After destroying relations with the military brass, Trump is now politicising the cops. Why will this change everything and what's at stake for America's rule of law?
US President Donald Trump threw curveballs at the American military in December, abruptly pulling all US forces out of Syria and half of them out of Afghanistan, moves that prompted his secretary of defense to resign.
Days later, Trump visited a US base in Baghdad on December 26, where he held a meet-and-greet with troops, taking the opportunity to deliver a campaign-style speech saying his decision wouldn’t mean the US was backing away from support for Israel or its opposition to Iran.
Then Trump began the new year with a tweet calling a retired general a “dog” for criticising him.
Washington DC’s chattering classes quaked at the thought of Trump using the military as a political prop, or even attempting to politicise the military. The last time the military became politicised was during the Civil War, when generals decided to take sides over slavery and rebel against the sovereign authority of the federal government. Since then, the military has been strict about staying out of politics, leaving final authority to civilian leadership.
Even if they thought the civilian leadership was wrong, they followed orders. The abrupt resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis, following the announcement of Trump’s Syria pull-out and Afghanistan demi-departure, represented a departure from the established tradition of soldiers obeying democratically elected officials.
After the president’s barrage of insults against them on Twitter, US military commanders are unlikely to sign on to Trump’s Make America Great Again pyramid scheme. However, police officers and police departments around the United States are far more likely to take Trump’s rhetoric to heart.
Don’t worry about Trump politicising the military. Worry about him politicising America’s police forces.
Police in America do not have a tradition of staying out of political life, and Trump has used them as props since his campaign began. American police are also heavily armed and prone to exercising their authority in ways that end the lives of innocent men, women and children. And, as political animals, they are extremely sensitive to criticism from politicians.
Past presidents have used the police as a political prop. Richard Nixon promised a return to law and order after the upheavals of the 1960s. Ronald Reagan promised to win the war on drugs. And Bill Clinton helped create the ‘three-strikes’ law that put non-violent drug offenders away for life after three felony convictions.
In his 2016 campaign, Trump offered unalloyed praise for the police.
“Police are the most mistreated people in this country,” he said at a Republican debate. “We have to give power back to the police, because crime is rampant.”
To understand Trump’s pull with cops, it is necessary to go back into the ancient past of 2015. Towards the end of his administration, President Barack Obama and his Attorney General Eric Holder made attempts with federal oversight to rein in police abuses of civil rights, often against black people. A series of killings by police caught on smartphone cameras brought the age-old problem to light on social media --- and in the streets.
Trump and his former attorney general Jeff Sessions, undid these reforms, sometimes called ‘consent decrees’, that would have overhauled local departments to make sure police were respecting the rights of citizens.
Why does this matter? It matters because American police officers are the constitution incarnate. They determine what breaks the law and what doesn’t. When you see a police car in the US, think of it as a lit up constitution-mobile, driven by an armed constitution consultant ready to use deadly force to ensure everything around them is constitutional.
Murder? Not constitutional. Selling loose, untaxed cigarettes? Also not constitutional. Consequences for unconstitutional behavior vary from state to state and cop to cop. No matter what, their work has a huge effect on the lives of people residing in the United States, for better or worse. Their work also comes in the historical context of American slavery and apartheid.
The constitution that the police represent, attempts - with limited success - to establish laws for people who live in physical reality. But Trump’s constant lying and racist delusions have called into question the notion of physical reality itself. He has encouraged cops to be rougher, tougher and meaner with suspects. He has demanded no apology from them, no reform of their conduct, nor has he even recognised that police might be using force in the wrong way.
He has done this since the beginning of his campaign, and still holds the endorsement of many police officers’ unions across the US (the US military has no labour union and does not endorse candidates). Trump’s showy reverence for their role in enforcing ‘law and order’ (at least for everybody who isn’t named Trump) has rubbed off on society in ways that are hard to predict.
Worse than that, the effect of a president’s rhetoric towards police outlasts their administration. Police who come on duty today will remember Trump’s words long after he leaves the White House. Will they approach a young Hispanic man thinking he could be a member of the dreaded MS-13 gang? Will they approach him trying to find out his immigration status? Will they kill him because Trump has made them more afraid?
Trump can disobey or disregard the law at his own legal peril. But the damage Trump could do to the law by illegal acts pales in comparison to the damage he has already done to law enforcement by exercising his right to free speech. That could endanger the lives of suspects in police custody long after he leaves office.
Trump’s right to free speech is endangering the right to a presumption of innocence.
The presumption of innocence is what American police are there to uphold, although they sometimes fail in ways that are fatal to their fellow citizens. Indeed, upholding the presumption of innocence is the main reason to keep the police around. Otherwise, the public would be inclined to take justice into their own hands.
But that duty is something Trump’s racism erodes. Having a police force in a multiethnic democracy like the US is hard enough to get anywhere near right. Having a president calling Mexicans and Muslims guilty for their nationality or religion does not help anybody. It makes Trump feel good, but explaining to him the harm he’s doing would be fruitless. At worst he’d still think he’s right. And at best he wouldn’t care that he’s wrong.
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