The president’s response to the riot at the Capitol underscored the ways he has twisted the phrase “law and order” over the past four years.
WASHINGTON — For years, the phrase rolled off his tongue in times of strife, a rallying cry to his predominantly white base.
So it was unsurprising when, on the day after his supporters stormed the Capitol, he uttered those familiar three words just 20 seconds into a video filmed from the White House.
“America is, and must always be,” Donald Trump declared, “a nation of law and order.”
He teed up the language as he often does, steadying his cadence before the big reveal of the first word — law — and letting it linger for half a beat before unfurling the rest: and order.
Yet Mr. Trump’s face, expressionless as it was, appeared to register a different truth: That in the aftermath of the attack, where his supporters overwhelmed the police and created anarchy, his favored mantra had become all but meaningless.
Ever since descending the gilded escalator of Trump Tower to announce his presidential bid in 2015, Mr. Trump has tethered his success to the politics of law and order, stoking fears and then positioning himself as the only person capable of confronting them. As for what — or whom — Americans should fear, Mr. Trump virtually always targeted people of color and people who protested for their rights: Mexicans, migrants from Central America, Black Lives Matter activists, the diverse array of protesters in major cities last summer.
But this month, it was a largely white mob trawling the Capitol grounds with Trump banners and zip ties, and killing a police officer. And yet the president did not preside over a tear-gas-fogged show of force, as he had during a protest for racial justice before the White House last summer. Instead, he praised these supporters on the evening of the riot — “you’re very special,” he assured them, “we love you” — before trotting out the “law and order” comment the next day under pressure from advisers.
If Mr. Trump spent much of his presidency casting the G.O.P. as the party of law and order, he is concluding it by clarifying just who, in his view — and in his base’s view — the law was designed to order. It’s the Black Lives Matter protesters who are confronted and arrested by the police in Mr. Trump’s law-and-order America; the white mob, on the other hand, can expect officers who pause for selfies.
“This ‘Blue Lives Matter’ stuff was just a code word for race that they were using,” said Stuart Stevens, a longtime Republican strategist. “‘Law and order’? Here you have a police officer murdered on Capitol grounds, and the White House doesn’t even acknowledge it. It’s incredible.”
Republicans saw “law and order” slipping away from them long before last week. Even as Mr. Trump and much of his party put crime and public safety at the center of their campaigns, few voters were ultimately moved by it. In key states like Arizona, many white suburban women found the Trump campaign’s narrative — that a Biden administration would overhaul the nation’s law enforcement and usher in an unprecedented crime wave — more off-putting than resonant.
That’s not to say that no Republicans found success in staking their campaigns on law and order. In New York’s 11th Congressional District, Nicole Malliotakis celebrated her sizable victory over Max Rose, the Democratic incumbent, by declaring that voters had “sent a very clear message that they want law and order.” Ms. Malliotakis had spent much of her campaign linking Mr. Rose to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Yet if some Republicans had succeeded in positioning their party as the one more committed to law and order, Mr. Trump, in refusing to accept the results of the election and encouraging his supporters to “fight back,” has seemed committed in proving them wrong.
Advertising buys in 2020 tell the story of when Republicans, from Mr. Trump to then-Senator Kelly Loeffler of Georgia, believed a law-and-order message was most poised to resonate with voters. From early June to the end of July, the amount of money spent on ads featuring the literal phrase “law and order” jumped nearly 93,000 percent, according to numbers compiled by AdImpact.
Mr. Trump endeavored to make the Black Lives Matter movement synonymous with the unrest, and paint Joseph R. Biden Jr. as a candidate too meek to quell them, too likely to accede the rioters’ demands to defund the police. Yet by the time of the election, of all the concerns animating even Republican voters, crime and safety did not crack the top five.
The message sputtered in no small part because many Americans largely supported the goals of the Black Lives Matter protesters, according to polling, a stark contrast to the 1960s and ’70s, when surveys showed that Americans were less likely to view police brutality as a problem and more afraid of demonstrations and riots spilling into their community.
Richard Nixon’s elevation of the phrase during that time to a “term of art,” as Theodore Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, put it, was not just in speaking to the anxieties sweeping the nation at the time, but in knowing what to leave unsaid.
“In the ’60s, there was a lot for people to be worried about,” Dr. Johnson said. “Political assassinations, hundreds of riots, high crime rates — people genuinely did want to do something about crime and feel safer and more secure in their homes and communities.”
“But who communities needed to be safe from was always sort of the undercurrent of law and order,” he continued. “It wasn’t just that crimes were up, it was who the criminals were.”
For Mr. Trump, the latter was never so much the undercurrent as the main event. Long before running for president, he liked talking about who the criminals were, even when he got them wrong. In 1989, Mr. Trump took out a full-page ad in multiple New York City newspapers to call for the execution of those responsible for the rape of a white female jogger in Central Park, wondering what had happened to “law and order.” The police wrongly charged a group of Black and Latino men, known as the Central Park Five, for the crime.
Fast forward to the summer of 2016, and there Mr. Trump was invoking law and order again, this time rallying supporters in Virginia Beach, as the presumptive Republican nominee for president. “We must maintain law and order at the highest level, or we will cease to have a country,” Mr. Trump declared. “One-hundred percent: We will cease to have a country. I am the law-and-order candidate.”
The law-and-order candidate went on to become the self-fashioned law-and-order president, which for Mr. Trump quickly meant attacking the F.B.I., attacking his own Department of Justice and, ultimately, firing his attorney general for recusing himself from the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“The attack at the Capitol was the outcome of years of eroding the line between fact and fiction and right and wrong,” said Rory Cooper, a Republican strategist. Mr. Cooper argued there was an opening now for a “conservative candidate” to definitively decouple appeals to law and order from the selective enforcement of the Trump era, “but we’re some distance from that time.”
Other Republicans insist no ground has been lost on the issue — that the party will likely retain the upper hand in the eyes of voters. “I think Republicans right now have the advantage of law and order and still do, regardless of” what happened at the Capitol, said Chris Russell, a longtime Republican consultant and ad maker.
And should Democrats “persist with a defund-the-police message,” Mr. Russell added — though Mr. Biden has denounced it — Republican candidates will likely continue to find success in framing their party as more committed to public safety, more supportive of law enforcement.
All of which squares with how some Republican lawmakers have rationalized the Capitol attack. They insist that the sea of marchers and rioters was not the outgrowth of months of indulging the president’s lie that the election was stolen, was not reflective of the party’s core, indeed was not reflective of the party at all. Across the country, Republican officials have claimed falsely that the deaths and damage were caused by antifa.
Hogan Gidley, a spokesman for the president, argued Mr. Trump’s message of love had not included those who stormed the Capitol. “The president was not talking about those people; clearly it was the people who were there to peaceably assemble, peaceably protest,” Mr. Gidley said, though Mr. Trump had not specified this fact. “Because we believe in protecting not just the concept of law and order, but the actual brave men and women who institute law and order.”
Yet if law and order means a commitment to equal security and justice, not even Mr. Trump’s own aides seem sure that, in the final days of his presidency, his supporters will abide it.
And so the law-and-order presidency ends like this: hundreds of National Guardsmen posted behind a seven-foot fence looped by razor wire, protecting the Capitol not from the people Mr. Trump spent his presidency demonizing, but all the ones he didn’t.