Grover Cleveland was great at executing people. Nicknamed “The Buffalo Hangman” by opposing campaigns during his first run for president of the United States, Cleveland had been an executioner and sheriff of New York’s Erie County. In 1889, Cleveland couldn’t resist returning to his heyday, permitting three executions to proceed after he lost re-election to Benjamin Harrison. It was the first-ever instance of a lame-duck execution, or an execution handed down by the federal government in the period between a sitting president’s defeat and the new president’s inauguration. Only once in the next 130 years did it happen again (in William Howard Taft’s lame-duck period of 1913). Now, after losing to Joe Biden in the 2020 general election, Donald Trump is planning a slate of lame-duck executions that are uniquely cruel, disturbing, and as indicative of his distaste for democratic norms as his court battles to overturn the results of the election.
While national attention and anxiety has revolved around Trump’s consistently dismissed lawsuits and attempts to remain in power, his justice department is behaving like his time in office is coming to an end. Three recently scheduled executions, all to take place before Joe Biden takes office on January 20, 2021, make six total between Election Day and the end of Trump’s term. He was already set to execute more inmates than any president in history even before the announcement of the lame-duck executions. He has professed a passion for capital punishment since taking office, advocating for mass shooters and drug dealers to face the death penalty.
The exoneration rate of death row inmates, and the systemic racism of the criminal justice system, tells us that more executions means more wrongful deaths and more wrongful deaths of Black people. The fact that Trump holds the position he does should not surprise anyone familiar with the Central Park Five case of 1989, in which five Black teenagers were wrongfully accused of a New York City assault. Trump’s full-page ad advocating for their deaths ramped up the national fervor over the case and ensured the five men would forever be marked by their presumed guilt even after they were proven innocent. His penchant for indiscriminate accusations and disregard for the effects of his words and actions (though one could argue that his statements on criminal justice are very intentional dog-whistles to a knowing portion of his audience) have led us to the point we stand at today. The strongest argument against the lame-duck executions is that the man responsible for them has shown blatant disregard for just governance.
Trump’s lame-duck conduct not only highlights his vindictive and mean-spirited nature, but draws attention to the flimsiness of our presidential transition process. The transfer of power relies not only on stately conduct between incumbent and president-elect, but on the incumbent acting rationally and in the best interests of the country in their lame-duck period. When these informal rules are not followed, the presidency and the presidential transition fail to resemble themselves as we know them. The quiet nature of his undermining of the lame-duck tradition is unusual for Trump. He is not known for being discrete (his constant need to tweet his every thought has been a staple of his presidency), yet he has been suspiciously silent during this period of fevered scheduling of executions, a major red flag indicating he is very aware of the severity of the backsliding he is engaging in–and is in fact intentionally hiding this grossly undemocratic and cruel behavior behind his very public “Stop the Steal” election campaign. Political scientists Ellen Lust and David Waldner classify backsliding as a process of discrete changes in rules and informal procedures that often occur in times where other democratic norms and institutions are flourishing1. In this case, it looks as though Trump’s attempts to stage a coup by undermining the election is failing: his legal teams have been shut down over and over again. American democracy is standing strong in that arena. Yet shielded behind his failures in court and the celebration of those failures by his detractors, Trump is ordering federal executions of people that could, under an anti-death penalty Biden administration, avoid this grim fate.
It is important to note that Trump is legally within his rights to carry out these executions. Trump is not breaking the law by contesting the election in court or pardoning his criminal associates, nor was Mitch McConnell breaking the law by rushing the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. But the argument should not be about whether Trump and his administration can do these things. The president of the United States has enormous power; anyone arguing that a president cannot be condemned for acting within his rights as president misses the point. If presidents consistently acted like Trump does, using every ounce of their power without regard to unwritten rules and traditions, we would not have a stable government or office of leadership. Denouncing these executions should be separate from supporting the president or supporting or the death penalty. One does not have to agree that the death penalty is morally wrong to agree that carrying them out in this manner breaks down our norms and delegitimizes our democracy. The strength of a democracy lies in the foundation of trust that the people have in the government, trust that is built on tradition and political socialization. When government leaders do not commit to following these unwritten rules, then the support of the people and the legitimacy of democracy wavers.
The alarming nature of these executions is apparent in this quote from Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, who told the New York Times: “This is another part of the Trump legacy that’s inconsistent with American norms. If the administration followed the normal rules of civility that have been followed throughout the history in this country, it wouldn’t be an issue. The executions wouldn’t go forward.” As Dunham highlights, Trump’s disregard for norms and rules has tangible results, not only on human lives but on the stability of our democracy. In Juan J. Linz’s minimal definition of democratic legitimacy2, “a legitimate government is one considered to be the least evil of the forms of government.” As much as Trump tries to paint a government run by socialists or antifascists as America’s nightmare, his lame-duck executions exemplify pure evil in the form of governance. He can’t claim to be fulfilling a specific campaign promise or improving his presidential legacy to anyone but the most zealous fans of capital punishment. There is no explanation for rushing the process of putting people to death (there’s a reason most death row typically spend more than a decade on death row prior to exoneration or execution), beyond taking a political dig at an incoming president who opposes the death penalty. That is far from an excuse for ending human lives in this accelerated, cold-blooded fashion.
*Photo by Library of Congress, “President Grover Cleveland, half-length portrait, facing right” (Unsplash), Creative Commons Zero license
1Lust, Ellen, and David Waldner. “Unwelcome change: Understanding, evaluating, and extending theories of democratic backsliding.” US Agency for International Development 11 (2015).
2Linz, Juan José, and Alfred Stepan, eds. The breakdown of democratic regimes. Vol. 1. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.