President Donald Trump’s decision to combat violent crime in Chicago and other cities, whether invited or not, reminds me of President Ronald Reagan’s line about the “nine most terrifying words” in the English language: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”
Indeed. Initial reaction from Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot came by one of the president’s favorite media, Twitter: “Under no circumstances,” she tweeted last week, “will I allow Donald Trump’s troops to come to Chicago and terrorize our residents.”
No, she was not referring to the terrorism inflicted by gunmen who shot at least 15 people in a drive-by shooting outside a funeral home on the Chicago’s South Side earlier in the day.
She was referring to Trump’s proposed cure for the violence that has surged in Chicago and some other cities this summer.
She was referring to Portland, Ore., a city rocked by daily protests since late May, after George Floyd choked to death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.
Suddenly in mid-July paramilitary troops appeared on Portland streets, reportedly with no identification or announcement. Some of them picked up alleged protesters, who were spirited away for questioning before being released.
The Trump administration finally identified the uniformed personnel as federal agents. They were drawn from various federal agencies, similar to the federal agents who broke up peaceful protests in front of the White House with irritants and “nonlethal projectiles” to make way for Trump’s famous photo op with a Bible in front of a nearby church.
Trump defended his tough tactics by urging local and state officials to “dominate” violent protesters with overwhelming force “or you’ll look like a bunch of jerks.”
The result in Portland has been even larger protests and escalating military tactics, including the tear-gassing of a crowd last week that included Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler.
No, that doesn’t help build Trump’s image as a peacemaker, but it gave ample opportunity for his re-election campaign team to gather footage of “radical left” chaos in the streets of “Joe Biden’s America.” Never mind the irony of illustrating that message with footage from Donald Trump’s America.
That’s what Lightfoot didn’t want in Chicago, and she was hardly alone. Trump had announced his administration would be paying visits to Chicago and suggested other cities, including New York, Philadelphia and Detroit, where he might administer more of his tough love.
He announced a new program called Operation Legend, named after 4-year-old LeGend Taliferro of Kansas City, Mo., who was shot fatally as he slept in his room in June.
Unlike the shock-troop approach deployed in Portland, Operation Legend aims to assist existing local law enforcement, not create a Portland-style camouflage-wearing paramilitary strike force.
Away from the glare of media spotlights, Trump and Lightfoot apparently found something of which Washington has not seen much these days: common ground.
“We welcome actual partnership, but we do not welcome dictatorship,” she said. “We do not welcome authoritarianism, and we do not welcome the unconstitutional arrests and detainments of our residents, and that is something I will not tolerate.”
Can we all get along? Chicago certainly welcomes federal help, as other mayors have welcomed it before her.
And, contrary to Trump’s election-year stereotypes about “cities run by softhearted far-left Democratic mayors,” Lightfoot is a former federal prosecutor who knows and says she trusts U.S. Attorney John Lausch, who will head the Operation Legend operation locally.
That’s smart. Chicago’s crime problems are complex. So is its history of police misconduct complaints. A true partnership between local and federal authorities, with each side assisting as well as holding the other accountable, offers a path toward a real solution.
But a big question remains: Will Trump stick with this issue if it doesn’t reverse his current slide behind his Democratic rival Biden in battleground state polls?
Coinciding with his announcement of Operation Legend, Trump’s campaign has been spending millions on ads that try to tie lawlessness to Democrats and far-left “abolish the police” movements to Biden, even though Biden has called for increasing funds for police along with social services.
Ah, there goes the neighborhood. The “law and order” card worked well for Richard Nixon in 1968 and George H.W. Bush in 1988, among other Republicans. But I detect a hint of desperation in Trump’s playing that tune now, when polls show that the coronavirus pandemic and unemployment appear to have stirred a greater sense of urgency among swing voters.
In the meantime, I still hope the president can do something that really does help those of us who live in Chicago and other cities fight surges in violence, if we can hold his attention long enough.
Clarence Page is a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board. Readers may send him e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.