the national interest

Is Trump Sabotaging Police on Purpose?

Donald Trump poses with police officers. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The New York Times has a thorough and damning report on the Trump administration’s efforts to curtail police reform. The Obama administration undertook careful efforts to build consensus around steps toward documenting police practices and correcting abuses, with the goal of reducing tension between law enforcement and civil-rights protesters. The Trump administration has gleefully torn it all apart, often to the frustration of even police in Republican towns. Trump’s efforts to “support police” have gone so far that many police chiefs openly complain that he is sabotaging their efforts to maintain law and order.

Why is the Trump administration undermining law enforcement? Incompetence is almost always a better explanation than villainy. But in this case there is more than enough reason to suspect failure is baked into the design.

In April I wrote a long story for the magazine arguing that, while Trump’s conventional domestic policy was moribund, his efforts to stoke white racial grievance were succeeding. I believe it’s held up well. Renegotiating trade agreements, building a wall, passing an infrastructure bill, or designing a replacement for Obamacare requires technocratic aptitude Trump (and, for that matter, his party) lacks. But sending crude signals of ethnic affiliation is a simple task, the only requirement for which is a lack of scruples.

Examining Trump’s racial agenda is to have a glimpse into an arena where he is enjoying clear success. It is an arena in which the president can achieve his goals without competence. Indeed, incompetence is the surest way to achieve them. By tearing down effective law enforcement, and courting a backlash, Trump creates mutual anger from which he plausibly stands to benefit. As I argued, “A cycle of police abuse, enraged protest, and bloody crackdowns seems not only probable but — from Trump’s point of view — desirable.”

Trump’s criminal-justice agenda seems to be setting the stage for exactly this result. It can be seen not only in his approach toward policing, of course. He has used “toughness on crime” as an argument to endorse Roy Moore, who is credibly accused with a wide array of sex crimes, over Doug Jones, who made his name prosecuting criminals. (When Trump says “crime,” it does not mean crime. It means race.) For all his laziness and wandering attention span, he has displayed impressive discipline in calling attention over and over again to black athletes and their supposed lack of gratitude.

Trump is not an intelligent man. But racial demagoguery is not subtle work, and many of its most effective practitioners throughout history have been been crude men. There is plenty of reason to doubt that Trump’s plan will succeed — beginning with his abysmal approval ratings even in a healthy economy — but less and less reason to doubt that it is, in fact, a plan.

Is Trump Sabotaging Police on Purpose?