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How police officers became the culture-war heroes of the Trump era

An identity politics that conservatives could love.

Donald Trump Addresses Members Of Law Enforcement On Long Island Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In a year full of revelations, sudden twists, and a steady barrage of breaking-news push notifications, it’s easy to miss the slight but durable shifts that happen when a force building for years finally secures power.

In 2017, that’s what happened to law enforcement — or rather, to a particular vision of law enforcement, in which rank-and-file officers are an embattled group standing up for their rights, and “public safety” means deferring to the interests of those officers.

The assimilation of law-enforcement politics into the American culture war has been a few years in the making. 2017 was the year that the cult of the culture-warrior cop took the reins of the federal government — thanks to a president whose most consistent theme was the restoration of social order.

Many of the president’s policy promises remain unfulfilled or suffer roadblocks. His drive to empower certain law enforcement officers in the name of law and order has been arguably his first year’s least-qualified success.

The adoption of law enforcement officers by conservatives as a form of identity politics — from the state legislature in Louisiana to the NFL — started before Donald J. Trump. 2017 was the year that made it clear that it’s powerful and durable enough to outlast him.

An identity politics conservatives could get behind

Donald Trump, as president, is making policy by culture war. At times, this has distracted from or even undermined his own administration’s actions (never mind those of Congress). But when it comes to empowering rank-and-file law enforcement officials by weakening oversight of them, the president and his policymakers are in lockstep.

Trump brags about taking the handcuffs off federal immigration agents; an executive order signed the first week of his presidency gave them latitude to arrest and deport any unauthorized immigrant in the US. He jokes to a group of police officers that they should be rougher with subjects; his Department of Justice (led by Jeff Sessions) has moved away from civil rights investigations into local police departments.

Trump says that MS-13 is terrorizing communities; his Department of Homeland Security is renewing contracts with local law enforcement to enforce immigration law, and has reauthorized local cops to get access to military equipment. Trump complains of “American carnage”; his administration has pivoted away from support for criminal-justice reform, and pushed federal prosecutors to focus on drugs, violent crime, and immigration charges.

The last Republican administration adopted the soldier as its mascot — “supporting the troops” became synonymous with supporting the Bush administration’s interventionist foreign policy. But as Republicans soured on interventionism (and on George W. Bush), the lionization of “the troops” grew more peripheral to conservative visions of America.

The current Republican president, while he likes generals (particularly gruff generals with tough-sounding nicknames), isn’t much of a natural commander-in-chief. He’s happy to delegate the military decision-making, and a bit awkward (to say the least) interacting with actual soldiers and their families.

More fundamentally, Trump’s vision of America doesn’t mesh with the vision of the soldier as the archetypical American hero: a globally respected force out to protect the rights and freedom of all, through force when necessary. He’s much more comfortable with an America that is somehow the underdog, beset by haters and losers without and within, but is finally punching its way back.

The “American heroes” best suited to Trump’s vision aren’t soldiers — they’re law enforcement officers. Support for law enforcement has become a form of identity politics allyship for many white and conservative Americans: a way to argue against progressive policies and attitudes by speaking on behalf of a marginalized group.

Funeral Held For NYPD Officer Slain While On Duty In The Bronx Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It’s long been accepted — in practice, if not in policy — that the No. 1 job of law enforcement officers is to keep themselves safe, and that they ought to be allowed to do whatever it takes to ensure that. From that perspective, any attempts to restrict the power of police officers — whether from management or from the public — are rules imposed from the outside that could render officers unable to defend themselves. They are, or could be, threats to officers’ lives.

Combine this with some high-profile ambush-style attacks on police and you have the germ of a powerful idea: that criticism of police officers puts their lives in danger.

This is an idea that’s been put forward, broadly, by conservative analysts like Heather Mac Donald, who’s championed the “Ferguson effect” theory — that protests in response to high-profile police shootings end up empowering criminals and demotivating police. It’s encouraged by cable news coverage that has often conflated calls for reforms to police departments with “anti-police” sentiments, and blurred the lines between peaceful protest and riot — giving many suburban Americans the idea that the “inner cities” of America are grotesquely unsafe.

And it’s led to the adoption of “Blue Lives Matter” as a response to “Black Lives Matter,” in slogan and in sentiment, by Republicans — especially the law-and-order, racially conservative Republicans who make up the core of Donald Trump’s supporters.

Since 2014, Gallup polling has found that Americans’ confidence in police has polarized. While similar numbers of Americans say they’re confident in police between 2015 and 2017 (54 percent) as 2012 to 2014 (55 percent), the composition has changed. Liberals, African Americans, and Latinos are less confident in police. Whites, older Americans, and especially conservatives are more confident.

From 2012 to 2014, conservative confidence in police averaged 59 percent; from 2015 to 2017, it jumped 8 points higher, to 67 percent.

Speakers led Republican National Convention attendees in “Blue Lives Matter” chants. Blue Lives Matter bills that would make it a hate crime to target a police officer have already been passed in Louisiana — where the law has been used to arrest at least one protester — and are under consideration in other states. (One of the executive orders Trump signed appears to call for Congress to pass such a law at the federal level as well.)

The animating idea is that law enforcement officers, under President Barack Obama, were a persecuted group — the public hated them and would jump on them for any minor error, and the federal government was more interested in scrutinizing them than supporting them.

By supporting civil rights inquiries into the Ferguson and Baltimore police departments and expressing an interest in improving police-community relations, President Obama had, by this view, chosen “the side” of the disorderly protesters. And therefore, it was only appropriate for President Trump to choose “the side” of the police.

A powerful exception to “deep state” skepticism

The “Blue Lives Matter” culture war paralleled an internal fight that had often burst out into the open over Obama’s immigration policy, between Department of Homeland Security leadership trying to set “priorities” for which unauthorized immigrants to apprehend and immigration enforcement unions that felt bureaucrats were preventing them from doing their job.

The immigration-bureaucracy battle broke down along familiar labor/management lines. But because agents’ “low morale” was blamed in part on the Obama administration’s “handcuffs,” it was hard to tell where the bread-and-butter disputes ended and the ideological disagreement — the idea that to attempt to control or scrutinize the actions of law enforcement officials would automatically make it impossible for them to do their jobs and protect the public — began.

Trump’s willingness to take the side of the agents gave him an important institutional ally as a candidate for the presidency. And he immediately kept his promise to them.

Trump’s most immediate and lasting success on his signature issue has been to “take the handcuffs off” immigration enforcement agents, restoring their ability to arrest unauthorized immigrants wherever found, to give them more latitude in where they can make those arrests, and to build closer connections between local law-enforcement agencies and the federal immigration-enforcement system.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement

The administration rescinded a host of memos in its first week setting enforcement priorities. It hasn’t replaced them with a strategy of its own. That’s by design. Tactical flexibility for agents — taking the handcuffs off — can’t coexist with extensive centrally set strategy.

This is a quietly radical vision of policymaking. It’s a vision in which, because rank-and-file law enforcement officers know best what it takes to keep communities safe (after all, they live it) everyone else — including the public and their own superiors — should yield to their judgment. It’s a vision of policymaking made on the front lines.

It’s hardly like the Trump administration is applying this decentralist view consistently. In most other respects, they have shown a deep distrust of rank-and-file government employees — and on occasion a desire to purge the “deep state.” It’s not like they’re automatically deferential to law enforcement (just look at the FBI), or even to immigration functionaries. The administration’s travel bans take authority out of the hands of consular officers; immigration judges worry that the Department of Justice is trying to bully them into taking a hard line against defendants in their courtrooms.

So this isn’t deference to local knowledge. It’s deference to the work of maintaining the social order. The people on the “front lines” of securing the homeland — a phrase favored by chief of staff (and former Homeland Security Secretary) John Kelly — must be allowed to operate on their own terms, in the shadows, to keep nightmares at bay.

A resistance to public oversight

It’s that insistence on deference, in part, that’s led to law enforcement being the focus of national news less in 2017 than in previous years (with the obvious exception of the FBI). No police shooting has attracted sustained national attention in the way they have in previous years. (Conversely, attacks on law-enforcement officials have become news stories only on the right.)

You can’t have news without public knowledge. And those deferential to law enforcement don’t believe that public knowledge is terribly relevant to getting the job done — or can even be detrimental to it.

The federal government can’t produce blockbuster reports into systemic injustices in local law enforcement if it isn’t investigating them. We reporters can’t analyze how well the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement efforts are actually working when the data is being presented to us by enforcement agencies themselves, rather than statistics agencies, and is subject to unclear definitions (and just plain sloppy mistakes) that make it hard to tell what’s going on.

It’s hard to find out the truth about, say, what really killed a border patrol agent in Texas when one of the administration’s top officials has upbraided the press for not “defaulting” to the answers given by rank and file agents in the past. It’s hard to know what policies ICE really has in place for raids when DHS officials refuse to meet with one party’s representatives in Congress. It’s hard to believe administration paeans to the actions of customs agents during the first travel ban when the former DHS inspector general is accusing them of trying to suppress a report alleging they violated court orders.

John Kelly addresses the White House press corps White House

To ask questions is to be ungrateful for the security that law enforcement officers provide. As John Kelly puts it, asking questions of certain institutions is a sign that America has forgotten how to honor the “sacred.” The implication is that it is the duty of American citizens to place their faith in the people sworn to protect them — not the other way round.

When it’s the job of the public to serve police

Law enforcement officers are one of many groups of people whose lives are affected by public safety policy. They have skin in the game and an understandable interest in protecting it. Law enforcement officers often candidly agree that as far as they’re concerned, their No. 1 job is to get home safe, and they’ll do what it takes to ensure that. They are, essentially, a class — which is why it makes sense that conservatives, normally anti-union, have embraced unions representing law enforcement officers.

But they are only one of many interests at stake. And their interests are often independent of the broader question of preventing crime and promoting safety.

The more explicitly support for law enforcement is cast as a form of identity politics, the clearer this becomes. A dozen states have passed laws stiffening penalties for attacks on police officers (to vomit on an officer in Georgia is now a felony); a handful of them, including Texas and Kentucky, have classified attacks on officers as hate crimes.

Other stakeholders have other interests, including transparency, privacy, and sometimes safety from overpolicing and excessive force.

The insistence on deference to law enforcement thus creates a paradox. Law-enforcement officers have been adopted by one side of a culture war, and their specific interests happily championed. But to point out that the interest of law enforcement isn’t a universal interest is enough to cast you as undeserving of the protection that they provide.

This is really the only way the “Ferguson effect” makes logical sense: If you accept that police are justified in refusing to protect residents who don’t respect police. It’s the only way that it makes sense for ICE Head Thomas Homan to simultaneously say that no unauthorized immigrant should feel safe from law enforcement, and insist that unauthorized immigrants who are victims of crime and domestic violence are obligated to report those crimes to police: If you accept that it is a civic duty to respect the authority of law enforcement, and to withhold that respect is to forfeit membership in the community.

It’s genuinely hard to protect everyone. It usually requires a process of trust-building, maintaining a fragile equilibrium, gathering input from a range of specific groups with specific interests and expertise. That’s not what public safety meant in 2017. It meant a gift bestowed by law-enforcement officers on grateful Americans — and one that would disappear, poof, the minute anyone dared to examine it too closely.

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