Are We Really Shocked That GOP Doesn’t Really Believe In Law And Order

5 min readFeb 2, 2018

For the past few days, as the “release the memo” drama unfolds, I have constantly heard pundits declare surprise and shock that the Republican party would abandon its longstanding position on “law and order” by brazenly attacking the FBI and the DOJ, violating the FISA process, and potentially releasing compromising national security information. Well, maybe it’s time to recognize that the GOP’s support for law and order was just more posturing in much the same way the party managed to pretend it cared about the debt and deficits.

For decades, Republicans have gotten away with empty rhetoric about deficit spending. Ronald Reagan ran against Jimmy Carter by complaining about the rising debt, which was under $1 trillion and whose debt-to-GDP ratio was a miniscule 31% when Carter left office. Reagan’s unfunded tax cuts managed to triple the debt and, by the time George H.W. Bush left office, the debt-to-GDP ratio had doubled. Bill Clinton, with his increased taxes on the rich, managed to stabilize the debt and run a budget surplus that was actually reducing the debt by the time he left office.

Rather than paying down the debt, George W. Bush claimed that the surplus “belonged to the American people” and passed another massive unfunded tax cut that managed to double debt and increase the debt-to-GDP ration by another 35%, while leaving the country in the greatest economic slump since the Great Depression. For the next eight years, Republicans railed against the rising debt largely created by the Bush tax cuts and the government’s response to the Great Recession.

And now that they have regained power, the GOP has passed yet another massive unfunded tax cut whose negative effects on the debt are already being felt. Already, reduced tax receipts have forced the Treasury to move up the date at which the debt ceiling will be hit and the government will “run out of money” by nearly a month. The new date is now expected to be sometime in early March.

For the 30 years, Republicans have passed unfunded tax cuts that have exploded the national debt. And yet for thirty years, they have gotten away with being called the fiscally responsible party. It is quite a scam. Now, reporters say they will never take the GOP’s claims about the debt seriously again. I’ll believe that when I see it.

Law and order only really became a Republican staple in the 1960s. If anything, it had primarily been the domain of Democrats, especially Southern Democrats, who used it to keep those “uppity Negroes” down. But the Voting and Civil Rights Acts of the mid-1960s changed all that. Ronald Reagan ran on a law and order platform that linked together and targeted the underclass and the counterculture in the 1960s. Running for Governor of California, Reagan’s mantra was to put “the welfare bums back to work,” and “to clean up the mess at Berkeley.”

That proved a very effective formula for Reagan for the rest of his career and for the Republican party in general. But Richard Nixon was the one who took Reagan’s message and nationalized it for the 1968 election. The chaos and divisions within the Democratic party over the Vietnam war, especially evident in the war on the streets in Chicago during the Democratic convention, only highlighted Nixon’s message. But it’s real purpose was to peel enough votes from the racist Southern Dixiecrats, represented by George Wallace in the 1968 campaign, without alienating too many moderate Republicans, (who actually existed back then), while potentially poaching some traditionally blue-collar Democrats who felt threatened in their jobs and communities by the Great Migration of black to the north and who also despised the hippies. He successfully co-opted law and order as a dog whistle for racial discrimination and politics for the Republican party. And it worked.

Nixon made the so-called Southern Strategy more explicit in the 1972 campaign because he did not have to worry about an independent challenge on the right, as Wallace had presented in 1968. That tactic essentially consolidated the Southern vote in Republican hands where it has remained almost exclusively ever since, as has the belief that the Republican party is the law and order party.

Reagan’s message in 1980 was not much different than his one in California, focusing on “welfare queens” and replacing the hippie-bashing with simply law and order. And when George H. W. Bush was in a tight race against Michael Dukakis, he went down the “law and order” path with the racist Willie Horton ad.

Bill Clinton had grown up in Arkansas and he knew how to play the law and order game. He was able to blunt Republican attacks on that issue by talking about “playing by the rules” while at the same time attacking Sister Souljah, executing a mentally deficient black man, and then engaging in the mass incarceration of minorities.

Donald Trump merely revived the Reagan/Nixon law and order message for 2016. This time it was more focused on immigrants as well as minorities and extended to his political opponents and anyone who dissented from his or his supporters’ views. His specific law and order comments were directed at creating the impression that minority communities were war zones, feeding into to the paranoia and desires of his white nationalist base.

But for the last forty years, Republican’s law and order message has primarily really been a signal for its divisive racial politics. When you actually look at the actions of those law and order Presidents, it is a wonder the party still maintained its law and order reputation. Nixon had Watergate, Reagan and Bush had Iran-Contra, and Bush II had the bogus intelligence to start the Iraq War, the outing of Valerie Plame, and the politicization of US Attorneys. All of these were egregious violations of US law. And when it comes to lawlessness, Trump is in a class all by himself.

Just as the Republican reputation of being fiscally responsible provided cover for continued massive unfunded tax cuts, so too the reputation for law and order hid the fact that that the party had progressively converted into a white nationalist party. Law and order started out as merely a code for co-opting a regional racist party, which then consumed the party at large. Law and order was never about following the law. It was about oppressing minorities and now immigrants. We shouldn’t be surprised that Trump is now attacking our legal and justice system with the help of Republicans in order to save himself. Because law and order was never about upholding the law, but rather about maintaining order for the white majority.

Originally published at on February 2, 2018.




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