At a rally in Florida on Tuesday Donald Trump made an incredibly false and incredibly dangerous statement. “Do you know,” he said, “that murder is the highest it’s been in our country in 45 years?”
An imagined reality in which the nation is under siege by an explosion of violent crime (implicitly of black and brown violent crime) has been one of Trump’s go-to demagogic deceptions throughout his campaign. His claims yesterday, however, raised his lying levels to astronomically and truly dangerously high levels.
In reality, the murder rate last year according to the FBI was 4.9 per 100,000 people, which was indeed a five-year high. The 2015 rate, however, was lower than any year since 1963. 45 years ago in 1970 the murder rate was 7.9 per 100,000 and for much of the period between 1970 and 1995 the rate was higher than 9 per 100,000, or more than double the current rate.
Since then, the murder rate has taken an almost unprecedented plunge, to a 51-year low of 4.4 per 100,000 in 2014. While there has been a small uptick in homicide rates in many areas over the past year, these marginal increases are far from the overall trend, much less a 45-year high. On the contrary, America has been so successful in reducing its homicide rate – as well as its violent crime rate overall – that we may have reached a bottoming-out point where there will be small fluctuations from year to year.
Polling has repeatedly shown that the vast majority of Americans are unaware of the drastic decrease in crime rates over the past few decades, not least because demagogic Republican politicians see exaggerated and racialized fears of crime as one of their most effective tools of winning votes through fear mongering. Donald Trump, however, is taking advantage of this public ignorance like no one before, to the point of creating an alternate reality in which crime is running rampant, largely because of the imagined “war on police.”
This is one of the most dangerous of Trump’s numerous lies because it both feeds into his authoritarian tendencies and serves to further stigmatize and oppress minority communities. Trump has repeatedly demonstrated his dictatorial urges (which Maine governor Paul LePage recently explicitly endorsed) and has even taken to campaigning on the classic dictator’s justification of “law and order.” As any student of history knows, totalitarianism arises when a population is sufficiently frightened to see the trade-off of liberty for security as worthwhile, and Trump’s lies about crime are conditioning his supporters for just that.
Moreover, and certainly not lost on the racists who form the base of Trump’s support, “tough on crime” is coded language for “tough on African-Americans.” In the right-wing imagination the vast majority of crime is perpetrated by a dysfunctional African-American community and fears of exploding crime have been used for decades to justify the implementation of a prison-based system of racial apartheid that targets African-Americans at Latinos at astronomical rates while leaving whites generally untouched for the same nonviolent crimes. The more the Republican base buys into the patently false idea that crime is at dangerously high levels, the greater the risk to our nation’s sacred liberties, especially for minority communities. Democrats and decent Republicans thus need to do everything they can to counter this most treacherous of Trump’s lies.
James DeVinne is a student at American University in Washington, DC majoring in International Service with a focus on the Middle East and South Asia. He is a founding member of Occupy Baltimore and interns at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.