In November 2015, when most Republicans and political journalists, including this one, were discounting Donald Trump’s ability to win the presidency, Trump tweeted an image of a thuggish-looking, dark-skinned man holding a handgun over a set of 2015 statistics about race and crime.
The statistics, attributed to the nonexistent “Crime Statistics Bureau-San Francisco” for a year that then wasn’t even concluded, were transparently bogus. But two related data points were especially notable.
One said that 81 percent of white victims of homicide in the U.S. had been murdered by blacks. The companion stat indicated that white murderers accounted for only 16 percent of white homicides. In reality, FBI statistics for 2014, the most recent year available then, proved the inverse; whites were responsible for 82 percent of white homicides.
Trump’s data was fake, but as a window into the means and ends of his propaganda, the false stats proved highly relevant. Fear of violent black crime was a constant theme of Trump’s campaign.
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“And by the way, do you know,” he said at a campaign event in Panama City, Fla., on Oct. 11, “it was just announced that murder is the highest it’s been in our country in 45 years?”
No such announcement took place because no such fact existed. Instead, the murder rate from 1991 to 2015 fell roughly by half. The day after his Panama City remarks, Trump repeated the falsehood in Lakeland, Fla. “We have the highest murder rate in this country in 45 years,” he told his audience.
A partial list of the organizations that fact-checked this Trump statement, and publicly corrected it, includes The Washington Post, Factcheck.org, the Guardian, Vox, the Los Angeles Times and MSNBC. No matter: Trump kept repeating it.
But he didn’t just repeat it. He combined it with another offering: that black urban neighborhoods are wildly violent. Not Chicago’s gang-infested pockets, or Baltimore’s downtown – specific neighborhoods that truly are violent. Trump seemed to be saying that any urban black neighborhood is horrifying.
“The violence. The death. The lack of education. No jobs,” he said. Walk the streets, Trump said, and “buy a loaf of bread and you end up getting shot.” This was the basis of Trump’s faux appeal for black votes: With your lives and streets in ruins, he asked, “what do you have to lose?”
If you combine Trump’s false statistics and his apocalyptic picture of black life, you get the political point of this exercise: Crime is out of control. And we know who is responsible.
Trump is still at it. His tweets last weekend that Democratic Rep. John Lewis’s congressional district is “in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested)” were, naturally, false. According to the American Human Development Index, Lewis’ Georgia district, the 5th, ranks 158th in well-being (gauged by education levels, crime, life expectancy, other factors) of 435 congressional districts, or roughly in the top third in the country.
Ignorance may be one of Trump’s most salient traits. It’s unlikely, for example, that Trump is familiar with extensive social science on white fears of black crime. But his racial politics are not coincidental or unknowing.
Breitbart, the propaganda site favored by white nationalists that was run by Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, once used the heading “Black Crime” to organize articles. The recurring theme is evidence of a campaign, not an idiosyncrasy.
John Lewis, a heroic victim of white racist brutality, may seem an unlikely Willie Horton. Yet Trump still found a way to make Lewis a representative – literally – of black crime and dysfunction. We shouldn’t underestimate Trump’s ignorance. But as the Lewis episode reveals, we also shouldn’t underestimate his capacity for demagogy.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View.