. And so, when CNN’s Jake Tapper confronted Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort with the inconvenient facts about how historically safe most Americans are, Manafort chose to attack the messenger. Which is to say, to attack the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
“Empirically, according to FBI statistics, crime rates have been going down for decades,” Tapper said. “How can Republicans make the argument that, somehow, it’s more dangerous today, when the facts don’t back that up?”
“People don’t feel safe in their neighborhoods. I don’t know what statistics you’re talking about,” Manafort replied. “The FBI is suspect these days, after what they just did with Hillary Clinton.”
Manafort’s argument raises a couple of problems. For one, the FBI merely aggregates crime data assembled by local police departments across the country. In refuting that data, Manafort is ostensibly calling into question the honesty of America’s police — a skepticism he would share with many Black Lives Matters protestors, but with very few of his own candidate’s supporters. For another, as previously mentioned, Trump’s own fearmongering derives its authority from FBI statistics.
If you want to tout the 60 percent increase in Baltimore’s homicide rate, you also have to concede that violent crime has decreased under Obama. Or, you have to do that if you wish to present the facts “plainly and honestly”; or to preserve an epistemology based in anything besides your own unquestionable authority.