Midway through the first presidential debate of the 2016 election, moderator Lester Holt asked Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to tackle the racial divide. How would they bridge the gap between Americans with vastly different experiences of the country?
Hillary Clinton went first and gave an answer that played to her strengths. She turned the conversation toward criminal justice reform and emphasized new training and techniques for police officers. She promised to “bring communities together” and encourage mutual respect between police departments and the publics they serve. And she pledged to take guns off the streets and out of the hands of criminals. Her underlying assumptions weren’t always correct—to talk about restoring trust between black communities and police is to assume trust was there to begin with—but she tackled the subject at hand.
Trump didn’t. Instead, he moved to more comfortable territory. “Well, first of all, Secretary Clinton doesn’t want to use a couple of words and that’s ‘law and order.’ And we need law and order. If we don’t have it, we’re not going to have a country.” From here, he moved into his now-typical appeal to black voters. “We have a situation where we have our inner cities—African Americans, Hispanics are living in hell because it’s so dangerous. You walk down the street, you get shot.” He ended this riff with a declaration: that cities like Chicago needed stop-and-frisk to make them safe. He was thrumming the big home chord of his campaign—the idea that there should be two sets of laws in America, one for white people and one for everyone else.
If you’ve followed this election at all—and if you aren’t sympathetic to the Republican nominee—you’ve probably experienced “Trump fatigue,” the feeling of exhaustion that comes with tracking the twists and turns of Donald Trump’s dishonesty, his incoherence, his outrageous rhetoric. But Trump fatigue doesn’t matter because of its effect on journalists and their emotional lives; it matters because it shapes coverage. When everything is an outrage—when everything is an untruth or a distortion—then nothing is. And we miss those words and statements that do matter.
Here, at the debate, was rhetoric that mattered. As president, Trump would try to revive a program deemed unconstitutional. And this wasn’t the first time he’s said as much. Last week, he gestured at outreach to black Americans with a town hall, hosted by Sean Hannity of Fox News. It was everything you would expect, including Trump’s misleading and tendentious depiction of black life in the United States. “Now, I have to say, the crime is just beyond anything—it’s worse than Afghanistan,” said Trump.
The town hall continued this way, with Trump (and Hannity) spinning to a largely white audience a twisted and distorted picture of black communities that eventually flowed into an endorsement of stop-and-frisk. “Well, one of the things I’d do … is I would do stop-and-frisk,” said Trump, in response to a question about “black-on-black crime.” “I think you have to. We did it in New York. It worked incredibly well, and you have to be proactive, and, you know, you really help people sort of change their mind.” Trump later explicitly endorsed stop-and-frisk for Chicago. The larger idea, that this was necessary for order, went unchallenged.
It’s easy to treat this enthusiasm for stop-and-frisk as just another instance of Trump’s ignorance. He doesn’t know that it’s unconstitutional. He doesn’t know that it wasn’t responsible for New York City’s safer streets. But it’s more than that. With his rhetoric of law and order at the debate and at the town hall, Trump underlined the core conceit of his candidacy: that people of color—either citizens or otherwise—are the principal threat to the United States.
It’s worth a moment to say that Trump is wrong about stop-and-frisk. Introduced to New York City under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, stop-and-frisk was vastly expanded under his successor, Michael Bloomberg. The idea was that, through arbitrary stops and detentions, you would take guns and offenders off the street. The reality, according to data collected by the New York Civil Liberties Union, is that there’s almost no evidence to tie stop-and-frisk to the decline of violent crime in New York, which began before Giuliani’s administration and has continued to the present, even after a federal judge declared the practice unconstitutional in 2013.
That last point is important. Stop-and-frisk was ineffective, but that’s not why it was challenged in court. Stop-and-frisk was challenged because it was used almost exclusively against blacks and Latinos, as a method of sanctioned intimidation. Elected officials like then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg shrugged, arguing that this was necessary. “I think we disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little. It’s exactly the reverse of what they say,” said Bloomberg in 2013, even as nonwhites made up 80 to 90 percent of all stops. The argument in favor of this was crime; if most perpetrators of violent crime are young black and Latino men, then the police should target them. The problem is obvious: Most perpetrators of violent crime in New York might be young black and Latino men, but the vast majority of young black and Latino aren’t involved in crime. To treat them as presumptively criminal is to ignore factors outside of age and race that actually do contribute to violence. It’s noteworthy that when police stopped whites, they were twice more likely to find weapons, a sign that a trained and discerning eye could identify possible offenders without racial profiling.
New York City under stop-and-frisk was a place where people of color, and men of color in particular, could be detained for belonging to a class that had been deemed suspect. And Trump sees that as a model for dealing with violent crime in Chicago and wherever else it flares up.
In practice, it’s hard to imagine how a President Trump would accomplish this expansion of stop-and-frisk. The practice, again, is unconstitutional, to say nothing of the fact that local police practice falls far outside the White House’s jurisdiction. But whether Trump’s plan is feasible is less important than what this new plank says about his larger agenda.
What does Trump want for the country? He wants a wall on the Mexican border and a massive expansion of federal immigration enforcement, to remove millions of “illegal” immigrants from the country. He wants a ban on Muslim refugees to the United States as a “matter of quality of life” as well as a precaution against terrorism, and he wants a larger ban on any travelers from “dangerous regions” (read: Muslims). He wants greater surveillance of Muslim communities and religious institutions. He wants to expand stop-and-frisk to other cities, and his vice presidential nominee—Indiana Gov. Mike Pence—believes we spend too much time talking about “institutional bias or racism within law enforcement.”
These plans are instructive, even as they lack for detail. They provide a vision of Donald Trump’s America. It’s a country where a new deportation force is empowered to scour the land for unauthorized immigrants and remove them as a matter of course. It’s one where Muslims are under constant suspicion and surveillance. It’s one where millions of black Americans are deprived of key constitutional rights under a regime that treats them as presumptively criminal and turns a blind eye to bias in policing and law enforcement. It is, with no exaggeration, an America where whites receive the legal and cultural benefit of the doubt, and nonwhites are held guilty or complicit until proven otherwise.