Donald Trump and Mass Incarceration
by Jason Stanley
Donald Trump’s support is in large part due to the fact that he gives explicit voice to ideologies that are outside the bounds of public respectability. It is natural to think that the problem then is not Trump, but rather the prevalence of these ideologies. Indeed, you might think that in some sense Donald Trump couldn’t be the problem. A candidate giving voice to such ideologies would only attract support to the extent to which those ideologies have underlying support. If so, much of the criticism that has been directed at Trump’s candidacy is misguided. Perhaps we should even be grateful to Trump for making explicit what is so often present yet hypocritically denied.
And yet it is a powerful thought that the very mark of a demagogue is precisely their willingness to exploit the ideological spaces left firmly outside the sphere of “respectable” public discourse. Hannah Arendt writes:
…the spokesmen for totalitarian movements possessed an unerring instinct for anything that ordinary party propaganda or public opinion did not care or dare to touch. Everything hidden, everything passed over in silence, became of major significance, regardless of its own intrinsic importance. The mob really believed that truth was whatever respectable society had hypocritically passed over.
Arendt is quite clear that Trump’s campaign strategy is the favored choice of democracy’s worst enemies. But she does not explain how giving public voice to disreputable ideology is a greater threat to democracy than the fact of its existence.
The prevalence of xenophobia, Islamophobia, racism, and commitment to harsh retributive justice is undeniably a problem that is independent of Donald Trump. But Trump’s political strategy poses an additional threat to democratic practice. Even when fundamentally illiberal ideologies are publicly repudiated, they serve as barriers to fair democratic deliberation, as politicians appeal to them with the use of coded language (“inner city”, “welfare”). As long as the public ethos against them remains firmly in place, there is a strategy to combat coded appeals to illiberal ideologies, colloquially known as “calling it out”. But Trump is not denying he holds these ideologies; he rather advertises it. In so doing, he legitimizes these ideologies in the public domain. When illiberal ideologies are rendered legitimate, it is no longer clear what strategy to employ to combat them.
In a healthy democracy, democratic deliberation is guided by a norm of impartiality, in the sense that policy makers at least take themselves to be responsible to such a norm, others take them to be responsible to this norm, etc. In political philosophy, there are disputes about which notions of impartiality should be at the basis of liberal democracy. The most important aspect of impartiality is what has come to be known as reasonableness. To be reasonable in one’s conduct towards others is a matter of being open to these other perspectives.
The norm of reasonableness has a long history in democratic political thought. The most well-known contemporary formulation is due to John Rawls:
Persons are reasonable in one basic aspect when, among equals say, they are ready to propose principles and standards as fair terms of cooperation and to abide by them willingly, given the assurance that others will likewise do so. Those norms they view as reasonable for everyone to accept and therefore as justifiable to them; and they are ready to discuss the fair terms that others propose. (John Rawls, Political Liberalism, p. 49)
It could hardly be fair to expect some citizens to comply with a policy if it was devised without their perspectives in mind. Policy that is genuinely fair must come from deliberation that takes every reasonable perspective into account. The stability of democracy as a system therefore depends upon a citizenry who are not sealed off from the perspectives of their reasonable co-citizens by fear, panic, or hatred. A general belief that Jews are out to deceive will undermine reasonable public discourse, as it will lead citizens to discount the actual perspective of their Jewish co-citizens in forming policy. It would be no surprise to discover in such a society policies unfair to Jewish citizens.
Problematic ideological divisions do not immediately disappear in a society even when wars are fought to overcome them. But in the presence of a public ethos that repudiates them, it becomes unacceptable to endorse them in public. As Tali Mendelberg has brilliantly described, this does not mean that the problematic ideological fissures become politically neutralized. It rather means that politicians who seek to exploit them must do so in a way that does not undermine the public’s view of them as reasonable public servants. This dialectic, applied to the ideological fissure of racism in the United States, is aptly reflected in a 1981 interview with Lee Atwater, later to lead George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign, with the notorious Willie Horton ad:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
When a politician uses language that explicitly represents a group in negative terms, it undercuts the social norm that keeps such ideological fissures part of the private sphere. Since it is assumed that legitimate public discourse is guided by a norm of reasonableness, it gives an aura of reasonableness to the description of Muslims as terrorists, Mexican immigrants as “rapists”, or climate science as “bullshit”.
Certain ideologies subordinate by targeting a group, and representing the perspectives of its members as unworthy of consideration in the formation of policy. In the extreme case, such ideologies dehumanize its targets. When ideologies that subordinate or dehumanize a group are legitimated in public debate about policies governing members of that group, democratic deliberation about policy is placed into crisis. We can see this process quite clearly at work by considering the effects of public discourse about US criminal justice practices from the late 1980s through the 1990s.
Violent crime declined continuously and steeply throughout the 1990s, beginning in 1991. But the debate about criminal justice policy and practice during this time was ideologically removed from this reality. Criminal justice policy had become a proving ground for politicians to demonstrate their perceived toughness. Debate was infused by an ethos that frowned on expressions of empathy for perpetrators. Dehumanizing vocabulary targeting those caught up in the criminal justice system was commonplace, and many of the words were racially coded (“super predator”, “thug”, “gang member”, though not “sex offender”). Rehabilitation is hard to envisage for those described as “thugs”, “super predators”, or “gangsters”. These are words that describe persons whose characters are resistant to any such method. Criminal justice practices became harshly retributive as a consequence.
Though the precise mechanisms continue to be a matter of debate, it is widely agreed that the culture surrounding crime policy had an effect on criminal justice practices that was both rapid and extreme. The U.S. Incarceration rate hovered around the norm for liberal democracies of 100 per 100,000 for many decades until the late 1970s. Then it started to rise; the current rate of 756 per 100,000 in prison or jail is by far the highest in the world. The United States has also developed a culture of policing marked by a level of fear and lack of empathy that is without parallel in liberal democracies (a 2015 headline of an article in the Guardian states “By the Numbers: US Police Kill More in Days than Other Countries do in Years”). Nor is the unprecedented decrease in crime since 1991 tightly connected to the intensely punitive criminal justice path the United States chose to take in the 1990s. Canada has experienced a similarly unprecedented drop in crime during this same time period, without following the US path into mass incarceration.
The harshly punitive criminal justice practices that emerged from the American public culture of the 1990s have harmed the United States morally and fiscally, as well as its standing in the world. Rhetoric in the public sphere that describes immigrants as “rapists” and “terrorists” can be expected to have a similar effect on immigration policy. And since Trump uses all opportunity for political debate as a means to signal toughness, the realization of the electoral power of his political strategy poses a broad challenge to democratic practices.
Let us return to the comparison between a political climate in which politicians must cleverly conceal an appeal to (say) racism so it is noticed only by fellow racists, on the one hand, and one in which politicians feel free to loudly proclaim it, on the other. A plausible moral to take from the politics of criminal justice policy and practice in the United Slates in the late 1980s and 1990s is that there is a significant additional policy cost in the latter climate. Politicians signaled their toughness to voters by flaunting their lack of empathy for those accused of crimes. The criminal justice practices that grew out of this were harshly cruel and socially and economically destructive.
American politicians typically avoid rhetorical strategies that explicitly dehumanize even widely disparaged groups. In the 1980s and 1990s, this mechanism of protection evaporated in the debate surrounding criminal justice. American politicians eagerly trolled for votes by employing incendiary rhetoric to describe criminal offenders. The result is the current crisis.
Trump’s candidacy is focused on policy debates whose structure parallels that of the criminal justice debate, where there is a clear “friend/enemy” distinction exploitable for political gain, such as immigration and terrorism. His rhetoric emulates the dehumanizing tropes of the late 1980s and 1990s criminal justice debate. This is no accident, as Trump developed this rhetorical style during these very debates. Indeed, any history of the rhetorical excesses of that debate must include the full page advertisement Donald Trump published in several New York city newspapers in 1989, during the trial of the Central Park Five, the five teenagers on trial for the brutal rape of a jogger in Central Park, entitled BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY BRING BACK OUR POLICE”. It said the “crazed misfits” causing crime in city streets “should be forced to suffer, and when they kill, should be executed for their crimes” (the teenagers were later discovered to be innocent). In the current campaign, criminal justice is again central. Trump urges the country, in language evoking that previous era, “we have to get a lot tougher on crime.” One of this signature campaign issues is broadening the use of the death penalty. His “tough on crime” rhetoric has already been credited with threatening to undermine the bipartisan consensus that there is a crisis of incarceration.
Trump is also increasingly experimenting with the most extreme dehumanizing representations, ones that have pre-genocidal associations. His first national advertisement, released this week, showed Mexican immigrants as insects scurrying and scattering like an infestation. It would be nice to dismiss such representations as unlikely to affect public debate. History suggests that this is wishful thinking. The representation of targeted groups as insects or vermin is a theme in Nazi propaganda about Jews; in the buildup to the Rwandan genocide, Hutu ethnic radio pride radio stations began calling Tutsi, “inyenzi”, meaning “cockroach”. Recent US history with the criminal justice debate suggests we may even be particularly vulnerable.
In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, politicians across the political spectrum seemed to tacitly agree that reasonable criminal justice policy would have to be sacrificed for electoral expediency. Debate about criminal justice became a way of appealing to the worst appeals to fear and voters’ desire for revenge, without fear of social sanction by the media or the public. Democrats could freely use it to enact the flawed masculine ideal of a complete lack of empathy. The case of US criminal justice policy shows that when democratic deliberation breaks down in this way, it is not just the democratic process that is lost. Trump’s campaign promises to broaden this to every policy debate. Its success is already leading to broader emulation. More than just our democracy is in peril.
 Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Harcourt Brace and Company: San Diego, 1973), p. 351.