The Donald, Dukakis, and a True War on Crime

Donald Trump is the first American president since George H.W. Bush to lose his bid for reelection. Yes, I know, Trump didn’t really lose in 2020; the vote was rigged against him. I believe that’s true, but a moot point now, innit. The Democrats cheated. So what? They’ve been stealing elections, or trying to steal them, at least since 1960. The question is: What made this election close enough to steal? 

Sure, the coronavirus pandemic tanked the economy. Without that, Trump very likely would have won, bigly. But since we can’t jump over into an alternate reality where the Wuhan Flu didn’t happen, suppose we look at what we ourselves could have done to put Trump’s margin beyond the ability of ChiCom perfidy and Democratic dishonesty to cancel out.

We missed a lot of things, I suppose. But chief among them is this: We didn’t do what was necessary to make Trump’s “law and order” promises come true.

Donald Trump and Poppy Bush could hardly be more unlike each other, but consider the similarities: Both overcame big deficits in the polls to defeat soft-on-crime opponents. Both could have taken decisive action to reestablish law and order. Both were turned out of office after failing to do so.

Hop into the Wayback Machine to revisit 1988, the only presidential election since Ronald Reagan’s trouncing of Walter Mondale in which the GOP, rather than barely squeaking past the Democrats, mopped the floor with them. Here’s how I characterized Bush the Elder’s victory over Michael Dukakis:

Bush—a weak candidate with shaky conservative credentials and no political charisma—was way behind Dukakis in the summer polls. Yet in November, Dukakis lost in a landslide. A focus on prison furloughs, revolving-door justice, and the death penalty had killed his candidacy.

Unfortunately, no decisive action against crime flowed from that. Bush, like Reagan before him, failed to stem the crime tsunami, and four years later, with violent crime at record levels, he was shown the door. Failure to deliver results on crime, more than anything else, is why Bush lost. The Republican Party of the 1980s and ’90s had missed its chance for a great political realignment.

That’s from an American Greatness article I wrote in response to the murder of 17 people at a Florida high school in 2018. The article’s title was “Another Day, Another Massacre, No Movement on Crime.” The “tsunami” mentioned in the piece is the enormous crime wave that erupted in the 1960s and has yet to fully recede—a multigenerational disaster that saw per-capita crime rates double, triple, quadruple and even quintuple, and has claimed the lives of more than a million Americans. I depicted it with this graph:

Now turn the dial on the Wayback Machine to 2016, when Donald Trump pronounced himself “the law and order candidate” for president. At the time, I wrote this for the American Thinker:

We all know that Trump is no Lincoln . . .  Even so, in calling for law and order while the Democrats kiss up to its enemies, he’s this year’s indispensable man. For the sake of crime victims everywhere, Trump should be elected.

From the beginning of Trump’s presidency to its end, I kept pounding the drum: We need to come through on his promise to put an abrupt end to the Great Crime Wave. I emphasized three points: (1) the only way to crush crime quickly is to transform capital punishment from a mere paper penalty into the swift and certain consequence of murder, (2) the only way to do that is by returning the 8th Amendment to its original meaning, and (3) the only way to do that is with a constitutional amendment.

In a series of American Greatness articles, I worked through the constitutional issues surrounding originalism, the death penalty, and the 14th Amendment. I weighed the evidence for deterrence, and I explored how Christians through the ages have viewed the matter.

I even cited the many Democrats—from Will Rogers almost a century ago, to New York Mayor Ed Koch in the 1980s, to the California voters who rejected capital punishment’s abolition in 2012 and 2016—who have been on board with the death penalty. And I took note of the many ordinary black Americans who feel the same way about it.

Not every article I wrote at the time was on that theme, but if you read those that were, you may notice a change in tone: confident in 2017, concerned in 2018, and increasingly fretful in 2019, 2020, and 2021. Now I fear our moment of opportunity may be passing. Has the Republican Party once again missed its chance for a great political realignment?

Perhaps the sad truth is simply that the world and I are not on the same page. What seems obvious to me, evidently, is more like invisible to others. Just one example of this: In the 2016 GOP primaries, my first choice was former New York Governor George Pataki. Why so? Because he had ejected Mario Cuomo from the governor’s mansion in Albany by standing up for the death penalty. As Wikipedia says of the 1994 New York gubernatorial campaign:

One key issue in the election was capital punishment. Cuomo had long been a staunch opponent of the death penalty while Pataki supported it. In the 1980s and early 1990s most New Yorkers supported capital punishment due to high crime rates. Republican ads pointed to the case of Arthur Shawcross, a multiple murderer convicted of manslaughter who was paroled by New York in 1987 and committed additional murders while on release (during the time Cuomo was governor). This revelation caused a significant loss of support for Cuomo.

Good riddance, St. Mario. But in 2016, did anyone else remember any of that? No, it was “George who?”

When Trump emerged as leader of the pack, I was slow to warm to him, but his “law-and-order” talk drew me to his corner, where I have stayed, though not uncritically. If the Donald pulls a Grover Cleveland and seeks a return to the White House, I’ll be rooting for him, and savoring every liberal groan and shriek. 

Current events—widespread rioting, surging murder rates in cities across the country, and the demonization, demoralization, and depletion of the police, all driven by left-wingers in office and on the streets—make it much harder to be complacent about criminal violence now, as so many of us were a few short years ago. Let’s just hope that whoever wins the prize in 2024 will remember this time to wage a true war on crime. As I put it in that 2017 piece that quoted the surprisingly “hang ’em high” views of the great FDR Democrat, Will Rogers: 

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. . . . 

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. . . . 

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.

The Democratic Party has changed a lot since Will Rogers’ day, and so has the country. Has it all been for the better? If the Democrats have their way with us now, will we even recognize what our country will become? Better we should set their plans at naught. Taking up Donald Trump’s “law and order” promise, and fulfilling it, remains our best chance to do so. 

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About Karl Spence

Karl Spence is a retired journalist living in San Antonio. His work has appeared in National Review, the Chattanooga Free Press, American Thinker and at www.fairamendment.us.

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