True to form, Donald Trump made the threat of crime and violence one of the centerpieces of his address to Congress last night. And true to form, his critics were quick to point out that crime is near all-time lows and suggest that Trump’s is demagoguing the issue to lay the groundwork for a racist law-and-order crackdown.
Leaving aside the political implications, Trump’s critics are right that crime is significantly lower today than it has been for most of the last 50 years, and that Trump has often played fast-and-loose with the facts on this question. But they often leave out at least two data points that might make Trump’s relentless focus on the crime rate seem less sinister. First (as liberals are fond of pointing out when it comes to gun violence) America has a significantly higher rate of violent crime than most other developed countries. Shouldn’t we be able to bring it down? And second, the murder rate has risen at an alarming pace since 2014—and with crime, as with other social indicators like immigration or economic growth, it is often the rate of change, rather than the absolute level, that is felt most acutely.
The economist Lyman Stone has added a third data point that helps explain the potency of Trump’s approach to the crime debate: The geographic distribution of crime has changed, so that a larger-than-usual number of Americans live in counties with rising levels of violence. If views on crime are shaped by perceived risk in one’s own community, rather than national statistics, this could account for stronger law-and-order sentiment despite a crime rate that is low by historical standards overall. Here is an excerpt of Stone’s post, which is worth reading in full:
More people live amidst rising crime today than in the late 1990s. Now, the late 2000s were the real problem time, but it’s possible than from 2014, the last year in my data, to today in 2017, these numbers have risen. Given that murder rates have risen especially in Illinois which is not marked as one of my crime-rising states, it seems likely that this figure did rise in 2015, 2016, and will rise in 2017. In other words, by the time the 2016 elections occurred, the share of the population living amidst rising crime was probably very far above late-1990s levels.
All this is to say that while Trump must be held rigorously accountable to the facts, it is neither honest or productive for his critics to simply throw up their hands and declare that Trump is living in a fake news fueled alternate reality. He often speaks to real issues, and his opposition would be more effective if it acknowledged them rather than constructing factually-challenged echo chambers of its own.