The state of play is obvious. Donald Trump is right. Americans want law and order, and they want it now. They want swift action from the government against threats to their safety, and these days, threats abound. The Trump campaign has made this a central issue. Pushing a message of law and order day in and day out. But unfortunately for the Trump campaign, Americans want law and order, just not the type Trump is pushing.
Americans want law and order policies to stop the spread of COVID-19, not to combat protests about racial and policing issues. Faced with twin crises, Trump has taken the wrong approach on each, missing an opportunity to expand his authority and the image of law enforcement.
What is Law and Order?
The phrase itself has a long and complex history. Usually used around issues of race and crime, it has come to be viewed more negatively in recent years, especially by those on the left. Traditionally, conservative parties benefit when the population feels there is a need for “law and order”. Why? Because the need for order arises from a state of disorder that people perceive as a threat, and conservative typically present a stern, orderly image. In essence, when people feel threatened, they seek order, often desiring harsh crackdowns.
After the murder of George Floyd, protests on police reform and racial justice swept the country. Many observers believed that these protests would create an appetite for control among many White voters. But this never came to fruition. The media covered the movement sympathetically, and most voters did not see it as violent. In fact, in many cases, violent reactions from police have been met with scorn, not praise from voters. Despite this, Trump has insisted on pushing the message of law and order. Even today, Trump and the GOP repeat that Americans would not be safe in Joe Biden’s America. But given that he is the incumbent President, the message has had a hard time resonating.
The Law and Order Voters Want
The truth is, voters do want law and order. But not for race or crime. They want it for the pandemic. Poll after poll shows this to be true. Americans are worried about getting sick, and they want strict measures to alleviate their fears. Although the president has pushed the country to reopen and said Democrats are deliberately keeping things closed, most Americans say they are afraid things are opening too quickly. On top of that, once popular reopening measures have plummeted in support. Reopening schools was once a plan that scored majority backing, but now Americans have soured on the idea.
Furthermore, measures such as mask mandates have become more popular. This has coincided with more Americans saying they know someone who has been infected with COVID-19. Even as the country has become more skeptical of law enforcement and authority, the desire for a swift crackdown on violators of health norms has grown.
The College Experiment
This is perhaps no more clear than with college students returning to campus. Social media is awash with young people clamoring for crackdowns on parties, expulsions, and other extreme measures to stop the spread of COVID-19. The attitude has the same roots as a desire for law and order: fear of anarchy and a desire to bring it under control.
The fear of getting sick also means that Trump’s aggressive push for reopening was doomed from the start. Central to the idea of getting back to normal is the assumption that Americans want to get back to normal and live life with few restrictions. Further, it relies on the idea that even if people did get sick, Americans would simply press on out of frustration with lockdowns. But this is simply not the case. A desire to get back to a normal life exists but does not override the fear of death for the vast majority of people. This is why reopening has been haphazard at best. Once voters began getting back to their old habits, they realized just how much exposure they were risking. After that, many voluntarily began staying home.
There are signs that apprehension of reopening isn’t just among Democrats and left-leaning Independents in blue coastal states either. The president’s rally in Tulsa was chronically under-attended, reservations for dining out are down substantially from this time last year even in states that have largely reopened.
Just this week, Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Billy Nungesser told CNN that families around Lake Charles were in many cases hesitant to evacuate from Hurrican Laura because of COVID-19 fears. He told CNN that they “were fearful of being put in a large shelter”. The area around Lake Charles is one of the most Republican places in the country. Even healthy people are staying away from gatherings. Many college students have backed out of leases and stayed home, despite largely being low risk.
A Missed Opportunity
Not only is Trump’s relaxed attitude towards COVID likely out of step with most voter’s opinions, it also represents a missed opportunity. Americans are scared and would likely have ceded broad authority to the administration and law enforcement more generally.
Granted, the Constitution provides for a weaker central government then exists in most other developed countries. But still, it’s not hard to envision how much power the administration would have had. A nationwide lockdown would have given law enforcement the broad authority to restrict citizens’ movement and actions for an indefinite time, to whatever extent they saw fit. Even if the federal government could not impose a nationwide lockdown, states could have taken cues from the administration about what to do.
This kind of policy also would have likely raised the profile of law enforcement. Americans would have seen officers dealing with their biggest current fear – COVID-19. Perhaps Americans would have a more positive attitude towards police if they saw them as a line of defense between them, their families, and Coronavirus.
Nearing Judgement Day
Now Trump faces a third crisis – his re-election. As the country closes in on two months to Election Day, he remains trailing Joe Biden by a sizable margin. He has tried and failed to find a key wedge issue that he can use to gin up support. The campaign may have believed that protests and riots would convince voters they needed a strong, conservative leader, but this has not happened. Instead, voters see him as too relaxed and scattershot on the COVID-19, an issue where they desire control and safety, and too harsh on race relations where they desire dialogue.