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Trump’s false claims about U.S. murder rate raise questions

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump’s standard stump speech included a very specific claim about crime in the United States.
Oct. 28, 2016: “You won’t hear this from the media: We have the highest murder rate in this country in 45 years. You don’t hear that from these people. They don’t want to talk about it. The highest murder rate in the United States in 45 years.”

Oct. 29, 2016: “The murder rate in the United States, it’s the worst, the highest it’s been in 45 years. Nobody talks about that — nobody talks about that.”

Oct. 30, 2016: “Murder is – in 45 years, right now, the rates are the highest they’ve been … and they don’t want to talk about it.”
The reason “they” – he never said who “they” are – didn’t want to talk about the murder rate reaching a 45-year high is that the claim is ridiculously untrue. In fact, as the Washington Post explained before the election, Trump actually has the entire story backwards: “Both the rate of homicides and violent crimes are back down to the levels they were 45 years ago.”

In other words, in reality, the murder rate is roughly at a 50-year low, even though Trump claimed every day for months that it’s at a 45-year high.

I assumed, before the election, that Trump lied to Americans about this because he wanted them to be scared of the status quo: under President Obama, the argument went, scary people have gotten scarier. You’re no longer safe, your family is in grave danger, violence dominates what’s left of our dystopian society, so vote for Donald Trump to restore “law and order.” It’s a classic scam of demagoguery: if a dangerous politician can convince you to be terrified, and he presents himself as the only person alive who can keep you safe, you might be tricked into voting for him.

The trouble is, Trump is still repeating the lie. The president told a rally audience last night, “The murder rate in the United States is the largest it’s been in 45 years,” keeping the false claim alive. He’s told this lie at several of his recent campaign-style rallies in celebration of himself.

And that got me thinking: why is Trump so fond of this specific falsehood? As a pre-election tactic, the deceptive rhetoric at least made strategic sense, but now that he’s already won the election, why bother?

I can think of a few possible explanations:

1. Maybe Trump intends to impose some exceedingly harsh criminal-justice “reforms,” so he needs the public to remain scared of murder rates that don’t exist in order to help justify his regressive and reactionary policy agenda.

2. Perhaps Trump is quietly trying to undermine public confidence in data and statistics. Sure, law-enforcement agencies keep providing us with facts about crime rates, but Trump probably prefers a political environment in which the public trusts his word alone, not the reality-based community.

3. Maybe Trump intends to switch after he takes office and start using the real data once he’s president. “Remember how I said the murder rate is at a 45-year low?” Trump may ask. “Well, now look how low it is! I must be doing a great job!”

4. Perhaps Trump actually believes his own nonsense, and lacks the ability to understand why he’s mistaken.

Which of these explains his bizarre mendacity? Your guess is as good as mine.


Donald Trump

Trump's false claims about U.S. murder rate raise questions