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February 24, 2016

What does (closet libertarian?) GOP front-runner Donald Trump now really think about the drug war and criminal justice reform and Prez clemency?

Based on his personal and professional history, as well as a number of his prior positions on a range of social and economic issues, I have long assumed the essential political views and commitments of Donald Trump to be what might be called "pragmatic libertarianism."  I say that in part because most successful private businessmen in the United States, in addition to being generally pragmatic, tend to have at least some hint of a libertarian streak on at least some issues (e.g., think of the Koch brothers or Peter Lewis).  More to the point, as I have flagged in prior posts here and  on my marijuana reform blog, Donald Trump once embraced the libertarian view that full legalization would be the only way to "win" the drug war.

But, of course, Donald Trump the Presidential candidate has sounded far more authoritarian than libertarian on the campaign trail, especially with respect to domestic issues.  He conveniently says that he has now changed his mind about abortion and thus now is pro-life rather than pro-choice.  He also has expressed in vaious ways disaffinity for marijuana legalization (though his position seems to get more and more nuanced as time goes on, as highlighted in posts here and here from my marijuana reform blog).  Then again, to the extent a single idea summarizes Trump's modern politics, it would seem to be "anti-establishment"; I think it is accurate to describe The Establishment, on both the left and the right, to be quite statist and generally anti-libertarian.  

I say all this not to claim that Donald Trump is the most libertarian candidate still with a serious chance to become President (although this might be true).  Rather, I say it in order to try to figure out whether, when and how the candidate now seemingly most likely to represent the GOP on the national stage for the bulk of 2016 will articulate his latest thinking about federal criminal justice issues ranging from statutory sentencing reform of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders to federal responses to state marijuana legalization to the robust use of federal clemency powers.  

Obviously, how the last five or six US presidents have approached these federal criminal justice issues, both politically and practically, has had a huge impact on the nature and reach of our nation's federal and state criminal justice systems.   Before I can even figure out whether I should be terrified by the prospect of a President Trump, I really am eager to hear more about his current thoughts on these important criminal justice fronts.  Critically, not only would Trump's discussion now of these issues help me better understand long-term what would a President Trump might actually do, I think they could have a big short-term impact on the work of the current Congress and the current President (and even the current Supreme Court) in these areas.

With apologies for my (silly?) Prez Trump musings in the wake of his latest "yuge" win in Nevada, I am eager to hear lots of thought from lots on readers on this political and legal front.

February 24, 2016 at 11:29 AM | Permalink


Trump ran a full page ad calling for the death penalty for the Central Park 5 back when it happened, and has more recently doubled down on them being guilty despite the DNA evidence implicating someone else. His position is that they were "no angels" so they didn't deserve any money from the state to compensate for their years of wrongful incarceration. I don't hold out a lot of hope for him being some freewheeling criminal justice reformer.

Posted by: M | Feb 24, 2016 12:15:30 PM

Trump is a political opportunist who is most interested in the ego of Donald Trump. That, for the record, is not intended as a criticism merely a statement of fact. What Trump will actually do as president is anyone's guess.

Besides, I think that presidents are often defined by events and not the other way around. Think W and 9/11 or Truman and WWII.

Phrased differently, all politicians can be classified into two groups. Those who see politics as the art of the impossible and those who see politics as the art of the possible (pragmatic, if one wills). Trump is most certainly in the latter grouping. Probably the last real idealist presidency was Teddy's. Perhaps Kennedy but he didn't last long.

The real difference between Trump and Hillary is not their pragmatism but their attitude. Trump--befitting a casino boss--is much more willing to gamble and take risks while Hillary is more the genuine conservative (with a small c). Whatever it is, Trump will make a big splash. Whether the country will be better off for that...who the heck knows.

Posted by: Daniel | Feb 24, 2016 1:09:42 PM

I think Daniel makes some good points w/o joining them in full. This saves time and is a CYA if I disagree with some segment of the comments.

Anyway, given his druthers, Trump is somewhat libertarian but that probably isn't very helpful as to this blog. His abortion conversion, e.g., is surely cynical partisan game playing (see Bush41 too; the degree here is a bit hard to take though). On crime? Well, maybe, he will be okay with libertarian rules for certain businesses and as to marijuana, he might allow it if it was politically safe (going out of his way to force the issue? nah). But, he's an authoritarian figure who doesn't admit he's wrong. This is not a net positive when hoping for a libertarian path here.

Posted by: Joe | Feb 24, 2016 1:59:39 PM

I feel like crime is not a good basis for voting for or against a president. The president has some sway over federal criminal law, but most criminal justice is at the state level.

Posted by: anonymous | Feb 24, 2016 11:47:39 PM

What is the size of people under control of the federal criminal justice system?

Consider not only those in prison but those subject to fine and other criminal penalties. As well as civil powers. It still is pretty significant.

Posted by: Joe | Feb 25, 2016 10:07:38 AM

The feds also has some oversight over state criminal justice.

Posted by: Joe | Feb 25, 2016 10:08:07 AM

Put it this way-given the offices of state legislators, governors, US congressmen, and president, the President is the least concerned with crime. So it seems bad to vote on crime, unless crime is most of what you care about, or most of what you know about.

Posted by: anonymous | Feb 26, 2016 1:51:26 PM

well, given this blog, DB does care more than the average person about crime

It's not the first thing I'd latch on to, but justice against corporate wrongdoing and federal oversight of racism in criminal justice are two things, e.g., the Democratic voters are repeatedly concerned about For some voters, such issues are special.

I personally don't think crime is up there, so I get where you are coming from.

Posted by: Joe | Feb 26, 2016 4:00:31 PM

He is not a libertarian. Check out his views on crime from 2000.


Posted by: random | Mar 9, 2016 10:40:57 PM

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