Before I was a lawyer, I was a high school English teacher, a position that required me to explain how language communicates meaning–the roles played by denotation and connotation, and the often-unrecognized difficulty of getting one’s point across.
Recognizing that you may hear my use of term A to explain X as an admission of Y is one of the most frustrating aspects of political communication. it’s a problem that goes well beyond the obvious fatuity of slogans like “Defund the Police,” and it makes messaging particularly difficult for Democrats; the GOP base shares focused grievances that allow party strategists to communicate to a cohesive and receptive cult. Democrats who wring their hands over the party’s inept “messaging” aren’t wrong, exactly, but they fail to recognize both the inherent difficulties of language, and the Democrats’ need to reach people who occupy a broad spectrum of opinion.
A recent essay in the New York Times provides an example rooted in “dog whistle” days. It’s titled: “A Handy Guide to the Republican Definition of a Crime,” and it harkens back to that tried and true Republican demand for “law and order”–the meaning of which has changed rather dramatically.
If you think Republicans are still members of the law-and-order party, you haven’t been paying close attention lately. Since the rise of Donald Trump, the Republican definition of a crime has veered sharply from the law books and become extremely selective. For readers confused about the party’s new positions on law and order, here’s a guide to what today’s Republicans consider a crime, and what they do not.
Not a crime: Federal crimes. All federal crimes are charged and prosecuted by the Department of Justice. Now that Republicans believe the department has been weaponized into a Democratic Party strike force, particularly against Mr. Trump, its prosecutions can no longer be trusted. “The weaponization of federal law enforcement represents a mortal threat to a free society,” Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida recently tweeted.
The F.B.I., which investigates many federal crimes, has also become corrupted by the same political forces. “The F.B.I. has become a political weapon for the ruling elite rather than an impartial, law-enforcement agency,” said Kevin D. Roberts, the president of the right-wing Heritage Foundation.
And because tax crimes are not real crimes, Republicans have fought for years to slash the number of I.R.S. investigators who fight against cheating.
Having clarified why federal misbehaviors no longer qualify as criminal, the essay explains the current GOP approach to the labeling of state and local crime: if it happens in an urban area or in states run by Democrats, it’s a crime.
On the other hand,
Not a crime: Any crime that happens in rural areas or in states run by Republicans.
Between 2000 and 2021, the per capita murder rate in states that voted for Donald Trump was 23 percent higher than in states that voted for Joe Biden, according to one major study. The gap is growing, and it is visible even in the rural areas of Trump states.
But this didn’t come up when a Trump ally, Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, held a hearing in New York in April to blast Manhattan’s prosecutor for being lax on crime, even though rates for all seven major crime categories are higher in Ohio than in New York City. Nor does House Speaker Kevin McCarthy — who tweets about Democratic “lawlessness” — talk about the per capita homicide rate in Bakersfield, Calif., which he represents, which has been the highest in California for years and is higher than New York City’s.
Republicans now include under their motto of “law and order” the “crimes” of abortion and transgender care, prohibition of which they piously frame as protection of children. (As the essay notes, GOP solicitude for the young doesn’t extend to regulating the guns that are the leading cause of American children’s deaths.)
There are other GOP “definitions.” If Hunter Biden did it, it’s a crime. Trump and his offspring? Didn’t notice any wrongdoing–despite vast evidence of influence-peddling and self-dealing that would seem to violate the emoluments clause of the Constitution and any number of federal ethics guidelines.
And of course, there was Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, leading to the GOP’s righteous demands to “lock her up.” That was criminal behavior, unlike Trump’s obviously innocent efforts to overturn an election and his theft of classified materials.
Effective messaging and communication require clarity and simplicity. The GOP has mastered it. “Law and order” still means “arrest Black people,” but now it also means “if Republicans did it, it was lawful; if Democrats did it, it was criminal.”
Unfortunately, that simple message cannot be countered with an equally simple response; explaining why it is dishonest requires facts and logic–and listeners.
Communication is hard.