Attorney General William Barr’s decision to order the resumption of federal executions, presumably at the order of Donald Trump, was treated by most of the media as a one-day story. It seemed to come out of the blue, and to have no strategic thought behind it — just another nasty, impulsive conservative policy emanating from an administration that continually emits such unpleasant proposals.
But I believe there was nothing impulsive about it. This was the springing of a political trap intended to shore up the “law-and-order” credentials of an inherently lawless administration. The decision also appears aimed to force the hand of Democrats — to get them to go on record opposing the death penalty, and thus, by extension, be seen as “weak on crime” and somehow simpatico with the five men who now stand to be executed later this year.
On one level, this is simply “politics as usual.” U.S. politicians have a long and sordid tradition of politicizing the death penalty during election season. It’s low-hanging fruit, since, even though opposition to capital punishment has risen in recent years — some polls show it’s now at its highest level in decades — over the years, polling has shown that the U.S. public has consistently supported capital punishment.
George H.W. Bush similarly sought to play on pro-death-penalty fervor when running his infamously racist Willie Horton ad against his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, during the 1988 presidential campaign — an ad that opened by touting Bush’s pro-death penalty credentials.
Opportunism on this issue easily crosses party boundaries, too. Four years after Dukakis’s mauling at the hands of Bush, Democratic candidate Bill Clinton sought to inoculate himself from charges of being a wishy-washy liberal by refusing a plea for clemency and instead signing a death warrant against Rickey Ray Rector, a man with a traumatic brain injury. Today, that opportunism runs in reverse at times, with Democrats seeking the presidential nomination also playing politics on the issue; candidates such as Joe Biden who in previous years went out of their way to establish their “tough-on-crime” credentials are now falling over themselves to align with progressive primary voters in their opposition to the death penalty.
And yet, because of the broader Trumpian moment, Barr’s announcement can’t be dismissed as simply cruel politics as usual, as a Republican hack pandering to a conservative GOP base in election season.
Trump isn’t simply opportunistic when it comes to executions — rather, he has long been utterly obsessed with capital punishment. He has fetishized the state-sanctioned shedding of blood. Back in the late 1980s, the real estate mogul took out ads in New York newspapers calling for the execution of the five young Black men whom the media dubbed the Central Park Five — all youth who were wrongfully accused of attacking and raping a white jogger.
Even after a huge body of evidence emerged to exonerate the teens, showing that they had been framed for a crime they hadn’t committed, and even after the state settled a wrongful conviction lawsuit, Trump never apologized for his shameful role in this case.
If there’s a chance to stir the pot and contribute to the overheated rhetoric when it comes to executions, Trump has always wanted to take it. During his 2016 election campaign, he made the horrendous claim that not only should those deemed “terrorists” be executed but that their families should also be killed. More recently, at campaign rallies he has called for the “swift” execution of people who kill police officers; presumably, in his understanding, this means doing away with all the time-consuming appeals that stand between a sentence being read out in court and actually being carried out.
At his rallies in 2016, Trump’s supporters frequently called for Hillary Clinton to be hanged or shot for treason. And while Trump himself didn’t directly embrace such calls, he also didn’t make any effort to distance himself from them. The frenzy and blood-lust was politically expedient, and so Trump let it run on.
Once it became seen as “acceptable” to call for one’s political opponents to be jailed or even executed, so it also became commonplace. Trump has repeatedly, in the years since, described his political opponents and those who have investigated him and his campaign as “traitors.” This is a very specific charge carrying with it the possibility of execution as a punishment. One doesn’t bandy about such allegations casually. They are designed to convince Trump’s base that he is surrounded by mortal enemies, and to similarly convince that base that any and all responses are politically and legally justified against them. That’s the base that now, routinely, physically threatens writers and politicians, TV reporters, journalists, entertainers, and anyone else who dares to call Trump out for his actions.
It is in this context that Barr’s embrace of the federal death penalty ought to be viewed.
As Trump has shown with his white nationalist rants over the past weeks, there’s no low that he won’t stoop to as he seeks to shore up his base in the run-up to next year’s elections. Combine the racism of Trump’s tweets about “the Squad”, Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings and now Al Sharpton, and the obsession with the meting out of state-sanctioned violence, and you have the likely tenor of the next year-and-a-half of politics in a nutshell.
The Department of Justice’s renewed embrace of capital punishment isn’t about “public safety” — it’s about pandering to the basest emotions. It’s all part of the cacophony of fury and blood-lust that passes for politics in Trump’s degraded vision of the United States.