Why It's No Contradiction for Trump to Demand Illegal Actions to Defend "Law and Order"Roundup
tags: authoritarianism, Donald Trump, Law and Order
Lawrence B. Glickman is Stephen and Evalyn Milman professor in American Studies in the department of history at Cornell University. He is author of Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America and, most recently, Free Enterprise: An American History.
Former president Donald Trump recently called for “the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution” in response to what he continues to falsely describe as the “fraudulent elections” of 2020.
For some commentators, it was the ultimate flip-flop — a reversal of the former president’s loud demands for “law and order,” one of Trump’s favored phrases. In reality, however, Trump’s insistence on doing highly illegal things in the name of what he sees as a greater cause, while also championing “law and order” fits perfectly with the long history of the politics of that phrase. Dating to the late-19th century, the term has been at the center of backlash politics — White resistance to Black equality — in which White supporters insisted upon this very inconsistency. They saw such behavior as justified because of their racialized vision of what law and order constituted.
The roots of this idea of law and order date to the end of the Civil War. White Southern enemies of postwar Reconstruction positioned themselves simultaneously as outlaws and “lovers of law and order,” to use the 1869 words of “a large and respectable meeting of the citizens” — meaning White residents — in Holly Springs, Miss. They declared that “it behooved our people to continue law-abiding in the future,” as they had in the past. The present, however, demanded something different because the state’s 1868 interracial constitutional convention had guaranteed Black men’s voting rights and integrated public schools. The interracial democracy was an “anomalous condition” that was akin to being “without law,” which forced them to “be a law unto themselves.” This was a promise of racist violence to undo a fledgling regime of democratic equality.
This White brand of law and order enforced the racial caste system of Jim Crow for decades — until the African American civil rights movement began to successfully challenge it. Activists advocated civil disobedience to fight against unjust laws. In his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. defined unjust laws in a way that exposed the racist double standard embedded in the concept of law and order. An unjust law was one the “majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself.”
But as this movement gained steam, and began securing support for federal legislation that would upend the Jim Crow system, many White politicians and citizens doubled down, once again grabbing onto their long-standing idea of law and order to resist strenuously. They pressed to criminalize and punish Black people and other minorities for various crimes — including the civil rights movement’s civil disobedience — even as they insisted that they should be allowed to resist or even violate civil rights laws. This time, the phrase became a regular part of mainstream political discourse, beginning at roughly the moment in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy committed his administration to advancing the most significant civil rights legislation since Reconstruction.
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