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July 20, 2016

Why Donald Trump's "law and order" vision and voice is so important to advocates of sentencing reform (and marijuana reform)

Two new commentaries about current politics together help explain why I continue to view GOP Prez candidate Donald Trump as the most important (and also most opaque) national figure with respect to the future direction of a lot of on-going criminal justice reform movements.  The full headlines of the commentaries provides a window into my thinking:

Here are a few passages from these pieces, respectively:

From Jeet Heer:  "With the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Trump’s approach to politics has become squarely mainstream in his party.  The Trumpification of the GOP is not likely to go away soon.  It’s rooted in some fundamental demographic facts that the party has been struggling with for decades: that it’s increasingly a party of old white people in a nation that is becoming more diverse.  Even if Trump loses by a blowout in November, the party is likely to become even more Trumpified because the #NeverTrump people will have left the party — or at least become inactive — while the politicians and activists who are most responsive to his message will have stayed on.  That’s how Barry Goldwater conservatism continued to be a force after his epic defeat of 1964, and it’s likely to replicate itself with Trumpism.  Like it or not, the GOP will be the Party of Trump for many years to come."

From Steve Teles:  Trump [i]s like a throwback to New York in the 1980s.... The Right on Crime movement depends upon, in some important ways, the transformation of the Republican Party into a more consistently anti-statist party in the wake of the Tea Party, combined with the role that evangelical leaders have played in encouraging an emphasis on second chances and forgiveness.  Neither of those changes in conservatism is characteristic of the conservatism of Trump.  I could imagine him going all-in on a back-to-the-80s, Charles Bronson-ish approach to crime, and if he’s able to rebrand the Republican Party in that way, that would be very troublesome [for those supportive of criminal-justice reform].

July 20, 2016 at 03:11 PM | Permalink


This sounds like too much short-sighted analysis. Trump's unique celebrity status gave him tons of free media. Even with that free media he "only" got 44% of the primary vote, not that much different than Bernie Sanders did on the Democratic side. Trump is the nominee of the Republicans, and Bernie fell short on the Democratic side for two basic reasons.

First,Bernie faced only one opponent and Trump faced many opponents. When you have three or more people running,44% is first place. When only two are running, 44% is losing by a significant margin. Second, the difference in the rules for pledged delegates in the two parties. On the Democratic side, all contests are proportional with a 15% threshold. On the Republican side, every state has different rules -- some winner-take-all; some proportional with a 50% winner-take-all trigger; and some proportional with a high (e.g., 20% threshold). The combination of the lack of a consensus alternative and first-past-the-post rules on the Republican side allowed Trump to win without ever really unifying the party behind him (and the convention to date has made clear that his opponents within the party are not going quietly into the good night).

Assuming that Trump loses, there is no reason to expect the "Never Trumps" to leave the Republican Party. While possible, it is unlikely that Trump runs again. If he does, it is likely that his rivals will take a very different approach in the 2020 race than they did in this case. Additionally, the committee that is being set up to look at the rules for 2020 are likely to be composed of the party leaders who focused entirely on the Democrats in their speeches at the convention and never mentioned Trump. Trump's success indicates a significant number of voters in the Republican party that are open to a certain vague "America's under siege and we need to strike back at them" agenda. Whether another candidate without Trump's name recognition can unify enough of these voters into a coherent faction in future primaries is difficult to say. While there are still a significant number of primaries to go, there is no sign that Republican voters are tossing out the establishment and replacing them with Trump loyalists.

In short, while a victorious Trump might (assuming that he governs as he has campaigns, something that is not guaranteed considering his tendency to qualify his positions during the campaign) be a serious barrier to any reform, it is unclear that a defeated Trump will be a significant factor. After a Trump defeat, I would be more concerned about how the next generation of leaders (e.g., Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton) who will come to front in an attempt to fill the vacuum created by this campaign will address issues of sentencing reform.

Posted by: tmm | Jul 20, 2016 4:30:07 PM

I do not disagree with much of your analysis, tmm, but the fact that you highlight Cotton and Cruz as the likely key post-Trump players on the GOP side highlight the impact of what might be called the GOP's angry wing. Notably, the GOP folks who have most vocally and consistently advocated for reform have not been from that wing (e.g., Rand Paul, Rick Perry, John Kasich).

Plus, I am not sure Trump either as a candidate or thereafter will be a vocal opponent of sentencing or marijuana reform. Though he has played up "law and order" and has tough former prosecutors like Sessions and Christie in his inner circuit, I think Trump still has some libertarian tendencies and advocacy for America First does not necessarily mean he is proud of the US being the worlds leader in incarceration. Indeed, I am hoping (based in part on the GOP 2016 platform) that Trump could help ensure that men's rea reform, less use of federal power in the CJ system and less use of sentencing mandatories for non violent offenses could actual become a permanent part of the GOP brand including with the "angry" wing of the party.

Posted by: Doug B. | Jul 20, 2016 7:34:23 PM

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