Donald Trump has long loved the death penalty. It now seems that he wants to turn executions into spectacles of cruelty.
On February 14, Rolling Stone reported that, if he is returned to the White House, Trump has a three-part plan to heighten the drama of state killing.
First, he would like to have the federal government use the firing squad, hanging, or even the guillotine when it puts people to death. Second, he thinks it should carry out mass executions by killing many people at one time. Third, he would like to film and broadcast at least some part of the execution process.
Since Trump measures all things by how well they play on television, it is not surprising that he would want executions to become made-for-TV events.
Let‘s look at each of the elements in Trump’s plan, starting with his preferred method of execution.
Today, lethal injection is the default method for federal executions. But there are serious problems with this method.
It medicalizes executions and masks the death penalty’s cruelty. Lethal injection also is unreliable and frequently botched.
Some commentators argue that the firing squad would be a more humane way for the state to put people to death. They believe it passes constitutional muster and is not cruel.
But neither sympathy for the plight of condemned inmates nor constitutional scrupulousness move the former president.
He does not think lethal injection is cruel or showy enough.
According to Rolling Stone, Trump believes that those who receive death sentences should pay for their crimes with “their pain.” He has shown “a particular affinity for the firing squad, because it… (seems) more dramatic, rather than how we do it, putting a syringe in people and putting them to sleep.”
These are not merely private musings.
At a rally last October, Trump expressed admiration for the brutality of dictatorial regimes.
Speaking of the way they deal with drug dealers he said, “And if (they) are guilty, they get executed, and they send the bullet to the family and they want the family to pay for the cost of the bullet. This is called not playing around…If you want to stop the drug epidemic in this country, you better do that … (even if) it doesn’t sound nice.”
In fact, executions by firing squad always mutilate the body and produce a bloody death. That is why the former president favors them.
The firing squad was last used in 2010 when Utah put Ronnie Lee Gardner to death. As ABC News described it, “The rifles exploded and four bullets perforated his heart and lungs. The straps held his head up. A metal tray beneath the chair collected his blood.” ABC quoted a witness who said that “‘Gardner did not seem to die quickly.’”
While Oklahoma, Mississippi, and South Carolina recently have added it their menu of execution methods, the New York Times reports that “the firing squad is largely viewed as an archaic form of justice, and polling has suggested that many Americans view it as inhumane.”
These facts are is unlikely to deter Trump from pushing the federal government to use this method should he be elected president again.
In addition to favoring more “archaic” execution methods, Rolling Stone says that Trump has discussed the desirability of conducting mass executions.
It notes that the former president is “big on the idea of executing large numbers of drug dealers and drug lords because he’d say, ‘These people don’t care about anything,’ … and therefore, they need to be eradicated, not jailed.”
In 2016, Trump openly praised U.S. General John Pershing for executing dozens of Muslim prisoners in the Philippines. While there is no evidence that Pershing actually carried out such an execution, Trump’s enthusiasm for the idea is what matters here.
We should note that in recent years, mass executions have been used by some of the authoritarian regimes that Trump most admires, Saudi Arabia, being one of them.
On March 12, 2022, that nation killed 81 people at the same time. They had been convicted of a wide range of offenses, “including ‘terrorism’-related crimes, murder, armed robbery and arms smuggling.” This was the largest mass execution in Saudi Arabian history.
The mass execution in Saudi Arabia is not an isolated example. In 1988, Iran carried out a series of mass executions, killing thousands of people at various places around the country.
Modeling U.S. justice on Saudi Arabia or Iran is, even for Donald Trump, a fairly shocking idea.
Death penalty jurisdictions in this country generally have eschewed mass executions. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the largest occurred on December 26, 1862, following the U.S.-Dakota War, when “the federal government hanged 38 members of the Dakota tribe in Minnesota.”
That shameful event was more than 150 years ago, and standards of decency have surely evolved since then. Whenever and wherever they are used, mass executions devalue life and are dehumanizing to those who are executed as well as those who carry them out.
The third part of Trump’s plan to turn executions into television spectacles would require using videos from real executions.
“In at least one instance late last year…,” Rolling Stone reports, “Trump privately mused about the possibility of creating a flashy, government-backed video-ad campaign that would accompany a federal revival of…execution methods (like the firing squad). In Trump’s vision, these videos would include footage from these new executions, if not from the exact moments of death.”
Rolling Stone adds that this is not the first time that Trump has considered the utility of having the government disseminate grisly videos. When he was in office, he talked about how they could play a role in dealing with the opioid crisis. He urged aides to find a film of “people dying in a ditch” and “bodies stacked on top of bodies” to “scare kids so much that they will never touch a single drug in their entire life.”
What Trump says about executions reveals the depth of his fascination with ghoulish things. And his latest death penalty musings offer a frightening reminder of the cruelty he would unleash if he is returned to the Oval Office.
In the meantime, they should spur President Biden to commute all federal death sentences and make sure that he empties death row before the 2024 election.