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Trump vs. Clinton: Unprecedented Lawlessness?


(Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images; Taylor Le/Pacific Standard)

“Is this a war-torn country? … We have gangs roaming the street. In many cases, they’re here illegally, they’re illegal immigrants…. We have to be very strong. We have to be vigilant.” — Donald Trump, 9:47 p.m., September 26, 2016

According to Donald Trump, America is experiencing a period of “mass lawlessness,” for which Hillary Clinton is directly responsible. Trump just compared America’s cities to “a war-torn country,” echoing remarks from his convention speech in Cleveland: “Hillary Clinton is proposing mass amnesty, mass immigration, and mass lawlessness.”

Trump’s alarmism here is built on the idea that the United States has never before faced the current degree of civil unrest. He would have us believe that the current predicament is unprecedented. Speaking last week in North Carolina, Trump re-emphasized the point in an explicit pitch to black voters: “Our African-American communities are absolutely in the worst shape they’ve ever been in before. Ever. Ever. Ever.” In its fact-check of this remark, the New York Times wrote simply: “No measurement supports this characterization of black America.”

The 2015 crime statistics released today by the Federal Bureau of Investigation offer a slightly more complicated picture than what Trump is giving us.

In 2015, violent crime rose by 3.9 percent over 2014 levels, while murder and non-negligent manslaughter increased 10.8 percent—a significant uptick that nonetheless leaves the murder rate at about half what it was during its peak in the 1990s, according to the FBI.

So Trump’s scare-mongering is not entirely baseless—America did see an uptick in violent crime in 2015. But that uptick is hardly ubiquitous: Earlier this month, the Times ran its own analysis on homicide patterns in America’s 100 biggest cities and reported that murder rates rose significantly in 25 of those cities, while half the increase came from a mere seven cities (Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Milwaukee, Nashville, and Washington, D.C.).


(Chart: The New York Times)

That’s a powerful upward spike in various cities through 2015, and Trump is not alone in telegraphing panic: Headlines this morning said there had been a “surge” in violence, a phrase that struck more sober commentators as an irresponsible misconstrual of the data:

The year 2015 was the third-lowest year for violent crime since the 1990s. To sensationalize these facts—whether you’re Trump or a front-page editor—is also to distort the problem.