Trump has long talked about “law and order.” By this, he has always intended something that has nothing in common with any conception of “rule of law.” He threatened to unleash “law and order” against the protests against police brutality, by which he meant unshackled state and even vigilante violence, which he also encouraged against those protesters.
Now that he’s lost the election, what we’re seeing is political violence, a phrase that we haven’t had to use much in recent decades but was once a more familiar one in this country.
Incredibly, CNN reported that Trump has been watching all of this unfold on TV, and has been resisting demands from staff to put out a stronger statement calling on his supporters to stand down.
Large mobs breached the Capitol, and one frightened reporter recounted that the invaders did not go through metal detection, noting that “we have no idea” what they “might have on their bodies.” Another reporter took pictures of rioters with Confederate flags inside the building.
Trump openly encouraged all of this. He told his supporters to be ready for a “wild” day, where they could protest the election that (he lied) was stolen from him. He has spent years saying our elections cannot render a legitimate outcome in which he loses, and more recently, he has said too many times to count that the election’s outcome was indeed illegitimate.
Even on the day itself, even as enormous mobs were breaching the Capitol, Trump blasted Vice President Pence for doing his constitutional duty and pledging not to to unlawfully overturn the election while playing his ceremonial role during the congressional count of electors. That’s an extraordinary act of potential incitement at a moment of untold danger.
Trump finally tweeted out a video calling for “peace." But incredibly, he used it to continue claiming that the election was stolen from him and from “you” and from “all of us,” that is, from his supporters, from the mobs who are currently occupying the Capitol.
“We have to have law and order,” Trump claimed on the video.
But if he’s also continuing to claim that the election was unlawfully stolen from him and his supporters, what will “law and order” really mean to them? It will mean exactly what Trump intends it to mean. A call for a restoration of law and order, coupled with a continuing claim that his loss was illegal and illegitimate, must mean a continued effort to overturn the election.
For Trump, the phrase “law and order” actually means something. As the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer has suggested, “law and order” really means that “he and his ideological allies are above the law,” while others are “merely subject to it.”
I’ve argued before that Trump expressly holds forth the promise of law and order as something utterly bereft of the rule of law. He very deliberately stands for those two things in combination with one another: Violent enforcement, carried out either by the state (or by vigilante actors) but without any actual conception of rules-and-laws-bound processes governing it.
When Trump campaigned for reelection on this version of law and order, he was, in truth, the candidate of arbitrary violence, lawless abuses of power and mass civil breakdown. He is now adding the incitement of violent insurrection to the mix.
What else can calls for law and order, when accompanied with the refusal to acknowledge the lawful, legitimate outcome of an election he lost, and the continued insistence that his supporters are being illegally cheated of political representation, actually mean?
It was inevitable that the Trump presidency would end in civil violence and civil breakdown. And we’re now seeing exactly this, right in the seat of government, successfully disrupting our lawful transition of power. Just as we always knew would happen.