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The Triumph of Trump's Law and Order Politics

By bending over backwards for the Protect and Serve Act, Democrats just proved that Trump's law and order mantra may remain his most lasting legacy.
A police officer wears a body camera during an anti-Donald Trump protest in Cleveland

Last week, a vast majority of Congress voted in support of the Protect and Serve Act of 2018. The bill would make "knowingly caus[ing] serious bodily injury to a law enforcement officer, or attempts to do so" a federal crime on par with hate crimes. The legislation comes just over a year since President Donald Trump signed an executive order directing his administration to "define new federal crimes, and increase penalties for existing federal crimes, in order to prevent violence against" law enforcement officials.

Institutionally, the Protect and Serve Act is unsurprising: "Blue Lives Matter" measures have been percolating on the state level ever since the murder of two New York City police officers following the wave of protests in the aftermath of Michael Brown's 2014 death in Ferguson, Missouri. In 2016, Louisiana passed a law that extended hate crime protections to police officers; by March of 2017, an analysis found that local lawmakers in 14 states had introduced 32 separate pieces of legislation assigning hate crime protections to law enforcement officers. Like Trump's February of 2017 executive order, all of these proposals have the potential to criminalize acts of civil disobedience—even resisting arrest.

But the escalation of such legislation to a federal level, at least symbolically, blows state efforts to reform and protect police out of the water. After all, Trump has staked his political messaging on his role as a "law and order" president, and the uptick in ambush killings of police officers in the post-Ferguson years certainly helped make extra protections for police a pillar of his campaign (although it's worth noting that the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund data shows there were 46 police shootings in 2017, a drop from 67 in 2016).

The spectral "war on cops" served as a racial dog whistle for those who saw African-American protesters as a threat to their own social standing; but this legislation could even further transmute what was once provocative campaign rhetoric into a matter of domestic policy. "Extending hate crimes protections to law enforcement officers is a profoundly inappropriate and misguided proposal," the American Civil Liberties Union wrote in a letter to lawmakers. "This bill signals that there is a 'war on police,' which is not only untrue, but an unhelpful and dangerous narrative to uplift ... a political response to the growing national movement for police accountability in the face of continued killings and assaults of unarmed African American."

And lest we think this was just a push by a Republican-controlled legislature to stake out a victory in the culture wars, as Splinter's Emma Roller points out, this was a fully bipartisan vote: Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota known for his roots in community and civil rights activism, voted for the bill. "Voting in favor of this bill could be read as an effort by the Democrats to pre-empt more bad-faith attacks from Republicans ahead of this fall's midterm elections," Roller wrote. "You can write the fear-mongering attack ads yourself: 'DEMOCRATS VOTE TO SUPPORT COP KILLERS.'" While lawmakers and pundits whip themselves into a tizzy over Trump's illiberal tendencies, they're political impotent to call Blue Lives Matter bills what they really are: a ploy.

The idea of "law and order" that Trump embodies has roots that predate Barry Goldwater's infamous coining of the term in 1964. After all, "law and order" only make sense as concepts with two players: those who are subject to it, and those who enforce it. "The categories of 'who's the Other' and 'who's not' shift over time, although I think blackness has remained the enduring Other throughout this entire through line," Chris Hayes told me last year. "It's the way the state thinks in terms of who is a citizen and who is subject, who is the empowered locus of political and social capital and who is the punished."

Establishing law enforcement as legally sacrosanct establishes police as Hayes' aforementioned "citizen." And by bending over backwards for the Protect and Serve Act, Democrats just proved that Trump's law and order mantra may remain his most lasting legacy.