Wednesday was Big Government night at the Republican National Convention, with speaker after speaker extolling the virtues of public employees. Scott Walker said that government lawyers should not just be respected — they should be revered. Newt Gingrich called for zero tolerance for people who call for the death of IRS employees. Vice-Presidential nominee Mike Pence asked delegates to let EPA regulators and VA administrators know that we will always stand with them.
Well, no. That would be ridiculous. Not even the Democrats indulge in such hagiography of all public employees.
Republicans said those things about one subset of government employees — police officers. So no worries. The party of limited government isn't demanding reverence of all government — just the armed parts.
Flag-waving about cops works on multiple levels. On one level it's symbolic and emotive — it's America, apple pie, baseball, and mom, all wrapped into an idealized view of cops.
But the words work on another level too. They carry messages about the relationship between the citizen and the state, as embodied by its armed officers: armed officers of the state are, by definition, heroes. Armed officers of the state are, by definition, trustworthy and right. It's wrong to question them. They need and deserve special protection.
We already get that from television and movies and other parts of the culture. It's only natural that we get it from our politicians as well. Law and order rhetoric has two parts — you're in danger and I'll protect you. Lionizing cops is part of the I'll protect you phase. It signifies "I support cops, cops are part of my tribe, and together we will keep you safe." At least, it says that for some values of "you."
The Republicans — as they have historically — have deftly manipulated fear about lawlessness and disorder. On the home front, we fear lawlessness and disorder in the form of tragic and despicable ambush murders of police officers in multiple locations. Each represents a world ended, a family destroyed, a grotesque act of hatred. More importantly for politicians, each represents the particular kind of lawlessness we fear.
As a nation, we're rather selective about what kind of lawlessness terrifies us.
What is more terrifying: criminals engaging in a particular type of wanton violence more often than usual, or armed agents of the state breaking it with impunity? The answer to that question might depend on whether you're likely to be the victim of one or the other. In America, maniacs murder cops. And in America, cops shoot unarmed caretakers with their hands in the air as they try to protect autistic patients. They beat surrendered suspects. They perjure themselves. They execute citizens. They manipulate the system to protect cronies. They rape the vulnerable.
Not all cops, of course. We stand behind the law-abiding cops, some politicians claim. But the fact is the American justice system demonstrably stands behind cops even when they're proven liars and lawbreakers, and the system's standard of proof for cops — and the public's — is much different than the standard of proof the rest of us face. The rhetoric of cop-worship is the foundation of that special treatment.
Somehow, as a nation, we're not terrified of this trend of state lawbreaking as we are of other types. At least, most of us aren't. In fact, many of us are miffed when someone brings it up.
That's culture — a culture that already reveres cops, just like Scott Walker says we should. Our reverence is unreflective and mostly unquestioning. Our reverence is shorthand for bundles of other attitudes, some of them about race and class and other ugly things. Our reverence ought to trouble us, and should have no place at the convention of a party that's supposed to stand for conservatism. Reverence for the government is not conservative.