Almost everyone has something to demagogue in the 2016 Republican primary. For Donald Trump, it’s Latino immigration, and Mexican migrants in particular. For Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, it’s the nuclear deal with Iran; for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, it’s the Kim Davis affair in Kentucky, where a county official was jailed for refusing to sign marriage licenses for same-sex couples; and for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, it’s crime.
That may seem like a strange choice, given broad trends. National rates of violent crime are down to their lowest levels in a generation, with steep drops in gun homicide among all groups. And while violence is still a problem for isolated, low-income black Americans, the overall portrait is good: Twenty years after the crime waves of the 1990s, American cities and metropolitan areas are as safe as they’ve ever been.
Long-term trends can obscure short-term variations, however, and there’s contested evidence that we’re in the middle of a violent crime spike, sparked by a so-called Ferguson effect where less aggressive policing—fueled by “Black Lives Matter” protests—encourages criminals. “Cities across the nation are seeing a startling rise in murders after years of declines,” reports the New York Times in a story on the rising murder rate in Milwaukee. Critics say this is overblown. Writing for the Marshall Project, Bruce Frederick—a senior research fellow at the Vera Institute of Justice—notes that of the 20 most populous U.S. cities for which there’s public data, only three experienced a “statistically reliable increase” in homicide rates. For the rest, “the observed increases could have occurred by chance alone.” If there is a new trend, we need more data. The same goes for the “Ferguson effect”; there’s no evidence that less policing has produced more violent crime.
But humans are built to see patterns in unrelated events, and the crime increase—plus a rash of high-profile shootings aimed at police officers—has brought new partisan attacks on Black Lives Matter, even while 2015 stands as an unusually safe year for police officers, so far. “In the last six years under President Obama, we’ve seen a rise in anti-police rhetoric,” wrote Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in an op-ed last week, citing “demonstrations and chants where people describe police as ‘pigs’ and call for them to be ‘fried like bacon.’ ” Walker was referring to a small group of protesters in Minnesota who by all accounts are unrepresentative of the larger movement. Still, their actions came in the wake of a brutal attack on a Texas police officer, Sheriff’s Deputy Darren Goforth, who was shot 15 times at a gas station near Houston. And as such, it was fuel for Walker’s charge, as well as for claims from Fox News and other conservative outlets that Black Lives Matter is a “hate group.”
A struggling Christie—who, along with Huckabee and Cruz, lags far behind in the polls—has picked up on this, and run with it. On Tuesday, during an interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, the New Jersey governor slammed Democrats on crime. “It’s the liberal policies in this city that have led to the lawlessness that’s been encouraged by the president of the United States,” he said. “And I’m telling you, people in this country are getting more and more fed up.” Likewise, on Fox News, he blasted President Obama’s rhetoric—or alleged lack thereof—on police killings. “The president says little or nothing about these issues where police officers are being hunted,” claimed Christie.
This isn’t true. But that doesn’t mean Christie can’t find traction. With crime and killings in the news, Democrats may be vulnerable to claims of indifference or even encouragement, given their support for Blacks Live Matter. Indeed, this violence threatens the whole project for criminal justice reform.
To a large degree, the move toward deincarceration and less draconian policing is a product of declining crime. Americans are less afraid of being victimized, which makes them either open to policies that might look “soft” in a more dangerous environment, or they are just apathetic about the issue. But even apathy works; when the public is indifferent, it’s easier to pass unpopular policies or make potentially unpopular commitments. It’s one reason why Hillary Clinton—a cautious politician by any measure—has felt confident enough to openly endorse Black Lives Matter; outside of a dedicated few, no one is paying attention, and no one is trying to use it against her.
Christie and other Republicans are trying to change that. By blaming Obama and Black Lives Matter for an increase in crime or new attacks on police officers, they’re working to conjure the fear and uncertainty of the ’80s and ’90s—when violent crime was at an all-time high—and capitalize on them. And it’s worth noting the extent to which these appeals come at the same time that Republicans need to increase their share of the white vote to win a national majority. It’s no accident, perhaps, that Trump has called for giving “power back to the police, because crime is rampant.”
“Cops across this country are feeling the assault,” said Cruz from the trail last week. “They’re feeling the assault from the president, from the top on down as we see. Whether it’s in Ferguson or Baltimore, the response of senior officials of the president, of the attorney general, is to vilify law enforcement. That is fundamentally wrong, and it is endangering the safety and security of us all.” Cruz isn’t as invested in this message as Christie is—he’s busy rallying against same-sex marriage in Kentucky and the Iran deal in Washington—but he’s part of the same push to make Black Lives Matter a liability for Democrats.
Yes, this rhetoric is false. Neither Obama nor Eric Holder nor Loretta Lynch, the present attorney general, has “villified” law enforcement. But trust has limited reach in national politics. The question for projecting an outcome is whether crime is salient again. If it is, then Democrats are stuck between a protest movement they ostensibly support and a scared and anxious public. And if it isn’t, then Christie and his peers will have to find something else to save their flailing campaigns from fast-approaching obscurity.