President Donald Trump is campaigning on criminal justice reform efforts that reduce sentences for nonviolent offenders, while suggesting he’d like the American justice system to work more like ones in authoritarian countries where drug dealers are executed after “fair but quick” trials.
If those two things sound hard to square with each other, that’s because they are. But the contrast serves as an especially stark illustration of the incoherency at the core of Trumpism.
Just days after his Super Bowl ad and State of the Union speech highlighted his support for legislation that makes a modest effort to reduce prison sentences at the federal level, Trump on Monday said the best way to further reduce the quantity of fentanyl in the US is to follow China’s lead.
“States with a very powerful death penalty on drug dealers don’t have a drug problem,” Trump said during a White House event with governors. “I don’t know that our country is ready for that, but if you look throughout the world, the countries with a powerful death penalty — death penalty — with a fair but quick trial, they have very little if any drug problem. That includes China.”
Trump suggests he'd like to model American criminal law on drug dealing on authoritarian systems like China, where dealers are executed: "Countries with a powerful death penalty, with a fair but quick trial, they have very little if any drug problem. That includes China." pic.twitter.com/9WprysjJAX— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) February 10, 2020
(Trump made a number of other eyebrow-raising comments during the event, including saying of the coronavirus that “a lot of people think that goes away in April with the heat” and claiming the European Union “was really formed so they could treat us badly.”)
It should be noted that Trump’s claim about China and other authoritarian countries having “very little if any drug problem” is false. Records from the Chinese government indicate that there are more than 2.5 million officially registered drug users in the country, and that the total has increased significantly in recent years. (The real numbers are likely much higher since not all drug users have registered with the state.)
Drugs are prevalent in China in spite of the harsh punishments Trump alluded to. The Guardian reported in late 2017 that China “executes more people every year than the rest of the world combined, although the exact figure is not published and considered a state secret.” And the Chinese government executes people for nonviolent crimes, including, as Trump mentioned, drug dealing — and in some cases carries out executions in public. (Draconian measures taken by President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines have similarly failed to stamp out drug use there.)
But for those who watched Trump’s Super Bowl ad, seeing him laud countries that are remarkably harsh with drug offenders might seem off-key. That’s because the Super Bowl ad highlighted Trump’s June 2018 decision to pardon Alice Marie Johnson, who at the time was serving a life sentence in prison after she was convicted of conspiracy to possess cocaine and attempted possession of cocaine. Fast-forward eight days, and now Trump seems to be suggesting people like Johnson should be executed.
But Monday wasn’t the first time Trump has commended the Chinese government for its tough approach to drugs. Speaking to mayors at the White House late last month, the president sounded the same note:
And they’ve put in very strong penalties, and their penalties are really strong. You want to talk about penalties? Those are strict. (Laughter.) And their court cases go slightly quicker than ours. (Laughter.) Like — like one day. One day. They call them “quick trials.” They go quick. (Laughter.) They go so quick, you don’t know what happened. (Laughter.) Ours take 15 years; theirs takes one day. But he was — he’s been terrific on that. And we’re seeing a tremendous — a tremendous difference in the fentanyl.
Notably, in both instances Trump portrayed the suppression of individual rights and due process that’s part of the Chinese system as if not an improvement over the American system, then at least not significantly worse than what we have here. And Trump has also congratulated the Philippines’ Duterte for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem,” even though his violent crackdown has resulted in thousands of deaths.
Even Pompeo’s State Department acknowledges that China’s justice system is nothing to emulate
Beyond the specifics of what Trump thinks about how drug dealers should be dealt with, it’s bizarre to see the president of the United States praise the criminal justice system of a country where a million people are locked away in internment camps.
Trump doesn’t have to take it from me. His own State Department’s website notes that “[t]he Chinese legal system can be opaque and the interpretation and enforcement of local laws arbitrary. The judiciary does not enjoy independence from political influence.”
And with regard to drugs in particular, State notes that “[p]olice regularly conduct unannounced drug tests on people suspected of drug use and have been known to enter a bar or nightclub and subject all patrons to immediate drug testing.”
A politicized judiciary selectively enforcing laws and executing people for nonviolent crimes might sound bad to Americans who are mostly unaccustomed to such things. Trump, however, hasn’t tried to hide his affinity for authoritarian rulers or for the death penalty — not just for drug crimes but for other ones as well.
Trump downplays the role that high-powered guns play in mass shootings: "Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun."— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) August 5, 2019
He then proposes an expansion of the death penalty, to be administered with as quickly as possible. pic.twitter.com/xrKO3hKLs0
The jarring thing in this instance, however, is that as part of his efforts to win support from more than 6 percent of black voters in 2020, Trump is simultaneously pushing contradictory notions — that leniency for nonviolent offenders is good, and that nonviolent offenders should in some instances be put to death. In that way Trump’s comments about criminal justice echo a dynamic that has also manifested itself with regard to entitlement programs, which Trump is proposing to cut while at the same time telling people he will never cut them.