How a History of TV Played a Real Trump Card on Us
Origins of “Law and Order,” Justice, and Police Forces in American Television
This is a real tale and historical exploration of how a little boy’s identity came to be made by TV itself — the boy who would one day become a TV president with huge TV dreams.
Once upon this lifetime, a little boy named Donald J. Trump (b. June 14, 1946) lived in Queens. It was a time when the first king of American TV galloped across the fragmented magical mirrors in the courts of living rooms across the American realm. It could be said that the little boy wanted to be like that TV king, as did many Baby Boomers in the line of that generation, many of whom were not as familiar with the Bible, as they grew up to think or say they were. Or, perhaps Leviticus 26:1 was just overlooked.
Nevertheless, an idol king was anointed a cultural icon of a generation. He was ‘the Lone Ranger,’ the protagonist of America’s first drama series — The Lone Ranger (1949–1957). The TV show was based off a 1933 radio show of the same name. ‘The Lone Ranger’s’ reign on TV marked a new age of make believe, the advent of broadcasted scripted drama for the American public collective. For a generation, and many to follow, the TV show came to shape and inform perceptions of justice, law, race, ethnicity, friendship, and masculinity.
The Lone Ranger’s premise was built upon the story of an organization of six law enforcers who came together to “combat the evil forces of the times.” They were named the “Texas Rangers.” “All [were] courageous straight-shooting men.” They set out on a quest with the “half-breed Collins” to search for a group of outlaws, “the notorious Butch Cavendish Gang.”
In the premiere episode, it is inferred that Cavendish is Mexican. His gang consisted of Mexican and White men. Viewers quickly discovered that the “half-breed traitor Collins,” conspired with the Cavendish gang to ambush the Rangers. Unbeknown to the Gang, one of the rangers survived. He was later found and nursed back to health by a Native American named Tonto. (YouTube Clip)
Tonto, played by the First Nation actor Jay Silverheels, has been described in various series commentary as ‘the Lone Ranger’s’ companion. He regarded the Ranger as “Kemosabe/The Trusty Scout.” It is unknown exactly how many Spanish speaking viewers grew up watching the show. They would have comprehended “Tonto” for its Spanish meaning—“moron” or “fool.” Why was a derogatory Spanish descriptor given as name for the Native American character?
After ‘the Lone Ranger’ regained his strength, he vowed to his Native American companion that he would devout his life to “justice,” “establishing law and order,” in honor of his fellow murdered rangers. The Cavendish Gang and general criminals were to be his targets. He made it clear that he would “shoot to wound, not to kill.” If a person were to die, ‘the Lone Ranger’ believed that “it is up to the law to decide that, not a person behind the range of a six shooter.” And so, a new TV hero, a TV king arose.
Is it implausible to suggest that a little boy of the 1950s could have grown up to construct his psyche and identity based upon the projection of an altered idol — ‘the Lone Ranger?’
On May 31, 2016, Donald Trump told reporter Robert Costa that he was “The Lone Ranger,” in the then 2016 political race. Later in his presidency, another reference to the masked vigilante was stated:
“One by one, we’re liberating our American towns…This is like I’d see in a movie: They’re liberating the town, like in the old Wild West, right?… We will restore law and order on Long Island. We’ll bring back justice to the United States.”
James Bond creator, Ian Fleming, once said, “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.” Mostly recently, a third reference to ‘the Lone Ranger’s’ famed words were spoken:
“I will fight to keep them safe. I will fight to protect you. I am your president of law and order, and an ally of all peaceful protesters.”
The Lone Ranger, which was later made into a movie in 2013. In essence, it is a fiction origin story. Some have suggested that the primary character of ‘the Lone Ranger’ is based on the historical U.S. Deputy marshal Bass Reeves (1838 –1910), the first Black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi River. What would society look like today if back in the 1940s, The Lone Ranger was casted with a leading Black man and based on the actual story of Reeves, verses becoming the TV idol character he did, and casted as a White man? Would that have changed the way race relations and criminal justice is perceived in contemporary America? Such an answer we will truly never know.
Programming What Matters: Law Enforcement Masked in TV Culture
TV was not a part of American culture. It was an architect of American culture, a subset of culture itself. Prior to the advent of social media and streaming TV, TV programming came to serve as the Nation’s social connective tissue. It still does in many ways. However, as social channels evolved, and TV/film casts and production crews became more diverse, perceptions and broadcasted narratives became more nuanced in time.
The introduction of TV programming and technologies in America enabled social constructions of various perceptions of American society, a particular person/people, object(s), emotion(s), idea(s), language(s), and/or behavior(s), broadcasted at a mass level. Since the inception of TV drama, the subjects of “law and order,” police, and criminal have been the primary subject of American entertainment and discourse.
Two years after The Lone Ranger premiered, the first television drama series whose storyline was centered on a police force made its debut—Dragnet (1951–1959). The TV show was based on the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), a distinct jurisdiction amongst the country’s collection of states.
In 1955, near the height of The Lone Ranger’s and Dragnet’s success, the actual LAPD held a contest to come up with a motto. They stated:
“The motto should be one that in a few words would express some or all the ideals to which the Los Angeles police service is dedicated. It is possible that the winning motto might someday be adopted as the official motto of the Department.”
Officer Joseph S. Dorobek submitted the winning entry, “To Protect and to Serve.”
In 1963, LAPD Officer Dorobek’s winning motto was placed on all LAPD patrol cars — “To Protect and to Serve.” Since South v. State of Maryland (1855), the Supreme Court has held that a law enforcement officer’s duty is only to enforce the law, and conserve public peace, not to protect individuals. Even after Town of Castle Rock v. Gonzales (2005), the Court held the same position. “To Protect and to Serve,” though an honorable concept, is not an order of the law. It is a campaign slogan that millions of Americans have come to believe to be an official code of conduct on a federal level.
With the exception of The Andy Griffin Show and Hawaii Five-0, all of the primary police-based TV shows of the 60’s and 70’s were either based in NYC (NYPD) or LA (LAPD). The overwhelming majority were based in LA—Burke’s Law; Columbo; The Mod Squad; Adam-12; Chase; Starksky & Hutch, Southern California Police; CHiPs, California Highway Patrol; Police Story; and Police Woman. By way of the prop cars used in filming the TV shows, the LAPD’s motto was broadcasted to millions of people, across the decades, throughout many seasons of American life, shaping perceptions of the police force.
Between syndicated TV programs, and new 80's TV shows such as Miami Vice and 21 Jump Street, there were no shortage of law enforcement-based narratives on mainstream TV. Even The Golden Girls incorporated law enforcement narratives in one of its episodes. Take for instance the episode ‘Dorothy’s Prized Pupil’ (1987). In it, actor Mario Lopez played a high school student named Mario who was tutored by main character Dorothy, played by Bea Arthur. Impressed by an essay he wrote, “What it means to be an American,” Dorothy secretly submitted her student’s article to a local newspaper, thinking it would help the boy for she thought him to be talented. Spoiler alert, the authorities saw a picture of the visibly non-White student in the paper and identified him as an illegal citizen. The episode ends with his deportation.
With the premiere of three particular shows in the late ‘80s — Unsolved Mysteries (1987–2010 ), America’s Most Wanted (1987–2012), and COPS (1989–*series was cancelled after the publication of this article, on June 9, 2020), TV programming changed its game by inviting viewers to a new form of TV entertainment — documentary style/reality TV.
Five years before American Idol (2002-Current), it was crime-based television shows that served as the foundations of the era of reality TV. Unsolved Mysteries (1987–2010) and America’s Most Wanted (1988–2012) consisted of reenactments of unsolved cases and fugitives. However, America’s Most Wanted added a new social dynamic to its TV program. The show invited audiences to actively take part in the criminal justice system by prompting viewers to supply the F.B.I. with tips via a telephone hotline made just for the show. The most pivotal reality TV show of the 80s was COPS (1989–*series was cancelled after the publication of this article, on June 9, 2020). It offered viewers a rare opportunity. It invited them into the real world of real police officers, from various jurisdictions, during patrols, and raids.
A 2007 study, “Are Reality TV Crime Shows Continuing To Perpetuate Crime Myths?,” conducted by a research team at Old Dominion University, concluded that officers in COPS frequented poorer residential regions and arrested minority men, particularly Black men, at a higher rate than White men. Burglary and grand theft were the most common crimes committed in the study’s footage. The study analyzed eight hours of programming (sixteen episodes) from the TV show and found that 94% of the show’s characters were male; 92% of the officers showcased were White, 4% Black, and 4% Hispanic; and 38% of the offenders shown were White, 45% Black, and 17% Hispanic. The study presented solid evidence that indicts the show as a perpetuator of crime myths and gender biases. Nonetheless, COPS still remains one of the longest running shows in TV history.
Looking at the 1990 U.S. Census, around the beginning of the then new TV series, Black people made up 12% of the U.S. Population and Hispanics 9%. Juxtaposing these stats against with those of the COPS study, one is prompted to question, “Was the idea of the Black and Hispanic criminal casted by the producers of the TV show?” Scouting, casting, and production development after all are standard steps in the TV and film making process. Shooting the docu-drama reality series in areas of high poverty and hi-minority population appeared to have been a choice.
Between the show COPS, the live coverage of the Los Angeles riots in 1992, and the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995, the 90s came to contain new and concentrated broadcasted narratives on the subjects of race, criminal justice, and law and order, footage for actual current events. As cable TV programming began to rise in popularity during the ’90s, more nuanced race and law enforcement TV dramas came to be verbalized and visualized across the American networks.
Between 1984 and 1992, America invested over $15 billion to wire the country for cable television. At the time, it was the largest private construction project since World War II. Cable TV paved the way for the mainstream’s adoption of the Internet. On top of new forms of social narratives being programmed, the notion of paid TV subscriptions, on top of shifting advertising and production models, altered society and business practices as well.
The American Cable TV revolution soon began to redefine American culture, particularly with its perception of race relations, crime, and law enforcement. Compared to the network television shows such as Law & Order (1990–2010) and NYPD Blue (1993–2005), cable’s Oz (1997–2003) and The Sopranos (1999–2007) invited select paid audiences into the perspective of criminals — White crime families and prison inmates of various races.
With the turn of the millennium, HBO dived further into the narrative of the criminal justice system, from the perspective of both the officer and the criminal with The Wire (2002–2008), challenging viewers’ pre-existing assumptions and perceptions about the criminal justice system. It opened doors to thought, provoking storylines and portrayals of human experiences by going against the formulaic approach of broadcast TV dramas.
HBO’s must recent criminal justice show, Watchmen (2019), advanced and expanded the subject of Police Forces and the criminal justice system by incorporating elements from the history of the Tulsa Race Massacre , the historical U.S. Deputy marshal Bass Reeves (recall the Black marshal who ‘the Lone Ranger’ was actually inspired by), into an alternative universe where a different celebrity is president and a Black female cop is the show’s protagonist. (It’s quite an excellent 1 season series!)
It is widely known that the current impeached President Donald Trump has a strong affinity for television. He also appears to have a strong affinity for film too. It’s been suggested that elements from his inauguration speech are reminiscent of some of the words spoken by the villain Bane, in the Batman movie, The Dark Knight. President Trump even renamed the Air Force Space Command as the U.S. Space Force, and made it an independent branch of the U.S. Airforce. The new organization’s emblem has a striking similarity to the emblem of the Starfleet Command, the fictitious organization from the sci-fi TV show Star Trek (1966-Current).
How far fetch is it to suggest that the current sitting impeached President’s primary views and knowledge about governing, race, and criminal justice is based upon the programmed line up of his favorite TV shows and movies he’s watched over the years, ever since he was a little boy?
Practically every generation alive today in America has grown up in a world where the subject matter of law enforcement and police narratives has been in heavy rotation on network and cable TV. Many little boys, girls, and non-gender conforming children have grown up in a TV culture were various social constructs and perceptions knowing were downloaded into their realm of perceived knowing, by way of TV programming. However, not everyone is, or goes on to be, living their own TV show or movie. Think about it…The Truman Show verses the Trump Show.