Trump is riding an imaginary crime wave

A chronicle of Donald Trump's Crimes or Allegations

Trump is riding an imaginary crime wave

At his campaign rallies, Donald Trump often declares that “crime is rampant and out of control, like never before.” He claims that the nation’s capital is a “nightmare of murder and crime. People from Georgia go down to Washington now and they get shot.” In New York City, “you go right outside and people are being mugged and killed all day long.”

If elected president in 2024, Trump says he will close the border with Mexico, deport millions of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., send the National Guard to clean up crime-ridden cities and withhold federal government grants to municipalities that do not adopt tough law enforcement procedures, even if soft-on-crime Democratic governors and mayors do not approve.

Asked about data indicating a decrease in homicides and other violent crimes, Trump replied, “The FBI fudged the numbers and other people fudged numbers. There is no way crime went down over the last year. There’s no way because you have migrant crime. Are they adding migrant crime? Or do they consider that a different form of crime?”

Unsurprisingly, there is no evidence for these claims. Cynically creating and disseminating “alternative facts” seems to come so naturally to the former president that his tombstone could read, “Here lies Donald Trump … As usual.”

In 2016, candidate Trump falsely insisted that the murder rate in the U.S. was “the highest in 45 years.” He maintained that the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimate of 4.9 percent unemployment was “phony” and the rate was actually 42 percent.

Two months after he took office, Trump boasted about the Bureau’s jobs announcement. The numbers “may have been phony in the past,” he instructed Press Secretary Sean Spicer to tell reporters, “but they’re very real now.”

As with his 2016 lies about unemployment, Trump is now riding an imaginary crime wave and, alas, many voters are buying what he’s selling.

A huge spike in crime, including a whopping 29 percent surge in murders, occurred during the pandemic in 2020 while Trump was president. In that year, eight of the 10 states with the highest murder rates voted for Trump. In 2021, the murder rate increased by an additional 4.3 percent, while violent crime dropped by 1 percent. Serious crime rates, it’s worth noting, have remained well below 1990s levels.

Since then a slew of organizations — including the Council on Criminal Justice, the Major Cities Chiefs Association, local and state government law enforcement agencies and the FBI — have agreed that crime has been going down in urban and rural areas, with a 6 percent nationwide decrease in homicides in 2022 and an additional 13 percent drop in 2023. According to Jeff Asher, co-founder of AH Datalytics, “murder almost certainly declined at one of the fastest rates ever recorded.” The nationwide reduction in violent crimes seems to have continued in the first quarter of 2024.

Progress, not surprisingly, is uneven. Murders were up 9 percent in Los Angeles in 2023, 8 percent in St. Louis and 23 percent in Denver; murders were down 18 percent in New York City and 24 percent in Washington, D.C.

There is no evidence of a migrant crime wave. Moreover, Richard Berk, an emeritus professor of criminology and statistics at the University of Pennsylvania, notes that “You could say [for example] the Philadelphia police department is in cahoots with the Biden Administration’s FBI” to rig the results, “but that’s simply a silly conspiracy theory.”

And it’s misleading to put a partisan spin on spikes in violent crime. Claims that “the crime problem is a blue state, blue city crime problem” are not valid, argues Jim Kessler, executive vice president of the public policy think tank Third Way. After adjusting for demographic and economic differences and the percentage of the population that is urban, the conservative Manhattan Institute concluded “there is no difference between Trump’s share of the electorate and homicide rates at the county or state level.”

Nonetheless, in November 2023, 77 percent of Americans told Gallup pollsters that crime had increased during the past year. Since only 17 percent indicated that crime was a significant problem where they live, it seems likely that fears of a wave have been stoked by political and media narratives. Ahead of the 2022 midterms, one-quarter of Republican attack ads on Democrats focused on crime; in September and October 2022, Fox News aired 141 news segments on crime. And Trump continues to make crime a centerpiece of his campaign to retake the White House.

Whether the subject is a crime wave, a stolen election or a weaponized Justice Department, the truth often fails to refute “alternative facts” that appeal to latent or blatant biases and fears. All the more so when hyperpartisan political allegiances, a lack of trust in experts and siloed sources of news and “information” are entrenched in our political culture.

We need community leaders and ordinary citizens as well as politicians to publicly repudiate a “post-fact” world as a clear and present danger to democracy; ask tough questions about the motives, integrity, veracity and authority of those who spread “alternative facts”; and hold them accountable for betraying voters’ trust.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Emeritus Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.