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Analysis

To Sell Himself, Trump Relies on His Big 'American Carnage’ Lie

An imaginary crime wave undergirds the administration’s policies, from the border wall to the immigrant ban to more and harsher urban policing.

February 16, 2017

Cross-posted from The Daily Beast.

Moments after Jeff Sessions was sworn in as the nation’s next attor­ney general, Pres­id­ent Trump signed his latest exec­ut­ive orders, creat­ing a task force to reduce crime. Rising crime, the new attor­ney general said, repres­ents “a danger­ous, perman­ent trend that places the health and safety of the Amer­ican people at risk.” This grim warn­ing echoes Trump’s remarks to a group of sher­iffs that “the murder rate is the highest it’s been in 47 years.”

There’s just one prob­lem. Over­all crime rates in Amer­ica stand at or near lows not seen since the 1960s. There is no national crime wave. But Trump repeatedly tells the Amer­ican public a differ­ent story.

Why does the pres­id­ent—and now the attor­ney gener­al—blatantly lie so often about crime? Why is this mistruth so import­ant to the admin­is­tra­tion? Simple: this imagin­ary crime wave under­girds the pres­id­ent’s most contro­ver­sial policies—­from build­ing a border wall with Mexico, to banning immig­rants from Muslim coun­tries, to expand­ing police pres­ence in cities. Broad belief in “Amer­ican carnage” is a neces­sity for his agenda.

A warped picture of crime and viol­ence—matched with uncon­ven­tional, sweep­ing solu­tions to this imagin­ary threat—has been a Trump staple since the begin­ning.

While announ­cing his candid­acy, the pres­id­ent accused Mexican immig­rants of “bring­ing crime and drugs” into the coun­try. “They’re rapists,” he said. “And some, I assume, are good people.” That, Trump argues, is why his wall with Mexico “is so badly needed.” “Contin­ued illegal immig­ra­tion presents a clear and present danger,” reads his recent exec­ut­ive order direct­ing the wall’s construc­tion. Last week, the pres­id­ent claimed his wall will “stop the drugs from pour­ing into our coun­try.”

The same rhet­oric under­lies his exec­ut­ive order barring immig­rants from several Muslim coun­tries. He claims the ban is the only way to prevent an immin­ent threat of domestic terror attacks. “Call it what you want,” Trump tweeted, the travel ban “is about keep­ing bad people (with bad inten­tions) out of the coun­try!” Only this, he says, will “make Amer­ica safe again.”

This same dynamic holds true on domestic crim­inal justice policy. Last year, Trump told the Repub­lican conven­tion: “Decades of progress made in bring­ing down crime are now being reversed by [the Obama] admin­is­tra­tion’s roll­back of crim­inal enforce­ment.”

And he’s kept at it as pres­id­ent. “Famil­ies don’t feel secure,” Trump said recently to Repub­lican lawmakers. “We have to give power back to the police because crime is rampant.”

What does Trump plan to do in response? Last Thursday he issued three exec­ut­ive orders: to create a commis­sion on public safety, sweep away illegal immig­rant “crim­in­als,” and protect law enforce­ment. One order prom­ises legis­la­tion to curtail crime, which may include federal fund­ing for contro­ver­sial “stop and frisk” policies to be imple­men­ted nation­wide—a campaign prom­ise. Sessions will also likely end or signi­fic­antly reduce federal over­sight of troubled police depart­ments.

Listen­ing to all this, one would think the coun­try is fall­ing apart and that we need to act fast.

But data from the FBI and several reports from the Bren­nan Center tell a differ­ent story. Like crime, the national murder rate peaked in 1991, and has been cut in half since then. In cities, which the pres­id­ent has called “war zones,” crime has fallen by more than 60 percent in those 25 years.

It’s true that some cities have seen an increase in murders. Last year, the murder rate rose by 14 percent in Amer­ica’s 30 largest cities — but Chicago alone caused almost half that increase. It’s a mistake to over­look viol­ence in these cities. But it’s an even graver mistake to portray Chica­go’s exper­i­ence as typical. The aver­age person walk­ing down the street today is safer than they have been at almost any other point in recent history.

Unfor­tu­nately, the combin­a­tion of media cover­age and repe­ti­tion makes the pres­id­ent’s claims about rising crime and viol­ence feel true, even when they aren’t. But we can’t let the pres­id­ent’s false­hoods go unchecked. If we allow Trump to succeed at making us feel less safe than we are, we will end up with extreme policies that waste taxpayer money without making us safer.

To be sure, it’s natural to worry about public safety. But solu­tions to crime and viol­ence must start with an accur­ate under­stand­ing of the prob­lem.

The pres­id­ent, on the other hand, offers solu­tions without real prob­lems. If the myth of a crime wave were removed, the defense for so many of these new policies would crumble.

These decisions are too import­ant to make based on polit­ical rhet­oric. Worse, basing policy on “altern­at­ive facts” sets a danger­ous preced­ent for our coun­try—one that may be diffi­cult to unwind.

(Photo: Think­stock.)