To hear former president Donald Trump talk about crime during his speech in Washington on Tuesday, you’d think he’d never been to the capital city before.
It just happens to be the same pitch he made when he was first running for president in 2015. That Trump repeatedly elevated the same issues and the same solutions might leave an uninformed observer wondering who, exactly, had been president for much of the intervening period without fixing the purported problems.
“Our country is now a cesspool of crime,” Trump said in his AFPI speech, an obvious preview of a likely 2024 campaign. “We have blood, death and suffering on a scale once unthinkable because of the Democrat Party’s effort to destroy and dismantle law enforcement all throughout America.”
This echoed his speech at the Republican convention in 2016. Then, he declared, “Americans watching this address tonight have seen the recent images of violence in our streets and the chaos in our communities. Many have witnessed this violence personally, some have even been its victims.”
He made a promise: “the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon — and I mean very soon — come to an end. Beginning on January 20th, 2017” — that is, upon his inauguration — “safety will be restored.”
Violent crime did drop for a bit during his presidency, but not to the point seen in 2014. In 2020, it was higher than it had been in 2016. Even as president at the time, he blamed the rise on Democrats.
His framing of the increase in crime as being a function of Democratic attacks on law enforcement (who, he said, were only attacked and never supported) is itself not a recent addition, although the thrust has shifted. In 2016, he accused the left of fostering a “dangerous anti-police atmosphere” in the country — the “Ferguson effect.”
In his two presidential campaigns, though, he more often simply blamed Democrats because they were the leaders of the cities where most of the crime occurs. (It’s true that there are more criminal acts in places with more people, but rural areas, less commonly led by Democrats, have seen surges in crime as well.)
“Many of our once-great cities, from New York to Chicago to L.A., where the middle class used to flock to live the American Dream, are now war zones, literal war zones,” he said Tuesday. Just as they have been since September 2016, when he said that “in many cases, you have cities, inner cities that are worse than war zones and more dangerous than some war zones.”
Among the solutions he offered was to bring back “stop-and-frisk,” a New York City policy shown to have been disproportionately applied to Black and Hispanic residents. On Tuesday, he declared that “we need to return to stop-and-frisk policies and cities and not shy away from it” — just as in the first presidential debate in 2016, when he said that “you have to have stop-and-frisk.”
Another solution was to impose the death penalty for drug dealers, something he first floated back in 2018. Then, though, he asserted without evidence that “if you ever did an average, a drug dealer will kill thousands of people” by distributing drugs. (This came from a presidential speech on “tax reform.”) On Tuesday, he scaled that average downward to 50 deaths, although he provided exactly the same evidence: none.
He also, predictably, spent a large chunk of his speech railing against immigration.
“Our open borders are a gaping wound, allowing drugs, gangs, child traffickers, human smugglers and tens of thousands of dangerous criminals to pour into our country,” he said Tuesday. Just as in August 2016 he declared that “our open border has allowed drugs and crime and gangs to pour into our country and our communities.” It was a consistent complaint in a speech in which Trump touted the miles of border wall constructed during his administration.
Other countries, Trump said Tuesday, were “emptying their jails into the United States. We’re like a dumping ground. We’re not going to allow that to happen.” This, of course, was the specific claim that Trump infamously made in announcing his campaign in 2015: that “they are sending people that they don’t want. The United States is becoming a dumping ground for the world.”
He also claimed that local police know who the immigrant criminals in their communities are but are hamstrung in arresting them.
“The police officers know their names,” Trump said on Tuesday. “The problem is they’re not allowed to do anything about it.” Just as he said in August 2016 that “police and law enforcement, they know who these people are. They live with these people. They get mocked by these people. They can’t do anything about these people, and they want to. They know who these people are.”
“Day one, my first hour in office,” he promised — “those people are gone.”
It’s not as though there were no updates to Trump’s shtick since his two campaigns for president. His speech Tuesday followed a very familiar pattern — vague, sweeping claims based on dubious statistics buttressed with gruesome anecdotes about individual crimes — but included some new points.
For example, he declared that the federal government should have the ability to unilaterally send the National Guard into states to deal with perceived dangers, a lesson he adopted after protests in Minnesota. That’s explicitly not how the National Guard works, with governors having joint authority on their deployment as a hedge against a president who might want to make a political statement by sending armed forces into the streets. A president, say, who had said, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
In his new speech, Trump integrated a lesson he learned in 2020: that his perceived toughness could be boosted by posturing about things he’d learned as president. He now has a better sense of the ways in which he can talk about that to boost the image he seeks to project.
This is not to diminish Trump’s very real interest in being able to use the military as national police. Trump is running explicitly on the idea that he be able to deploy military power in that way. Which is the point: Yes, the rhetoric was the same as in 2016 and the problems the same despite four years of President Donald Trump. But now he’s also running explicitly on setting aside the safeguards he learned about only once he was in office.
“We need an all-out effort to defeat violent crime in America,” Trump said Tuesday. “And strongly defeat it. And be tough and be nasty and be mean if we have to.”
The crowd cheered loudly.