Clearly, economics, particularly trade, has been a continuing issue for Donald Trump. That was demonstrated again in his acceptance speech to the Republican National Convention last week. But another theme emerged that signals how Trump would view his role as president. That is his emphasis on law and order.
Trump said “we will be a country of law and order.” He promised that the violence the nation is seeing today “will come to an end.” He also guaranteed that “beginning on Jan. 20, 2017, safety will be restored.” He repeated the same point later in his speech when he said “when I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order to our country.”
The Republican nominee also described himself as “the law and order” candidate and promised that when he becomes president, “Americans will finally wake up in a country where the laws of the United States are enforced.” The repetition of the message made it clear — Trump as president would be preoccupied with making sure there was law and order in the nation.
However, the speech was short on any explanation of exactly how he would do that. He did say he would appoint the best prosecutors and law enforcement officials. That doesn’t tell us much.
The little he did say blamed violence largely on one population — illegal immigrants. The connection between violence and illegal immigrants was apparent: Violence would decline once he built the wall on the Mexican border and immigrant rules about overstaying visas were enforced.
The other specifics Trump has given in the past suggest that he blames violence and terrorism on another vulnerable minority population — Muslims. He has supported temporarily (whatever that means) banning Muslims from entering the United States. He has favored greater scrutiny of mosques. In other words, he is willing to suspend the First Amendment by placing people who belong to a certain religion under greater suspicion than Americans of other faiths.
But once he targets those populations, would he stop? What Trump did not say is what Americans would have to give up to obtain “law and order.” Here are some questions for the Republican nominee about what, exactly, he intends to do.
Would local police be trained more like the military? Or would troops become the police? That would violate laws on domestic use of the military.
How about the rights of the accused? Would he promote arrests of individuals on suspicion of committing violence, thus violating the Fourth Amendment, which bans “arbitrary arrest and questioning?”
Should people suspected as terrorists be forced to confess and Miranda rules be suspended? That would violate the Fifth Amendment on self-incrimination.
How about using torture against those suspected of terrorism? Already, he has promised a return of waterboarding. That violates international agreements on torture.
What I would rather hear from Donald Trump is that he will be the “Constitution” candidate; that he will uphold the civil liberties of Americans, even in times of terrorism and violence, and that he understands the implications of Benjamin Franklin’s phrase “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
Instead, Donald Trump sounds dictatorial. It is dangerous when a candidate places himself above all others. He did that in his speech when he said: “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”
Fortunately, there is a Congress and a Supreme Court with the power to block the president from unconstitutional actions. But democracy rests on a thin reed. It takes courage for Congress and the court to tell a president “no.”
Nations are not automatically or permanently democratic in nature. Turkey is the most recent example of the demise of democracy as a democratically elected president has become a dictator who imprisons his opponents. Similarly, Russia has deteriorated from an emerging democratic nation to an oppressive dictatorship.
Americans should be careful when applauding promises of law and order without specifics about how those programs adhere to the Constitution. We may get exactly what we didn’t want.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. He is the author of "The Liberal Soul: Applying the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Politics." His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.