You might have been surprised by the content of Donald Trump’s Super Bowl ad. Was it about building the wall? Bringing back jobs? Getting tough on Iran? No. It was about… criminal justice reform. It featured Alice Johnson, who was serving a life sentence on drug possession charges until Kim Kardashian West pleaded with Trump to grant Johnson clemency, which he did. The ad said that while other politicians “talk about criminal justice reform, president Trump got it done,” and said that “thousands of families are being reunited.”
Freeing Black women from unjust prison sentences has never been a focal point of Trump’s agenda before, so the ad was jarring. With Trump’s history of calling for black teens to be executed and encouraging police to rough people up during arrests, why was he suddenly sounding like Bryan Stevenson?
But Trump likes to do things like this. He’s totally unprincipled, so he’s happy to try to steal issues from Democrats and show that he’s actually the one who cares about them. In 2016 he ran as an anti-war, anti-Wall Street candidate. In May of 2019, he used the injustice of American criminal punishment to attack Joe Biden as too harsh!
“Anyone associated with the 1994 Crime Bill will not have a chance of being elected. In particular, African Americans will not be able to vote for you. I, on the other hand, was responsible for Criminal Justice Reform, which had tremendous support, and helped fix the bad 1994 Bill! Super Predator was the term associated with the 1994 Crime Bill that Sleepy Joe Biden was so heavily involved in passing. That was a dark period in American History, but has Sleepy Joe apologized? No!”
Of course, nobody thinks Trump cares about “reuniting families”—he is, after all, responsible for the hideous escalation of immigrant family separation. Nor does he give a damn about criminal justice: Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio, the Arizona sheriff responsible for widespread abuse of power and the deaths of inmates (and probably one of the most evil and abusive law enforcement officials in the country’s history, not that there’s any shortage of them). He enacted a federal policy allowing civil asset forfeiture, in other words “help[ing] state and local police take cash and property from people suspected of a crime, even without a criminal charge.” (And threatened to “destroy” a legislator who opposed the practice.) He cut federal support for halfway houses, thus keeping prisoners behind bars longer, rescinded a rule discouraging states for throwing poor people in jail for failure to pay fines, ended federal oversight of abusive police forces, and helped substantially grow the private prison industry. His record on criminal punishment is terrible. He only even gave Johnson clemency because Kardashian West had become an advocate for Johnson’s case and asked Trump face-to-face. Actions like signing the First Step Act are very clearly based on political opportunism rather than any actual interest in improving the condition of prisoners or the fairness of the punishment system toward African Americans.
But Trump knows how to needle Democrats, and if Joe Biden is his opponent this year, you can fully expect Trump to paint himself as a friend of the Black community against Biden, who spent much of his career as proudly “tough on crime.” He will probably lift from Dinesh D’Souza’s thesis that Democrats have been trying since the time of the Civil War to maintain America as a plantation where Black people are under their thumb, and Trump is our Lincoln. I wouldn’t even be surprised if Trump brought up Biden’s friendship with the nasty white supremacist Strom Thurmond. (My colleague Eli Massey has listed a number of other issues on which Trump can run to Biden’s left.)
It all sounds nuts, but it makes sense with an opponent like Biden, because the criticisms of Biden’s own record will be correct, and Biden will have a difficult time responding. This magazine noted in early 2016 that Hillary Clinton was going to struggle because Trump would be right when he criticized her votes for war and her ties to the finance industry. And when Trump is right and the Democrat is wrong, it makes it much harder to make a clear and forceful case against him. Trump doesn’t care about reforming the prison system. But he does know how to sow confusion and destroy the effectiveness of the other side’s messaging. If Biden tries to attack Trump as corrupt, a liar, and a racist, Trump will reply by talking incessantly about Hunter Biden, Biden’s many ridiculous lies (like saying he was a civil rights activist in the 60s), and saying Biden promoted the racist myth of “super predators” and locked Black men and women up by the score.
The fact that Biden’s charges against Trump are also correct will not matter, because once enough confusion is sowed the whole election will end up looking like this:
To run against Trump, you need to be fully prepared for the fact that he can take any position on any issue at any time. He’s been for abortion and against it, pro-war and anti-war, tough on crime and the friend of the unjustly imprisoned. To beat this, you need to have a clear, powerful, and effective message of your own, and you can’t run someone who is themselves open to charges of lies and hypocrisy.
What too few people still understand about Donald Trump is that Trump is formidable. He crushed every Republican in the 2016 primary, and took out the extremely powerful Hillary Clinton. The Apprentice was the #1 show for so long because Trump has a talent for entertaining people and drawing attention to himself. Democrats are constantly falling into the “Trump trap” by obsessing over him and criticizing his character flaws, not realizing that every moment they are doing so they are squandering opportunities to present their own alternative. (This is why I’ve been so annoyed by the whole impeachment proceeding, which seems to me like it probably just bores and confuses most people.)
But Trump can be defeated. He has weaknesses. For one thing, everything about Trump is fake. He hasn’t actually done criminal punishment reform, and the people victimized by the system are fully aware of that, because if he had, they would notice. The trouble is that so many people are cynical, because when they look at politics all they see are the pointing Spidermen. If you’re going to make people believe that you’re serious about actually transforming criminal punishment in a way that makes a difference, what you need is a message that blows Trump’s “I freed a lady after Kim Kardashian asked nicely” pitch look pathetic. Something, perhaps, like this 2016 ad for Bernie Sanders by the late Erica Garner:
If you do it right, Trump’s messaging will just end up looking like a mess. People will know what we’re for. What’s he for? But make no mistake: If it serves him politically, Trump will switch from the hard right to the left in half a second. He will promise you everything, he will be for unions and peace and prisoners. The task in this election is to expose the fraud, and we can only do that if we are not engaged in one ourselves.