Donald Trump won the presidency by gaining the support of people who had previously voted Democratic, and he will lose their support if he does not fulfill the promises he made to them. Of all those promises, none seems less controversial, yet more impossible, than this one: “I have a message for all of you: The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon—and I mean very soon—come to an end.”
Who doesn’t want an end to crime and violence? Yet, short of the Second Coming, the idea that crime can be quickly ended—that is to say, reduced to a small fraction of its present rate—seems at first glance more like magical thinking than part of a realistic political platform.
Look at the problem more closely, however, and you can see a real chance for real improvement there. The trouble is, this chance involves the death penalty. And while some two-thirds of Americans have long favored imposing death for murder, the liberal elite is passionately against it, and the conservative elite has no stomach for it.
So what’s a Donald to do? The president could do worse than to take some tips from one very famous Democrat.
Will Rogers is a name perhaps only vaguely familiar to younger Americans, but in his day he was really big. An Oklahoma Cherokee cowboy and wandering bronco-buster who got into show business via the Wild West Show, he became one of the most loved and admired Americans of all time, a top star on stage, screen and radio, the most popular humorist and news commentator of his era. When Rogers died in a plane crash in 1935, the news hit the country hard, causing what was called the greatest outpouring of grief since Lincoln’s assassination.
Rogers’ famous saying, “I never met a man I didn’t like,” produced the meme, “Will Rogers never met” somebody. Will Rogers never met Rush Limbaugh. He never met Harry Reid. He never met Eichmann. There’s even a tough-guy T-shirt proclaiming, “Will Rogers never met ME.” And, of course, “Will Rogers never met Donald Trump.”
(I confess to leading off an article during last year’s primary season with the words, “I don’t like Donald Trump.” The piece went on to explain how something Trump said, while drawing the scorn of the entire Washington establishment, brought me to his corner.)
Here’s a sample of what made Rogers so popular. Standing on the stage at the Ziegfeld Follies, he’d fiddle with his lariat, mumble, “All I know is what I read in the papers,” and then riff on the daily news, like so: “Never a day passes in New York without some innocent bystander being shot. You just stand around this town long enough and be innocent, and somebody’s going to shoot you. One day there was four shot. That’s the best shooting ever done in this town. It’s hard to find four innocent people in New York, even if you don’t stop to shoot ’em. That’s why policemen never have to aim here. He just shoots up the street, anywhere. No matter who he hits, it’s the right one.”
The Yankee swells who frequented the Follies ate this stuff up. They called him “the cowboy philosopher,” back when “cowboy” was a term of praise, not a pejorative. They didn’t fret about some rube from flyover country poking fun at them, or get the vapors over someone cracking jokes about guns and shooting. Not like now.
There’s much more to Rogers that would get him in trouble with today’s elite. His religiosity, for instance. Rogers spoke of Jesus as “Our Savior” and recommended the Ten Commandments as holding good “for all men.” That was pretty conventional in its time, but Rogers’ dissent from irreligion went much further. In 1927, he returned from a visit to the Soviet Union sounding very much like a member of the Religious Right.
Other Westerners had been shown around that Mecca of the Left and come back all starry-eyed. Rogers was given the same Potemkin tour, but somehow he wasn’t taken in. “What has all these millions of innocent, peace-loving people done that through no fault of their own they should be thrown into a mess like this?” he asked. And he zeroed in on what he saw as the crucial point:
The Russians . . . are at heart just big, simple, kind-hearted, God-fearing people. . . . [But] the basic foundation of the Communist Party is to be a nonbeliever. They try to lead all these Russians to believe that all their troubles all these years have been directly traceable to their religion. . . . Course, you have to admit that fanatical religion driven to a certain point is almost as bad as none at all, but not quite. . . . If the Bolsheviks say that religion was holding the people back from progress, why, let it hold them back. Progress ain’t selling that high. If it is, it ain’t worth it. . . . They picked the only one thing I know of to suppress that is absolutely necessary to run a Country on, and that is Religion.
Putting religion ahead of progress? Running a country on it? Who does this rube think he is?
No, Rogers would not cut much ice in today’s blue-state America. Nevertheless, he was a Democrat. He spoke at the party convention in 1932 and welcomed Franklin Roosevelt to Southern California during the campaign. The “cowboy philosopher” became a cheerleader for the New Deal. He liked the idea of soaking the rich, favored big government programs to end the Great Depression, enjoyed needling big business, and he was disgusted when FDR’s New Deal centerpiece, the National Recovery Administration, was ruled unconstitutional.
All that aside, it’s Rogers’ views on crime and punishment that place him firmly in “the basket of deplorables”—and make his example so valuable today.
Rogers was a friend of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, whose baby was kidnapped and murdered in 1932. Rogers favored a mandatory death penalty for crimes like that, and he often expressed the idea that criminals don’t get the punishment they deserve.
Liberals have convinced themselves that only rubes and boobs favor the death penalty. But here’s how Rogers looked at it: “American murder procedure is about as follows: foul enough to commit a crime, dumb enough to get caught, smart enough to prove you was crazy when you committed it, and fortunate enough not to hang for it.”
Of the legal technicalities that so often produce that good fortune, Rogers complained: “Is our court procedure broken down, lame, or limping? Something sure is cuckoo. It looks like after a person’s guilt in this country is established, why, then the battle as to whether he should be punished is the real test of the court. It seems if he is lucky enough to get convicted, or confesses, why he has a great chance of going free.”
And so on: “Robberies! Where they used to take your horse, and if they were caught, they got hung for it; now they take your car, and if they are caught, it’s a miracle, and they will perhaps have the inconvenience of having to go to court and explain.”
Frequency of executions? Rogers wanted more: “Papers have been commenting on the novel way the state of Nevada executed a man for committing murder. The novelty of that was that a prisoner was executed in any way for just committing murder.”
“Of course,” he said, “the best way out of this crime wave would be to punish the criminals, but, of course, that is out of the question! That’s barbarous, and takes us back, as the hysterics say, to the days before civilization.”
Hysterics. That’s the very word that came to mind as I watched protesters set fires and throw rocks in response to last year’s Election Night shocker. Will Rogers’ Democratic Party is no more; the hard Left has taken over. And the more the Left condemns Donald Trump’s call for law and order as “dark” and “divisive,” the more it will find itself divided from popular sentiment.
People talk about how Trump “trolls” liberals with deliberately provocative comments. If he wants to troll them into a self-immolating frenzy, let him start singing Rogers’ tune on crime. And if he wants to win over folks like Rogers and earn their loyalty for good, let him deliver results on crime. If Trump can throttle crime—or, more properly, if he can free state and local authorities to throttle crime by removing the federal interference that for decades has kept them from doing so—then he will harvest ex-Democrats aplenty.
I’ve argued the case for doing that here and here, showing how American frontier history and modern social science both undercut the idea that criminals can’t be cowed. The facts strongly suggest that by bringing back the gallows, and putting it into heavy service, Americans can have a greater impact on crime than by anything we have been doing these past 50 years. A new reliance on the gallows can save hundreds of thousands of innocent people’s lives. It can break apart the entire culture of gangsterism. Over time, it can empty out our bulging, hellish prisons. More than any other single measure, it can restore to us the America many of us are old enough to remember: an America where people rich and poor lived in peace and security, without fear of their neighbors.
That was Will Rogers’ America. It can be ours again, too.