Amid a flurry of executive orders this week, President Donald Trump has been threatening to take some sort of federal action intended to curb violence in Chicago.
It started Wednesday, when Trump tweeted that he would "send in the Feds" if law enforcement in Chicago "doesn't fix the horrible 'carnage' going on."
If Chicago doesn't fix the horrible "carnage" going on, 228 shootings in 2017 with 42 killings (up 24% from 2016), I will send in the Feds!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 25, 2017
Trump was asked about that tweet during Wednesday's interview with ABC News' David Muir, who asked the president to clarify what he meant by "send in the feds."
After first indulging his newfound fascination with the word "carnage" (an actual quote from the interview: "It's carnage. You know, in my speech I got tremendous—from certain people the word carnage. It is carnage. It's horrible carnage"), Trump responded with another vague promise, or threat, of federal law enforcement action in the Windy City.
"I want them to fix the problem. You can't have thousands of people being shot in a city, in a country that I happen to be president of," Trump said, adding that "maybe it's okay if somebody else is president" and imploring the city's officials to "get tougher and stronger and smarter" but without really answering the question of what federal action he would propose.
Without wanting to downplay the seriousness of the violence in Chicago, it's necessary to inject some facts into all this talk of "tougher and stronger" policies, especially if Trump really is considering some sort of federal intervention in Chicago.
For starters, yes, there are a lot of murders in Chicago. More than 300 of them during the first half of 2016, according to newly released data from the FBI. But there's also a lot of people in Chicago, which means that the murder rate actually is not one of the worst in the country.
That dishonor, at least for the first six months of 2016, belongs to St. Louis, Missouri, which had more than 27 murders for every 100,000 residents during that time. That's more than double Chicago's murder rate of 11.6 per 100,000 residents. Both Orlando, Florida, and Baltimore, Maryland, had rates above 20-per-100,000 during the same period, the FBI data shows.
Yes, Chicago is a violent city, but it's hardly a unique case requiring a unique response.
Further, "the feds" are already there. As Heather MacDonald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, pointed out in a commentary for the Wall Street Journal, Chicago's police department already works with the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives on a regular basis.
Is Trump talking about sending in the National Guard? That would be unprecendented and, MacDonald says, a pretty terrible idea. "Doing so would require the declaration of a national or state emergency," she writes. "However gruesome the bloodshed, there is little precedent for mobilizing the National Guard to quell criminal gang violence."
Trump is wrong about the level of violance in Chicago, but all his talk of "carnage" and "tougher" law enforcement responses feeds directly into his political base and their view of the world.
Unfortunately, that view is as wrong as Trump's.
I attended a fascinating forum at the Cato Institute on Wednesday evening that included a discussion of polling data from Democracy Fund Voice, a nonpartisan organization that conducted a series of polls and sit-down interviews with voters during the final weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign. Their polling data shows interesting divides between Trump voters and non-Trump voters on several issues, including immigration, race, and general views of American society. It's potentially helpful as policymakers on all sides attempt to understand what feelings are animating Trump's political followers.
Patrick Ruffini, co-founder of Echelon Insights and one of the members of the research team who presented the data on Wednesday, mentioned that he was particularly struck by the degree to which Trump voters believe crime is getting worse.
(Update: Ruffini reaches out to provide some addition context on these numbers: "The numbers for people believing crime and lawlessness has gotten worse rather than better are 63-14 for all voters, 79-8 for Trump supporters, and 51-21 for Clinton supporters. The larger point is that pretty much everyone believes it's gotten worse as a problem, not just Trump supporters. Even Clinton supporters agreed by more than 2-to-1.")
That tracks with what other researchers have found. In the two weeks before the election, the Pew Research Center surveyed voters on a variety of topics and found the electorate to be weary and pessimistic.
On the question of crime, a majority of all voters believed it had increased since 2008. Among Trump voters, a stunning 78 percent held the belief that crime had gotten worse during the Obama administration, compared with only 17 who believed it had decreased.
The truth is that violent crime fell by 19 percent and property crime fell by 23 percent between 2008 and 2015, according to official statistics maintained by the FBI and collected from more than 18,000 jurisdictions around the country. Homicides by gun are down more than 40 percent since the early 1990s, when they peaked. There's been an uptick in crime nationally over the past two years, but that hardly measures up against the long-term trend.
I don't know what to do about this gap between perception and reality (aside from pointing out the facts, as above) that seems to affect voters of all stripes but is a particularly potent element of Trump's support.
I do know, however, that having a president use his bully pulpit to perpetuate falsehoods about violence and crime is unlikely to improve the situation—and sending the National Guard into Chicago won't, either.