Just days after Donald Trump suggested that U.S. General Mark Milley — the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — deserved to be executed for not being unflaggingly loyal to Trump’s every whim, the ex-president came to California to fantasize about more violence.
In front of an enthusiastic gathering of California Republicans at a convention in Anaheim, Trump declared that it is time for the police to simply shoot shoplifters on sight. The idea might have been straight out of the vigilante playbook of the Philippines’ authoritarian ex-president, Rodrigo Duterte, who advocated hiring the unemployed to kill criminal suspects, or of Brazilian ex-president Jair Bolsonaro, who campaigned on the slogan that “a good criminal is a dead criminal” and talked about digging graves for all the criminals who would die during his presidency.
Not that Trump needs any external mentors to fuel his violent rhetoric. Throughout his political career, he has fetishized state and paramilitary violence.
In the 1980s, the young real estate mogul took out full-page advertisements in New York newspapers calling for the swift execution of the (now exonerated) teenagers accused of raping a jogger in Central Park. In 2016, as a presidential candidate the now-septuagenarian Trump ginned up his crowds to chant for the imprisonment or execution of Hillary Clinton.
The violent fantasies continued. At one point during his presidency, he pondered why the U.S. couldn’t just create an alligator-filled moat to deter migrants. Later, in 2020, he publicly suggested that U.S. soldiers should shoot migrants at the southern border if they threw rocks, and also called more generally for soldiers to shoot migrants in the legs simply as a deterrent to scare others off from making the crossing. During the Black Lives Matter protests in late May and June 2020, he recycled a notorious quote from a southern segregationist police chief: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” During a presidential debate, he told the paramilitary Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”
Trump’s declaration on Friday that suspected shoplifters should be shot as they are trying to leave U.S. stores is very much in line with the rest of his disregard for due process and efforts to legitimate the use of extrajudicial and vigilante violence.
The twice-impeached ex-president has an unerring instinct for honing in on society’s anxieties and fears, and then twisting them to his own sadistic ends. He is working hard to capitalize on widespread fears about safety in U.S. cities that have been boosted by often-misleading media narratives about urban violence — perceptions that don’t always gel with the underlying data about violent urban crime and public safety. Though petty theft, publicly visible drug use, overdose deaths, houselessness and shoplifting are indeed unnervingly on the rise in many places, including in Sacramento, where I live, and though many businesses are leaving some central-city neighborhoods in response, that doesn’t mean that violence is also increasing across the board. In fact, while it is true that the murder rate in cities such as Chicago and Philadelphia has surged, the rate of violent crime in many other cities, including Los Angeles, has actually fallen over the past year. As journalist Joe Eskenazi recently pointed out to CNN, “In people’s minds, being uneasy about drug use in the streets or antisocial behavior is equated in their minds with crime. People feel uneasy, and that’s understandable.… But San Francisco’s violent crime rate is at a near historic low right now.”
In other words, it’s at least possible that Americans are currently so fearful of violent crime not because of a durable spike in violence — violent crime has indeed gone up in some cities, but it has stabilized or declined in others, and overall violent crime rates remain far lower than they were 30 years ago — but because of the visual presence of encampments and other signifiers of disorder. It’s that emotion-driven conflation of disparate phenomena, that sense that street-level disorder is a harbinger of an epidemic of murders, maybe even that inchoate notion that today’s shoplifter is tomorrow’s murderer, that Trump is seeking to harness with his demagogic embrace of summary justice for shoplifters out in California.
Trump has long understood that perceptions rather than reality are frequently more important in shaping a political narrative. He knows that if he can convince Americans that all cities are a cesspool of violence, and if he can go on to conflate lower-level quality-of-life law-breaking with violent crime in the public imagination, then there is fertile ground for his demagoguery to take root. He is all too aware that perceptions of a lack of safety or security on city streets are a political Achilles’ heel for Democrats, and that in states out west that are struggling with sky-high levels of homelessness and the growing presence of encampments on city streets, and where the public is particularly uneasy about quality-of-life issues, there is an opportunity to peddle the sorts of demagoguery that he’s a master of.
It’s no accident that Trump unveiled his plans for summary justice and death to shoplifters in California, where voters routinely say homelessness and the quality-of-life infractions perceived by many to accompany homelessness is the biggest crisis facing the state, rather than in, say, New York — where the right to shelter means that encampments haven’t taken off in the same way.
This is just the latest incarnation of Trumpian fantasies of violence to cure complex urban woes. Throughout his presidency, from his ghastly “American carnage” inauguration speech through to his responses to the protests that erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Trump ramped up the rhetoric about Democratic city leaders failing to keep their domains secure. He sent the national guard into Portland, Oregon, against the wishes of local leadership, to quell protests there, called the city of Baltimore a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess,” and contemplated setting up federal detention camps for California’s houseless population.
Trump’s words at the GOP gathering in Anaheim were stark. He would, he said, send in the military to help police cities and end crime. And he would give orders to police and soldiers to use maximum force. “We will immediately stop all of the pillaging and theft. Very simply: If you rob a store, you can fully expect to be shot as you are leaving that store.” He paused and then reiterated his point: “Shot!” The audience responded with wild applause.
This is, pure and simple, an embrace of extrajudicial killings, of the sort of snatch-them-and-kill-them programs that Brazilian police and paramilitary groups used in the 1980s and 1990s, when they would pick up addicted street children, kill them and dump their bodies.
To be clear, U.S. police and security guards already regularly shoot people to death, even though there is no police force in the country that, in its training manual, says it is acceptable to shoot a criminal suspect as punishment for their suspected crimes. Just this August, a security guard in Los Angeles shot to death DéVonnie J’Rae Johnson, a 28-year-old Black transgender woman, a few months after a security guard in a San Francisco Walgreens shot and killed Banco Brown, a 24-year-old Black transgender man who was trying to exit with $14 worth of unpurchased candy. Indeed, each year, somewhere in the region of 1,000 Americans are shot dead by the police. But, when it happens, there are supposed to be consequences.
What Trump is saying is that the killings of people engaged in petty crimes like shoplifting should become formalized and normalized — that they should become an extension of routine police and security work; and that instead of investigating and critiquing such shootings, society and its political leaders should embrace them. This is a horrifying extension of the fascist vision Trump has been rolling out for months now as his election campaigning ramps up.
The law be damned, the ex-president and his supporters are saying: If Trump wills it, it’s OK. It’s tempting to ignore these tirades, to simply chalk them up to Trumpian bluster. That would, however, be a terrible mistake. Trump is blasting his intentions from the rooftops these days. And those intentions involve stampeding away from the rule of law. As a society, we ignore them at our peril.
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