At first glance, explaining police support for Donald Trump is easy: Republicans are the law and order party, and Trump styled himself as the law and order candidate. But the sheer extent of police support for Trump makes the explanation a bit more complicated.
The Fraternal Order of Police, America’s largest police union, opted not to support a candidate in 2012, yet Trump got the two-third majority needed for endorsement this time around. When the FOP announced the endorsement, their support was full-throated. In a statement, the organization said that Trump “understands and supports our priorities, and our members believe he will make America safe again.”
Trump, for his part, has rushed out a trio of executive orders aimed at further endearing himself to the police. But what else is at the heart of this love affair? Why do cops love Donald Trump?
Blue Lives Matter
It’s no secret that law enforcement and their supporters are not fans of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. A combination of right wing misinformation and slanted news coverage of riots and demonstration have led to the public perception that BLM, a movement about racial equality, is anti-cop. Pew found that 93 percent of police officers feel a greater threat due to recent encounters between African-Americans and police, even though many of those “encounters” end with dead black citizens and unharmed police officers. Rather than interrogating BLM demands like body cameras and ending mandatory minimums, people behind the “Blue Lives Matter” banner tend to approach BLM with hostility.
This is because, for police and their supporters, opposition to Black Lives Matter isn’t about particular issues, but a worldview. As Vox’s Dara Lind put it, “Support for law enforcement has become a form of identity politics allyship for many white and conservative Americans: a way to argue against progressive policies and attitudes by speaking on behalf of a marginalized group.” The cry “Blue Lives Matter” muffles support for sensible reforms because it isn’t about what BLM wants, but how BLM and the events that brought the movement to life makes them feel.
Trump plays the fears of the Blue Lives Matter set as an instrument, painting an apocalyptic image of cities and blaming Black Lives Matter for hyperbolized or invented problems. He often fudges statistics about violence against police officers and highlights isolated incidents of police fatalities as the norm. This kind of rhetoric was on display at the Republican Convention last summer where he said, “Law officers have been shot or killed in recent days in Georgia, Missouri, Wisconsin, Kansas, Michigan, and Tennessee. An attack on law enforcement is an attack on all Americans. I have a message to every last person threatening the peace on our streets and the safety of our police: When I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order in our country.”
Even before Trump had the support of the broader law enforcement community, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) and the Border Patrol stood firmly by his side. Trump has long held an anti-immigrant stance and he ratcheted up his border enforcement rhetoric throughout his campaign, even appearing on the Border Patrol union’s podcast in July. By the time he made his appearance, he already had their support: they endorsed him in March. Given that rank and file police officers work closely with immigration officers, and that they put their detainees in the same prisons, this was a savvy opening salvo for shoring up broader police support.
Immigration officers have already been rewarded for their loyalty. ICE and Border Patrol strategies and tactics have shifted since Trump took office to allow for more deportations and broader latitude in apprehending immigrants. Obama-era policies ordering restraint and prioritization in immigration enforcement have already been thrown out the window.
Police departments are administered on a local level, but what Trump can do is peel back oversight of police on a federal level. The administration has already issued several executive orders aimed at assuring police officers they will be treated with a freer hand, though their effects are largely symbolic. One order looks to crackdown on protesters (as some Republicans at the state level have already done effectively). Another order clearly associates drugs and immigration with crime, promising aggressive “reduction.” The third and final order vows to get tough on “transnational criminal organizations,” a clear signal to ICE that it is open season on immigrants suspected of illegal activity. The ICE has already taken advantage of this order, to say the least. Following Trump’s lead, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is expected to decline investigations of police departments that otherwise would have fallen under scrutiny for civil rights violations.
One key to Trump winning the Fraternal Order of Police’s endorsement was that he aggressively courted it. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, did not even fill out the questionnaire necessary to win the FOP’s endorsement. As the union’s President Charles Canterbury put it, “Obviously this is an unusual election. We have a candidate who declined to seek an endorsement and a candidate without any record as an elected official." Trump went after the police vote early, and spoke glowingly of the law enforcement community at every turn. He knew early on that law enforcement wanted to hear his message, and that message is more important than anything he can actually offer the police.
Though we can expect crackdowns on protesters, a tough stance on immigration, and decreased oversight of police departments, the thing that Trump has consistently provided the police is an affirmation of their perception of themselves. Again, from Vox’s Dara Lind: “Under Trump, [law enforcement] will be venerated — granted cultural deference and policy independence. Public safety in America is about to be defined, to a much larger degree, as the safety and happiness of America’s police.”
And that’s exactly what America’s police want to hear.