Over the weekend, Trump unleashed a vile and frenzied tweetstorm about ongoing violence in Oregon and Wisconsin. His barrage of Twitter activity, which included deliberate efforts to incite civil conflict and support for vigilante activity and jailing political opponents, combined both those elements — superficial law-and-order appeals with open contempt for the rule of law.
Trump’s just-finished convention also juxtaposed law-and-order appeals alongside undisguised contempt for the rule of law. It employed endless lies and absurdities to portray a nation tipped into chaos by a “radical left” that has supposedly taken Joe Biden captive, combined with the extensive, unlawful use of government resources to serve Trump’s reelection hopes.
These two things — Trump’s law-and-order messaging as a reelection candidate, and his destruction of the rule of law as president — are often treated as two distinct things. But they are actually part of the same story.
‘Law and order’ without rule of law
What Trump really represents is the promise of law and order without the rule of law — he stands for this in combination, as part of the same package, often quite deliberately so. But law and order without the rule of law is the wielding of power and violence (both state violence and private vigilante violence) unshackled from law-and rules-bound processes.
Let’s not flinch from this: Trump is explicitly campaigning on law and order without the rule of law, in all its terrible implications. That makes Trump not the law-and-order candidate, but rather the candidate of arbitrary violence, lawless abuses of power and civil breakdown.
In his tweetstorm, Trump cheered the MAGA counter-protesters streaming into Portland, Ore., over the weekend as “GREAT PATRIOTS” — openly encouraging his supporters to confront protesters, which can only be seen as a deliberate effort to stoke more violence. Trump even openly declared that a “backlash” from his supporters should not be “unexpected,” i.e., that it’s understandable.
Though a man who appears to be a far-right adherent was killed (no information about a shooter has been released), Trump kept up the rage tweeting all weekend, blasting Portland’s mayor as “weak and pathetic” and a “dummy,” all the while seeing zero obligation to act as a calming influence, but instead actively working to make the situation as terrible as possible.
Trump even retweeted a call for the jailing of New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (a Democrat who has relentlessly criticized Trump over coronavirus) and “liked” a thread defending the 17-year-old Trump supporter who has been charged with killing two people amid protests in Kenosha, Wisc.
Endless corruption and lawlessness
Calling for the jailing of political foes (which Trump has done regularly); openly encouraging violence on his own perceived behalf by private mobs; seeming to support an alleged killer who may have been similarly motivated; deliberately undermining local civil authorities — all of this, crucially, was done in the name of maintaining “law and order.”
Now add to that list the following: Trump corruptly used the White House as a stage in his political convention. His secretary of state likely broke the law to speak at it. His Senate allies are manipulating an official investigation to smear Biden. His intelligence officials are refusing verbal briefings to Congress on foreign election interference, which Trump invited. He has openly telegraphed his intention to use mail delays to get countless votes against him invalidated.
Trump’s convention explicitly advertised his corruption, lawbreaking and willingness to cheat in the election alongside his law-and-order appeals. He is now openly encouraging extralegal violence — that is, political violence — in the name of those appeals.
There’s more. Trump has brazenly encouraged police to use excessive violence — “Please don’t be too nice,” he told a group of officers in 2017. As Adam Serwer pointed out after the killing of George Floyd, this sort of directive could plausibly encourage more brutality and killing.
But Trump isn’t just encouraging police to be violent. He’s also explicitly appropriating them as his people. Trump declared in 2017 that he has the “tough people,” the police and the military and the bikers, on his side, and if they see a need to get rough with the left, it will be “very bad.” That’s a tacit invitation for state violence and private violence on Trump’s behalf. We’re seeing all of this again today.
“The core meaning of the rule of law,” political theorist Jacob Levy tells us, is that the executive branch, in control of the “violent agencies of state power and the tools of punishment, shall not use them lawlessly.”
Trump openly represents law and order without the rule of law — that is, whatever he means by “order” applied lawlessly. Here’s how Trump himself put it Sunday, with remarkable candor:
What is “strength” without rule of law?
In the broader context outlined above, the answer is unavoidable. Even if you grant that Trump is operating from some sort of vision of order — which requires putting aside his obvious efforts to stoke mayhem, in hopes of benefiting from it — Trump believes not just that it must be achieved through violence, but also that there’s no need for that violence to rest on a foundation of procedural or democratic legitimacy.
Trump is not the “law and order” candidate. He’s the candidate of arbitrary violence, state and private alike. He is the candidate of lawlessness and civil breakdown.