The Republican Party and particularly former President Donald Trump, to whom the party still appears to pledge allegiance, love to represent themselves as the staunchest defenders of law and order, as if defining themselves against the Democratic Party and others, who somehow in their minds favor an anything goes ideology, allowing chaos and lawlessness.
Any reasonable observer of the political drama that has unfolded over the past four years may find the hypocrisy in Trump’s and the Republican Party’s self-representation patently flagrant. Chaos, disorder, and dishonesty have abounded. The height of the mendacity of the Republican “law and order” self-image may be most brazenly evident in the party’s refusal to condemn, indeed their outright support for, the January 6 insurrectionists who violently assaulted Capitol police.
So much for law and order, right?
Well, it depends how one defines “law and order.”
We can learn a lot, I think, by looking more carefully at Republican behavior and seeking to understand what they mean by “law and order” and its implications for American politics and society.
The recent Texas anti-abortion law illuminates quite a bit about how Republicans think about government and the role of the state in maintaining law and order.
Clearly, they do not believe, in the words of the law and Order mantra, that “in the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police who investigate crimes and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders.”
Rather, for all intents and purposes, Republicans eschew the value and authority of a democratically-elected government that represents the will of the people. Their behaviors suggest they reject the validity of the very concept of a government that embodies and represents the will of the majority, instead seeking to empower, even deputize, a minority of individuals independent of the state to enforce and impose their own beliefs on the American majority. They seek to subvert, indeed eliminate the state itself.
The Texas anti-abortion law makes this agenda of eliminating the state and enabling individuals to impose their beliefs on others clear.
As we’ve all heard much about by now, Republicans wrote the law in such a way that the state plays no role in enforcing the law. Rather, the law authorizes “any person” who does not work for the state or city government to file a civil lawsuit against anyone who performs or aids and abets the performance of an abortion. No state official is allowed to enforce the law, and the state is to have no role.
Indeed, Chief Justice John Roberts highlighted this starkly unusual element of the law when he dissented from the Supreme Court’s refusal to issue a stay in the implementation of law, questioning the state’s wisdom in removing itself “from responsibility for implementing and enforcing the regulatory regime.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, however, hit the nail on its head when she called out the law as “a breathtaking act of defiance—of the Constitution, of this Court’s precedents, and of the rights of women seeking abortions throughout Texas.”
Not only do Republicans want to empower individuals to defy representative democracy and the will of the majority, they want to do so by annihilating the democratic state altogether.
The law is absolutely an act of defiance, as Sotomayor terms it, and it achieves that defiance through exactly the means Roberts identifies—removing the state altogether from the law after its act of passing it.
And here we see the underlying Republican logic that connects the party’s support for the January 6 insurrectionists with the Texas anti-abortion law.
While it might seem on the face of it rather contradictory or hypocritical for Republicans to support rioters committing violence, at times murderous, against the police, when we consider that according to Republican logic the state can never, by definition, represent true law and order, the defense of the rioters makes perfect sense. The police are agents of the state and hence cannot represent legitimate law and order.
Law and order, for Republicans, rests with self-authorized individuals, not with the government, the state, the police, the law, or anything.
The actions of the rioters who assaulted the Capitol on January 6 can be described in the exact same words Sotomayor used to described Texas’ anti-abortion law—“a breathtaking act of defiance,” including a defiance of the Constitution and the processes it details for peaceful transitions in power.
So, understanding how Republicans think about law and order, we can understand their ultimate objective—the elimination of the state to empower militant groups of individuals to impose and enforce their own principles and beliefs.
This last point needs to be stressed. Freedom for Republicans and their followers does not simply mean that they get to live according to their principles regardless of the law. It means they also get to impose their belief systems, their version of “law and order” on everybody else.
So, as we saw in recent cases when anti-vaxxer protestors disrupted the administration of vaccines at sites in Georgia, they don’t just want not to have get the vaccination themselves, they want to deprive everybody else of the freedom to get vaccinated.
Freedom, for them, means everybody lives by their rules.
That’s “law and order” for Republicans.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.