Trump’s Strongman Politics

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You got a problem? He's the solution!Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

As has been extensively discussed this morning, Donald Trump’s law-and-order thematics in his acceptance speech Thursday night offered little documentation for his claim that the country is ablaze with violent crime. Yes, he mentioned a spike in homicides in selected cities, and that’s real, though the experts tell us it’s unclear at this point whether it reflects a general increase in violent crime after decades of steady declines or just a blip.

But you know what? Trump doesn’t care. That there is a perception of a “crime wave” is enough to create a demand for a “law and order” politician, and that posture fits in so beautifully with his overall persona and message that it’s not surprising he chose it as central to his campaign.

For the same reasons, Trump feels no particular need to offer solutions to the quasi-problem of crime he has highlighted. As Matt Yglesias notes today, the president of the United States has but a limited role in dealing with street crime, but has some tools — yet Trump didn’t mention any last night (or in other recent pronouncements) other than the determination to appoint tough prosecutors and law-enforcement officials (and that was probably thrown into the speech as an allusion to the FBI’s decision not to ask for criminal charges against Hillary Clinton rather than having anything to do with violent crime).

But the lack of specific policy ideas is hardly a new thing for Trump. Yglesias attributes it to laziness and limited staffing. While that could be part of the rationale for vagueness on crime and many other issues, an even simpler explanation is that Trump’s whole platform is himself, a strongman in the ancient tradition of tribal chieftains whose very presence is a guarantor of safety and prosperity. Whatever the problem is, he’ll “fix it,” and that’s particularly true of challenges where “strength” is, in theory, of inherent value, such as maintaining a credible deterrent to foreign aggression, negotiating trade agreements, or in general threatening law breakers with violence. Adopting policies like other politicians actually undercuts this message, so Trump doesn’t bother with them. The convention managers last night might as well have emblazoned on the screen behind him Pontius Pilate’s words in presenting Jesus to the people of Jerusalem: Ecce homo! Behold the man!

Yes, strongman politics reassures some people and frightens others, and that’s fundamentally why Trump is such a polarizing figure, and also why his supporters thought his speech last night was a home run, while his detractors thought it was straight out of the Mussolini playbook in length, tone, and substance. When Trump and other speakers last night spoke of “making American one again,” it was clear the rapturous delegates in the hall really did think a strong father figure could somehow quell dissent. To the rest of us, the unity talk sounded like a threat to all of the “others” in this country to shut up or risk the silence of the grave. There’s little question this fundamental difference in perception will persist right through until November 8.