There’s a long and ugly history of ‘law and order’ being wielded to maintain dangerous power structures.
“I am the law and order candidate,” then presidential candidate Trump noted in 2016. And since then, he has continued acting on this idea. While few of us would oppose “law and order” entirely, the conception of it that’s anchored to this American president, and what he represents, should give pause. By using such broad terms, Trumpians can claim to have the country and the world’s best interests at heart.
The idea of “law and order” has a particular history in America, famously espoused by George Wallace and Richard Nixon in their presidential bids. As FiveThirtyEight notes in its excellent history on the concept:
“The first definition of law and order was closely linked to a broad social context, a reaction to activists who challenged American foreign policy, traditional gender roles, and other aspects of the social order alongside race issues.”
Campus protests, feminists being outspoken, black communities calling out laws and policies that target them specifically — America has been here before and, as before, those in power cite law and order to maintain power structures. In other words, if you oppose the horrific, awful results of their “law and order” policies, you must hate America, the world, law, and, well, order. This was effective for Nixon, Wallace, and others — and now it’s proven effective for President Trump’s administration.Those in power cite law and order to maintain power structures. Click To Tweet
Trump has shown, especially in these last months, his willingness to not only uphold white supremacy but to encourage policies and strategies that further target minority groups. Law, in his hands, is a way to bring about that supremacy using the powerful machine of government. When those who stand for white supremacy, like President Trump, begin touting law and order, I am reminded of South Africa’s apartheid history.
An often-forgotten aspect of apartheid was that the horrific practices and racist policies were entirely legal.
“The South African administration of justice and the judicature stand out as a symbol of hope and confidence. Even South Africa’s severest critics readily conceded that the standard of the administration of justice in South Africa is of the highest order…[the former US Ambassador to the UN, Andrew Young] spontaneously and readily conceded that the South African administration of justice complied with the highest standards.”
This was stated by a member of the South African National Party in Parliament in 1985. (The future) President Mandela and others were still in prison. As Richard Abel states in Politics by Other Means: Law in the Struggle Against Apartheid, 1980–1994: “the infrastructure of apartheid — an administrative nightmare more complex and bureaucratic than the combined tax code, criminal law, regulatory apparatus, and welfare system of most countries — was constructed out of law…” (If it is constructed out of law it was “thus susceptible to legal challenge,” making it one of the few ways opponents could fight back.)
Law is not automatically premised on morality or grander ideas of justice — in a nutshell, law concerns itself with the rules needed to govern, to keep the peace, to maintain order. Whether the law succeeds is a separate question, but that is ultimately its purpose. Thus, at its base, law is not good or bad, but necessary for a society to function. It’s the nuts and bolts to keep the machine of government moving. Asking “What is the law?” is a separate question to “Is the law morally justified?”. Ask those who maintained law during the Nazi regime, for example.
Even the discussion of whether law is effective does not mean it is good — in terms of being effective to maintain white supremacy and colonial rule, apartheid laws were often successful. They maintained separation based on race, providing little or no opportunity for people of color, creating unfathomable and unnecessary limitations on their freedoms.
And all of it was legal.
So what does “law and order” mean for white supremacy? Consider the description above: law as a tool, as a necessary outcome of governance.
The first question is what are you trying to govern? The obvious answer is people, your citizens.
The next question is how. For the apartheid government, they wanted to make sure the machine of separation of the races continued. Thus: laws demanding black people carry passes was implemented to reinforce government surveillance, keeping populations separate and instilling constant fear; the necessity of language restrictions and elimination of subjects in education butchered the future of entire generations of young people of color; before 1985, even romantic and sexual interactions “between the races” was forbidden, thanks to laws like the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act and the Immorality Act. Law dominates every facet of life for a citizen — but the laws are created by a government, which decides how it wishes to govern.
Consider President Trump’s America. With unsubstantiated claims of a violent society, the government has decided on a stronger, more strict response to even minor crimes. This has led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions issuing orders to prosecutors to seek the harshest penalties — for example, regarding drugs. Many have noted that this is not only ineffective, but that it is minority communities who would suffer the most.
Even in February, those with decades of experience in law enforcement noted that such hardline stances are shit. Research has shown how ineffective and devastating mass incarceration is, here and abroad, and yet here we are doubling down on stuffing prisons with more people. This is to say nothing about unequal consequences for crimes based on race.
You need not be distrustful of the concepts of law, you need only worry about who is claiming to defend it. A hammer is different in the hands of a woodworker than in the hands of a screaming KKK member. The problem isn’t the hammer, it’s the wielder.
While it’s true that there is a separation of powers between those who make laws — the legislature, Congress — and those who enforce them — the executive branch, the Trump administration — you can’t ignore that the GOP, which controls much of the law-making bodies, has continued to demonstrate the most vile, cynical, and immoral perspectives on the world.You need not be distrustful of the concepts of law, you need only worry about who is claiming to defend it. Click To Tweet
President Trump and his administration do not — and indeed may not — make the laws. These toxic laws they need to enforce are already shat out with regular abandon by the coagulated, cantankerous rot of hypersensitive white male fragility called the Republican Party. These old white men with spiderwebs for spines cut holes through human decency and slither around ethical deliberation. This is not a place where laws premised on goodness and justice are made, but where power is reinforced and white supremacy nurtured.
Law and order are the tools they use to hollow out what you might laughably call American democracy so they can pour their cynicism in. What’s birthed is a society increasingly witnessing what so many have fought against and thought they’d overcome: public demonstrations of racism, white supremacy, segregation, hostility. In a sense, they want a paranoid world, a violent society, to justify their horrific laws. In responding to a threat that isn’t there, these fragile white men are trying to create it. They are frightened townspeople storming an empty windmill.
The point is, cries of law and order and “hardline” stances do not automatically make for a good society. They often make for a worse society because such hardline stances are, as history shows, often tools for white supremacy. Law is not automatically good. Indeed, the moral thing to do could be to oppose such laws — as so many during the apartheid struggle, including future Presidents and government officials, did.Law and order are the tools they use to hollow out what you might laughably call American democracy so Republicans can pour their cynicism in. Click To Tweet
Ideally, fighting law with more law can create improvement. This should be distinguished from the chest-beating cries of “law and order” made by those who care not for progress, but for the maintenance of current power structures. Law itself can be good for progress, but assertions of “law and order” only focus on keeping things as they are.
For example, in South Africa, our highest court struck down the death penalty as a legal form of punishment, because it conflicted with our highest law (our Constitution, which established a right to life, human dignity, and so on, which the death penalty violated). In America, the Supreme Court only recently allowed for equal marriage across all states, and the Courts have spent thousands of pages striking down President Trump’s travel ban.
But when “law and order” is used as a slogan, as a basis for hardline responses that have been demonstrated to be ineffective, as tools to cement white supremacy, we see that law is a tool that may not be on your side — in the end, those who care about actual justice must be constantly vigilant when those in power claim to be defending law.