Imagine you were the president of the most powerful nation on earth for just two months. You can’t stay longer. You can do whatever you want. What would you spend your time and power on? With no one to please, many of us would try to tackle child poverty, world hunger, or international conflicts. Most of us wouldn’t prioritise killing as many people as possible. So, why is Donald Trump doing exactly this?
In his final days as president, as well as inciting insurrections and trying to overturn the November election, Trump’s other apparent priority is execution. His is to be the most prolific executioner of any US administration in history.
I should be upfront about my opinion of capital punishment – I don’t think it’s right. When there’s no imminent threat to someone’s life, no government should have the authority to kill a person. Making the decision to wilfully extinguish another human’s life is an enormous decision. Without the justification of saving someone, it’s big a moral decision for any of us, or even all of us together. Two wrongs, no matter how big, simply don’t make a right.
It’s not plausible to imagine the average serial killer, hardly a bastion of rational thought, weighing up the trade-off of multiple murders with the potential punishment
Capital punishment has a long and inconsistent history in the US, dating back to before the American Revolution. In 1972 it was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court but was reintroduced following a case in 1976. Since then, its use was resumed and 1529 people have been killed. However, most executions don’t fall under the remit of the federal government.
In fact, since the death penalty was reinstated, over half of executions have been carried out by just four states, Texas – the capital of capital punishment – Virginia, Oklahoma, and Florida. Different presidents have had radically different attitudes to federal executions. In recent times, only George W. Bush and Donald Trump have overseen executions for federal crimes. Indeed, since 1963 only thirteen people have been executed, and ten of those were in 2020.
What caused the sudden spike? The first, and perhaps most charitable, interpretation is that Trump believes the death penalty works. Knowing that future presidents are likely to be squeamish about execution, he might want to make the most of his limited opportunity. A lot of people, including in the UK, believe the death penalty is an effective way to deter crime. This is despite a complete lack of evidence.
Regardless of the theoretical efficacy of capital punishment as a deterrent, though, it’s unlikely to work in this situation. It’s not plausible to imagine the average serial killer, hardly a bastion of rational thought, weighing up the trade-off of multiple murders with the potential punishment. The idea that somewhere in America a would-be assassin would have decided to despatch someone, only to be dissuaded by the increased execution-count, is utter rubbish.
170 of the people sentenced to death in the US since capital punishment was reintroduced have later been exonerated
Secondly, he could be pursuing some sort of narrow political gain. Despite Donald Trump receiving his P45 from the electorate in November, he still has an obvious interest in being popular. The future success of a potential Trump TV or a future run at the presidency depend on Trump’s ability to point to concrete political achievements. The overall electoral appeal of the death penalty is reasonable, if diminishing, with a small majority consistently support capital punishment. If Trump wants to excite his base to watch his TV channel, follow him on social media, or buy his books, this sort of play makes sense.
Finally, maybe Trump thinks these people deserve to die. Maybe he thinks it’s morally right for society to inflict this punishment on its members. Perhaps he just sees himself as the sort of powerful leader who should be capable of putting the most heinous criminals to death. There’s an appeal to this sort of brutal justice – if you commit a terrible act against society, shouldn’t society be able to do the same to you? Criminals on death row, after all, are convicted of truly awful crimes.
America, however, is the only developed Western nation to still regularly use the death penalty, and for a reason. As well as not reducing crime, capital punishment is a moral outrage. Firstly, the potential for a miscarriage of justice is just too high. 170 of the people sentenced to death in the US since capital punishment was reintroduced have later been exonerated. Thankfully, most of these were still in a prison cell at the time rather than in the ground. Secondly, the people of America should be above ‘tit for tat’ logic. A civilised society doesn’t execute people.
Trump’s presidency is record-breaking in many ways. Perhaps years from now, his time in office will be labelled a dark historical aberration. We may well look back on his relentless embrace of the death penalty as the most abhorrent of his policies. Joe Biden has expressed longstanding opposition to the death penalty. He’s promised to cease executions on a federal level immediately, pass legislation banning it for federal crimes, and incentivise the states to follow suit. Hopefully when our children read about Donald Trump and his countless executions, it’ll be a distant historical memory. Hopefully, they won’t be able to believe America still executed prisoners in 2021.