A Criminal Sin


From his initial descent down the escalator at Trump Tower to his absence at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner Trump has displayed on an uncanny ability to dominate the headlines in the American press. What Trump does, or doesn’t do, manages to suck up virtually all the media’s attention relegating context, explanations, and perspectives on the flow of events to a footnote in the coverage, if any mention at all.

On most issues, his musings and diatribes need little context for most people to discern their falsity—they are often blatant lies, exaggerations and mischaracterizations that are fairly obvious to anyone who is not a died in the wool trumpkin (here is an analysis of one of his “most comprehensively disproven tweets”). His now proven lies regarding payments to Stormy Daniels, his incessant attacks on the FBI, the Justice Department, the intelligence community, Robert Mueller, James Comey, and anyone who disagrees withhim speak for themselves; no help is needed to decipher his victimized mind at play. He misrepresents reality at a rate of 6.5 untruths per day  (according to a study by the Washington Post) most of his lies are on topics that don’t go to how Americans view themselves, their communities or their country

What is more troublesome are his characterizations of complex issues where his untruths are harder to discern and their impact truly insidious. In particular, his negative narrative of crime in America is truly dangerous with serious and bizarre policy implications.

On the issue of crime, Trump’s dystopian description of crime in America during his presidential campaign was particularly outrageous.

I’ll be able to make sure that when you walk down the street in your inner city, or wherever you are, you’re not going to be shot….your child isn’t going to be shot.

His constant refrain alleging rampant crime in American cities, his disdain for predominantly Black communities, his decrying of Mexican immigrants as murderers and thugs combined to gin up fear of crime across the country and provided a useful vehicle for his claim to be the savior who can keep us all safe.

His campaign rhetoric was topped off by his dark inaugural speech and the bizarre assertion that, “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”

Where Trump’s predecessors tried to calm fears and unwarranted anxiety (e.g. FDR’s “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”) this president raises illusory boogeymen to stoke fear and division.

The reality of crime in America over the past few decades is precisely the opposite of the “carnage” scenario that the president has trumpeted. In a recent piece in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik described what is really going on,

In the city [New York] where more than 2,000 people used to be murdered each year, 328 were killed in 2014, the lowest tally since the first half of the twentieth century.” (Last year, the tally was still lower.) It wasn’t just New York. Violent crime fell in Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Washington, and not by a little but by a lot.

More important, the quality of life changed dramatically, particularly for the most vulnerable. Sharkey, studying the crime decline in six American cities, concludes, “As the degree of violence has fallen, the gap between the neighborhoods of the poor and nonpoor has narrowed.” In Cleveland in the eighties, the level of violence in poor neighborhoods was about seventy per cent higher than in the rest of the city; by 2010, that number had dropped to twenty-four per cent. The reduction of fear allowed much else to blossom: “Subway cars, commuter lines, and buses in U.S. cities filled up, as residents and commuters became more willing to leave their cars behind and travel to and from work together.. . . Fans came back to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, and just as many began to show up for night games as for day games.” The big city was revived. From Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon, the transformation of America’s inner cities from wastelands to self-conscious espresso zones became the comedy of our time.

The data aren’t hidden, this reality is being lived by most Americans (the overall crime rate in Los Angeles is the lowest it has been since the 1950s and 60s), yet Trump has embedded this pernicious notion of carnage into the psyche of many who have become increasingly fearful. Gopnik helps explain the phenomenon (watch his recent appearance on CNN here).

Yet little trace of this transformation troubles our art, or even much of our public discourse. Our pundits either take the great crime decline for granted or focus on the troubles it has helped create, like high housing prices in San Francisco or Brooklyn. Even when we pay attention to the comedy, we rarely look at the cause.

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This lack of appreciation is partly a question of media attention-deficit disorder: if there is little news value in Dog Bites Man, there is none whatever in Dog Does Not Bite Man. It is part of the neutral unseen background of events, even if there had previously been an epidemic of dog bites. But it’s hard for those who didn’t live through the great crime wave of the sixties, seventies, and eighties to fully understand the scale or the horror of it, or the improbability of its end.

Not only do the media ignore what doesn’t happen, there is little percentage in rational candidates questioning the claimed increase in the incidence of crime, no matter how minimal the rate. There are always victims with heart-rending stories, pointing out how anomalous crimes are wins few friends.

The media ignore the profound transformation, candidates avoid countering the hyperbolic assertions, advertisers for burglar alarm systems and security devices bombard the airwaves with commercial depicting break ins and violent crimes and all the while the numbers for those crimes remain at historic lows.

Gopnik speculates as to why we are experiencing this profound transformation,

An epidemic of violence was resolved without addressing what were thought to be its underlying disorders. We cured the crime wave without fixing “the broken black family,” that neocon bugaboo. For that matter, we cured it without greater income equality or even remotely solving the gun problem. The story of the crime decline is about the wisdom of single steps and small sanities. We could end cholera—in London, they did—without really understanding how cholera bacteria work. We have curbed crime without knowing how we did it, perhaps simply by doing it in many ways at once. It is possible to see this as a kind of humanist miracle, a lesson about the self-organizing and, sometimes, self-healing capacities of human communities that’s as humbling, in its way, as any mystery that faith can offer.

Given the transformation of America that we are living through what we need is a courageous politician to wake us up to this reality, to decry the demagoguery and dissembling that surrounds the issue and acknowledge that so much of our energy, resources and fears are incorrectly targeted.

Trump is manifestly not that politician—he is a good part of the ailment, he is clearly not the cure.

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