“There’s a new sheriff in town” is a familiar American idiom. It evokes the image of a strong man who has come into a lawless Western town to establish much-needed law and order.
This is a man who would rule with an iron fist, quickly dealing with all “undesirable” characters. But what if the same man promising law and order was lawless himself? In this case, the sheriff would not have the moral authority needed to lead. After all, he would be a hypocrite.
What if this sheriff’s cry for law and order was merely a rhetorical device, intended to send a coded message to his most ardent supporters? Like the sheriff, his loyalists would seek to exercise total dominance over their mutual enemies.
This is what law-and-order politics looks like in this current moment of U.S. history. Former President Donald Trump, now the leading candidate for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, is the GOP’s hypocritical and lawless “sheriff.” While in office, Trump pompously referred to himself as the “president of law and order.”
Trump has benefited greatly by exploiting the racialized fears of white Americans. If Trumpism has taught us anything, it’s that law and order is not really about public safety for all, but about white men exerting power and control over marginalized people.
Trump has not been beyond engaging in political theater to further solidify his base. A grotesque example of performative law and order was on full display in 2020, in Washington, D.C. Law enforcement officers used tear gas and riot control tactics to forcefully clear peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square.
This was done to create a path for Trump and senior administration officials to walk from the White House to St. John’s Episcopal Church. There, Trump awkwardly held up a Bible, posing in front of the church’s parish house for a photo op. This sent a clear signal to white evangelicals and other conservative Christians. Trump was saying to them, “I am your warrior who will fight for your ‘religious liberty’ and against all ‘troublemakers.’”
For many decades, white evangelical leaders have been strong proponents of “law and order.” Known as “America’s pastor,” Billy Graham was especially close to Richard Nixon. Nixon’s emphasis on law and order resonated with Graham. In fact, he often employed the language of law and order in his preaching. Many white evangelical preachers have carried on this tradition.
Historian Aaron Griffith wrote the book, God’s Law and Order: The Politics of Punishment in Evangelical America. In it, Griffith presents the history of how white evangelicals, writ large, have seen “law and order” as an expression of their faith. They often cite biblical texts like Romans 13:1-6 as the basis for their convictions.
Trump is, by no means, an intellectual heavyweight. However, he’s savvy enough to have effectively deployed “law and order” as a dog whistle and as a cudgel to keep his political enemies in line.
In response to Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players peacefully taking a knee during the National Anthem to protest police brutality of Black bodies, Trump angrily demanded that those “sons of bitches” be fired. Never mind that these men were simply exercising their First Amendment rights — Trump’s very own defense against his indictment for inciting the January 6 insurrection.
I guess constitutional rights don’t matter when systemic racism is being opposed.
Many white evangelicals are on the same page with Trump in their condemnation of those who have knelt in protest. One popular slogan displayed by white evangelicals on T-shirts and bumper stickers says, “I stand for the Flag, and I kneel at the Cross.”
Authors Philip S. Gorski and Samuel L. Perry address this conflation in their piece, “The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy.”
Many white evangelicals view those protesting racial injustice with great suspicion. Some even portray such persons as “un-American” or “cultural Marxists” who are disrupting the social order. Hypocritically, these same white evangelicals speak of the American Revolution in glowing terms. Some even believe the protests and violence which led to the forming of our republic were divinely inspired, much like the Bible.
They also don’t see the irony that January 6 was about the opposite of law and order.
While doing all he could to avoid condemning white supremacists, who are among his biggest supporters, Trump has sought to label Black Lives Matter protesters as “terrorists.”
This despite the fact that Christopher Wray, the FBI director he appointed, gave sworn testimony that white supremacist violence (not racial justice protests) pose the biggest threat to national security. Now, many white evangelicals see Wray as part of the “deep state” myth Trump has been peddling for years.
In their hypocrisy, Trump and his white evangelical constituents have shown they believe violence employed by white males of their cultural tribe is acceptable, even “honorable.”
Consider how they lionized Kyle Rittenhouse.
During the civil unrest in Kenosha, Wisc., in 2020, Rittenhouse traveled there, shooting three men, two of whom died. After being found “not guilty” of homicide and reckless endangerment, Rittenhouse was the honored guest of Trump at Mar-a-Lago.
Those on the far-right have treated him like a war hero, returning home from combat. Rittenhouse even did a speaking tour with Turning Point USA, which is a bastion of Christian nationalism.
The most glaring example of how Trumpism and law and order politics work pertains to the insurrection at the Capitol, the attempted coup of January 6, 2021. Trump and others have portrayed the white Americans brutalizing police at the Capitol as “patriots.” Trump sycophant Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene has called the incarcerated insurrectionists “political prisoners.”
By voting for Trump, white evangelicals contradicted their own often-used assertion that “character counts” with those who aspire to elected office. By continuing to support Trump, they have removed all doubt about their hypocrisy. Are there any limits to that hypocrisy when it comes to Trump? I think not.
Trump now faces three criminal indictments and, to date, has received 78 felony charges. On top of that, he’s facing the prospect of imprisonment.
Despite this, Trump still has the ironclad support and loyalty of white evangelicals.
A New York Times/Siena College poll conducted before his latest indictment found 56% of white evangelicals said they would most likely support the former president in the 2024 election.
In the same poll, 76% of white evangelicals said they do not think the president has committed any federal crimes.
The twice-impeached former president now faces accountability for his role in the insurrection. Yet, he continues to show he is only for “law and order” when it is harshly applied to his enemies but not when it comes to himself.
Trump and his evangelical supporters have a shared goal: political power. They also have a shared enemy: the other” The selfish pursuit of power and hatred of the other are antithetical to what Jesus taught in the Gospels.
This despicable mindset and the policies it gives birth to must be resisted at every turn, especially by those of us who profess to be Christians.
Joel A. Bowman Sr. is founder and senior pastor of the Temple of Faith Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky. A native of Detroit, he also is a licensed clinical social worker with more than 30 years of experience in the mental health field. He has been quoted in The Washington Post, USA Today, the Associated Press, and the Christian Post. Follow him @JoelABowmanSr and acompellingvoice.com.
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