clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

How the GOP became the champion of the police

Fox Nation’s reboot of the reality TV series ‘Cops’ shows that even law enforcement has become a political issue

Former President Donald Trump visits the New York Police Department’s 17th police precinct on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.
Former President Donald Trump, second from right, commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, by visiting the New York Police Department’s 17th police precinct in New York, where he criticized President Joe Biden over the pullout from Afghanistan.
Jill Colvin, Associated Press

It’s one of the ironies of modern political labeling: that people most likely to “back the blue” and shout “Blue Lives Matter” live in deeply red states.

That’s because although the practice of law enforcement is nonpartisan, support for the police is increasingly political. And it became even more so last year, thanks in part to a president who liked to tweet “LAW AND ORDER!!!” in a year marked by social unrest.

That president, Donald J. Trump, won the endorsement of the nation’s largest police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, in 2020, despite having a record considered anti-union by some labor leaders.

At the Republican National Convention in 2020, then-Vice President Mike Pence said to cheers, “We are going to make it clear that this president, this vice president and this party will always stand with the men and women who serve on the thin blue line of law enforcement. We’re going to back the blue.”

And for the latest sign that the GOP is firmly ensconced as the pro-police party, look to the offerings of Fox Nation.

Fox Corp.’s streaming service announced this week that it’s bringing back the canceled reality show “Cops” and giving first responders a free subscription. Fox also launched four other programs involving first responders, including “Protect and Serve,” a show that Fox says will “spotlight the good deeds and the truly heroic and impactful interactions that police officers often perform in the communities they serve.”

The announcement came on the heels of Trump’s decision not to attend a 9/11 memorial service, but instead to visit police officers and other first responders on the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks.

There’s a lot of territory between conservatives’ call to “Back the blue” and the extreme liberal cry to “Defund the police,” and President Joe Biden is urging his party to take a more moderate stance on the subject, in keeping with public views. Polling by Pew Research Center last summer found little support for cutting police budgets. But more than a half-century has passed since the parties were on the same page when it comes to law enforcement.

Here’s what changed since then, and how policing came to be part of what one scholar of conservatism calls “the theatre of politics.”

‘We’re misunderstood’

America had plenty of problems in the 1920s and ’30s, but differing philosophies on law enforcement wasn’t among them.

In those decades, the prevailing attitude held by the establishment, to include newspapers such as The New York Times, was “unapologetically in favor of law and order,” said Heather Mac Donald, a scholar at the Manhattan Institute and author of “The War on Cops,” among other books.

“They had nothing but contempt for criminals. They cheered on the cops,” Mac Donald said. “America’s establishment understood that respect for law and order, property rights and the sanctity of persons was essential to a functioning society.”

Thinking began to diverge because of two developments in the 1950s and ’60s: urban riots and social unrest, and the emergence of an ideology that, in Mac Donald’s words, “excused antisocial behavior as a product of an unjust society.”

She pointed to the song “Gee, Officer Krupke” from the musical “West Side Story,” which debuted in 1957, as the pop-culture realization of that philosophy. The song includes the lines, “We never had the love that ev’ry child oughta get/ We ain’t no delinquents/ We’re misunderstood.”

While the song was a humorous take on a serious subject, the period marked a turning point in how juveniles were treated in the criminal justice system and gave rise to a belief that criminals were victims, too — victims of their circumstances. The 1968 Kerner Commission report on deadly race riots the previous summer said that racism and bad policing was partly to blame.

Around the same time, violent crime was increasing, and conservative politicians like Alabama Gov. George Wallace and Sen. Barry Goldwater, of Arizona, began to use a phrase that Trump would adopt a half-century later: law and order. While the presidential aspirations of both men were not realized, the phrase stuck, and every subsequent GOP presidential contender, from Richard Nixon to Trump, recognized its appeal to their base.

Robert Goldberg, a history professor at the University of Utah and a biographer of Goldwater, said that Republicans blamed race riots that occurred in the summer of 1964 on Democrats and then-President Lyndon Johnson. That same year, Kitty Genovese was murdered in New York City, and her killing and the failure of bystanders to help was decried as the breakdown of the social fabric of American society, Goldberg said.

Goldwater’s use of the phrase “law and order” was widely seen as code for racism, “the idea that Blacks were associated with crime and the breakdown of law and order in the United States,” Goldberg said.

“I do not believe that Goldwater was a bigot, but he was willing to use an issue that would appeal to bigots,” he added.

The disproportionate imprisonment of Black men turned campaign themes about the need for more law and order into a dog whistle that continues today, even though public safety is a legitimate concern for all Americans, regardless of their political views. After food, water and air, the need for safety and stability is next on Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of human needs.

For that reason, Democrats can’t abandon law enforcement as an issue. In response to the GOP’s cry that liberals were soft on crime, Lyndon Johnson signed a “Safe Streets and Crime Control Act in 1968” and the party’s 2020 platform said “our criminal justice system is failing to keep communities safe.”

But in their most recent platform, Democrats decried police brutality, advocated “strict standards” to govern the use of force, and called for an overhaul of the criminal justice system, including more funding for childhood interventions. It also said that Black and Latino communities have been “overpoliced and underserved.”

The Republican platform of 2016 and 2020, meanwhile, said it was “a party of law and order” that “must make clear in words and action that every human life matters.” It decried “over-criminalization and over-federalization” which led to an increase in the number of criminal penalties in the U.S. code, called for more protection for crime victims and their families, and spoke of the dangers of the larger world.

“Our country faces a national security crisis and only by electing a Republican to the White House will we restore law and order to our land and safety to our citizens,’ the platform said.

The platform itself was dedicated to the military, law enforcement and first responders.

But it’s not just on the national level that being seen as tough on crime has worked for GOP politicians. Historian George H. Nash, author of “The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945” and “Reappraising the Right,” pointed out that Frank Rizzo and Rudy Giuliani, then mayors of Philadelphia and New York City, were celebrated for their anti-crime measures.

‘Whatcha gonna do?’

In bringing back the long-running series “Cops,” known for its memorable theme song “Bad Boys” and its unvarnished view of the difficulties of policing, Fox pushes back at a storyline that dominated the news in the wake of George Floyd’s death: the idea that police have too much power and too often abuse it, especially when it comes to Black Americans.

The social unrest in the summer of 2020 was reminiscent of race riots decades earlier, but went even further with the call to “defund police,” which both Goldberg and Mac Donald said they had not heard before 2020.

Only a quarter of Americans believe police budgets should be cut or eliminated, according to Pew, compared to 42% who say funding should remain the same and 31% who say it should be increased.

For some Americans, “defund the police” is not hyperbole. Writing for The New York Times, anti-police activist Mariame Kaba said at the least, communities should cut police funding and staffing in half and said she wanted to abolish both police and prisons. Her Twitter account, which is locked except to approved followers, says “Defund the police is the floor.”

Some scholars say the “defund the police” movement has been misunderstood, and that the call is not literal, but an argument for a reallocation of resources that would ultimately help police do their jobs. “So, while the word ‘reallocate’ may be a more palatable, digestible word on the House floor or at a city council meeting, ‘defund’ surely gets more attention on a protest sign,” Rashawn Ray, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote last year.

Since Floyd’s death, more than 20 major cities in the U.S. have reduced police budgets, The Guardian reported earlier this year. And whether or not police funding should be diverted is one of the defining differences between two candidates vying to be Boston’s next mayor: Democrat Michelle Wu supports reallocation of police resources and says “public safety should be built around restorative justice and community trust.” Her opponent, Annissa Essaibi George, is also a Democrat but has spoken out against defunding.

The Boston mayoral race shows the challenges Democrats face in trying to unite moderate and liberal factions of the party on the subject of policing. Republicans, while divided over Donald Trump, are not divided on the subject of law and order; nearly 8 in 10 say the police are doing an excellent or good job, compared to 43% of Democrats or those who lean Democrat, according to Pew. And with violent crime again on the rise, the subject will likely continue to be a Republican talking point.

Since the 1960s, law enforcement has been part of “the theatre of politics,” according to Nash, the scholar of conservatism who lives in western Massachusetts, with conservatives arguing that liberals are soft on crime and don’t comprehend the immutable nature of evil.

“Defunding the police as a slogan seems quite new, but the idea that crime is more than simply acts that need to be punished, and has deeper roots in poverty, is an argument that’s been around since the 1960s,” Nash said. “The Republican/conservative response is ‘that ain’t necessarily so.’”