Chicago becomes a stage for fulfilling a conservative battle
The prospect of federal agents being deployed to Chicago marked the realization of long-held conservative aspirations.
Conservative media for decades have painted America’s third-largest city as a national hub of gun violence and gang activity, crippled by what they see as political correctness thwarting real solutions.
Now President Donald Trump is indulging the dream more than any national leader in recent history, attempting to turn a major liberal city into an election-year example of his pledge to deliver law and order across the country. The president’s drumbeat of attention on Chicago — with a pledge to send in hundreds of federal agents to quell the city’s gun violence problem — has turned into a stampede of voices designed to rally his troops in the culture wars.
“If I were mayor of Chicago, I would be begging the president to help me out here in terms of providing more resources” to control gun violence, said John Lott, a prominent conservative gun researcher frequently cited by the National Rifle Association.
Lott, president of the pro-gun Crime Prevention Research Center, accused city leadership of years of neglect due to “politically correct” restrictions, budget reductions and cuts to the police force, leading to lower conviction rates for murders and fewer disincentives against crime. And he said Trump’s overtures should be welcomed.
“I wouldn't be yelling at him and calling him a racist for trying to help, because the people that are having their lives destroyed are poor Blacks,” Lott said.
The federal government in recent weeks has deployed agents to Portland, Albuquerque, Seattle and Chicago. In Portland, and to a lesser degree in Seattle, federal agents are backing up police, guarding federal buildings and arresting protesters en masse with dubious methods. In Portland, that move has only fueled protests, prompting thousands of people to take to the streets, inadvertently creating riotous scenes that press secretary Kayleigh McEnany is, quite literally, broadcasting from the press room podium.
“Law and order will prevail,” she told reporters last week as she played a dramatic video from Portland during a briefing. “As you can see, that is anything but a peaceful protest. And this president will always stand on the side of law and order.”
The process toward “law and order” is similar in Albuquerque and Chicago, where the agents are being assigned to work behind the scenes with the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Other cities on Trump’s potential list include New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore and Oakland, Calif.
Though Chicago has been the focus of conservative complaints for decades, at least dating back to the 1968 Chicago riots during the Democratic National Convention, Trump’s recent actions capped off years of threats to send the feds into major cities for myriad reasons — such as solving homelessness or ridding communities of undocumented immigrants. This time, Trump and his allies say weeks of protests — against police brutality, white nationalism and Trump himself — have turned into a nationwide spasm of antifa violence. If liberal city leadership cannot deal with it — or, at least, push back against the visuals spreading across conservative media — then it was up to Trump to fix it.
Liberals see it as a spectacle by Trump and his allies to distract from soaring coronavirus cases and a tanking economy just over three months from Election Day. The focus of his efforts are cities and towns — whether Chicago or Portland — that he won’t win in November anyway. His effort to fight violence is a show for the rest of the country.
“What Trump is doing now — and I think this is part of his motivation — is to portray cities as dystopic hubs of illegality and crime. And there’s a heavy racial component to that,” said David Axelrod, a longtime Chicago resident and senior adviser to President Barack Obama. “I think it’s a strategy to try to scare particularly suburban voters back into his column.”
Trump’s views on Chicago were fueled in part by the right’s focus on Obama, who during his administration sought to reduce gun violence by banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
“There’s no doubt that when Obama became president that the right wanted to use Chicago against him. It was his hometown,” Axelrod said. “The fact that Chicago was his hometown was something that intrigued Trump — notwithstanding that he built Trump Tower here and had some regard for the city, or he wouldn’t have built here.”
Trump also poked at Chicago during Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration, likely, said Axelrod, because Emanuel worked as Obama’s chief of staff. “Rahm was associated with Obama. They were impetuses for him.”
The fact that three Chicago mayors — Richard M. Daley, Emanuel and now Lori Lightfoot — sometimes criticized Trump regarding his lack of action on guns also may have irked Trump, who grates at any criticism.
Rev. Michael Pfleger, a gun control advocate whose Catholic parish is in the heart of the city’s South Side, where gun violence has been pervasive, said the NRA has fueled the rhetoric about violence in Chicago.
“They don’t deal with statistics or data,” he said. “Chicago isn’t even the most violent city in the country. The NRA deals in fear. It loves to glorify crime and violence in the Black community. More recently, it’s gotten help from the president who has created a racial divide greater than I’ve seen in a long time.”
Though Chicago’s crime stats are lower than those of other major cities, no one doubts the city has a gang violence problem. One reason is that guns are so readily available — which a City of Chicago study found are mostly coming from Indiana. And in recent weeks, Chicago has seen a spike in shootings and murders of children — a development that has drawn repeated attention from Trump and his aides.
Lightfoot, the current mayor, said she welcomes federal support to assist agencies such as the ATF, DEA and FBI, all of which have offices in Chicago. “We do not need or want troops,” she said in a recent statement, referring to the type of federal involvement occurring in Portland.
Conservatives have wanted the federal government to take control of crime in Chicago for decades — long before Trump got into politics.
In the 1960s, the city was a hub for riots, and that reputation stuck after violence erupted during the 1968 Democratic Convention.
But it wasn’t until the 1980s that the right, especially the NRA, started zeroing in on Chicago, which had instituted a ban on handguns. In the 1990s, under the direction of then-mayor Daley, the city filed suit with families of murder victims, claiming the gun industry was to blame for Chicago’s violence. The suit accused gun manufacturers of blanketing the city and its suburbs with guns.
It took six years to get the case to the state Supreme Court, which in 2004 ruled against Daley. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court then ruled in a landmark case against Chicago’s ban on handguns. During the many years of court battles, the NRA and the right perpetuated the idea of “Black-on-Black crime,” a racist trope that has been used to instill fear — especially in suburban white communities.
“It became a political fight, a distraction,” said Gary Slutkin, CEO and founder of Cure Violence Global, a Chicago-based group that trains residents to stop violence in their own communities. “Each side blamed the other and neither properly stepped forward to find a solution.”
Slutkin sees a similar political battle being waged in the middle of trying to control the Covid-19 pandemic. “The political fight is a distraction from solving the problem,” he said.
Three months from a general election, Trump is trying to energize the same suburban white communities that the NRA focused on years ago. One of the gun lobby’s targets has long been the city’s gun possession laws and how they differ from other cities.
“It's really in Chicago that they're saying, ‘Look, you do have all these strict gun control laws, and it's not actually doing anything about crime. So you shouldn't put restrictions on guns,’” said Nicole Hemmer, author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.”
Trump himself has falsely claimed that the city has a handgun ban, citing it as a reason the city is soft on guns, when in fact Illinois allows concealed carry.
Chicago also became a useful “tool of deflection” from other mass shootings over the past decades, such as Sandy Hook, the Las Vegas Strip and Pulse Nightclub, Hemmer said.
“Whenever one of these mass shootings happens, it moves public sentiment towards gun control,” she said. “And so talking about Chicago is a way of deflecting the conversation.”