Why Trump is vowing to 'take over cities' with higher crime rates

It's counter-intuitive, but Trump apparently sees a political advantage in lying to the public about crime rates - because he wants voters to be afraid.
Image: President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump during roundtable with people positively impacted by law enforcement on July 13, 2020, in Washington.Evan Vucci / AP
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By Steve Benen

At a White House event yesterday, Donald Trump boasted, in reference to his administration, "We've been very strong on law enforcement." No one audibly laughed at the claim, which was a shame, because the president has repeatedly lashed out at law enforcement and, on too many occasions, sided with politically connected criminals.

But it was the next part of Trump's unscripted comments that struck me as especially notable.

"We'll be doing things that you'll be, I think, very impressed with. Numbers are going to be coming down even if we have to go in and take over cities, because we can't let that happen.... We're not supposed to -- you're supposed to wait for [local officials] to call, but they don't call."

Right off the bat, it's probably worth emphasizing that American presidents lack the legal authority to simply "go in and take over cities" when they feel like it. Trump's chest-thumping yesterday may have made him feel good, but it was largely meaningless.

Let's also pause to wonder what the political world's reaction might be if, say, Barack Obama hosted a White House event in which he threatened to "go in and take over cities."

But the broader significance of the Republican's comments may not have been immediately obvious.

As a rule, common sense suggests that an incumbent president, in the midst of a re-election campaign, would be eager to brag to the public about the nation's relatively low crime rates. There'd be ample room for debate about whether the White House could reasonably take credit for such developments, but we'd nevertheless expect to hear a West Wing touting good news on crime as evidence of a successful administration.

Trump, however, is doing largely the opposite: while carefully blaming others for the societal maladies, the incumbent president desperately wants Americans to believe crime "numbers" are headed sharply in the wrong direction.

They're really not. While some cities are struggling more than others, the national picture has steadily improved -- in every facet of violent crime -- since the peaks seen in the early 1990s.

As a candidate in 2016, Trump lied about this repeatedly, and made his bogus claims one of the centerpieces of his candidacy. As regular readers may recall, the Republican insisted repeatedly that the U.S. murder rate was at a 45-year high, for example, despite the evidence that showed it near a 50-year low. (The Trump campaign ultimately said the FBI might've been lying in its crime statistics.)

At the time, it seemed obvious that Trump wanted voters to be afraid, so he brazenly misled them about the crime rates that fell in the Obama era. Four years later, however, he's still lying -- because he still wants voters to be afraid.

If the public can be convinced that dangerous people are lurking outside their homes, and out-of-control urban areas are teetering on the verge of Mad-Max-style chaos, Trump apparently believes the terrified will blame state and local officials, while turning to him to keep people safe.

It's an ugly pitch, based on less-than-subtle racism and irrational fears, but in 2020, the president may very well have come to the conclusion that he doesn't have much else to run on.