Stratification is, among other things, an act of categorization. And perhaps the biggest sorting act of racial capitalism is an invisible one: the elite people whose offenses never catch the ire of a police officer, the attention of a prosecutor, the admonition of a judge. But every once in awhile, even the well-heeled run afoul of the law. While rare, such encounters can result in legal punishment. These rarities can even turn the accused into reform advocates, as happened with Nixon advisor and Watergate prisoner Chuck Colson, who went on to launch Prison Fellowship Ministries and support the conservative prison reform effort Right on Crime.
With the stroke of his pen, Trump sought to show that the system is not supposed to punish people who kill on behalf of the US government, whether on the border or overseas. It is no crime to turn your campaign into a cash cow, as newly pardoned former representative Duncan Hunter did, and indeed, as Trump himself has repeatedly done. And as the Capitol attackers seemed to understand, it is no crime to use whatever dirty trick you can think of against your opponents. What is the point of being rich and powerful otherwise?
These pardons were not the first time Trump has utilized presidential power to justify graft and racism. Indeed, his pardon record of the last 4 years is entirely consistent in this regard. His issued his first pardon to career racist and former sheriff Joe Arpaio. Other recipients of Trump’s generosity include Dick Cheney’s former advisor Scooter Libby, rightwing provocateur Dinesh D’Souza, 3 soldiers convicted of war crimes, billionaire financier Michael Milken, and former NYPD commissioner—and Giuliani associate—Bernard Kerik.
Despite CNN commentator Van Jones praising Trump for passage of the First Step Act in 2018, even telling the Conservative Political Action Committee that Republicans are “the leaders on this issue of [prison] reform”—Trump and the GOP have exacerbated the carceral system at every step. Under Trump, the Department of Justice has prosecuted whistleblowers such as Reality Winner and Daniel Hale. In 2018 Trump issued an executive order keeping Guantanamo Bay prison open indefinitely, effectively granting life sentences to the 40 people who remain incarcerated there without charge. His administration granted no pardons or other relief to political prisoners such as Leonard Peltier, Mutulu Shakur, or Marius Mason, among many others, who have served decades of what may prove to be death sentences.
Instead, the Trump administration rushed to execute more people incarcerated in federal prisons in 5 months than the federal government had over the last 50 years—13 since July, the last of which came just days before Trump left office. All of these executions received the imprimatur of legitimacy from a hard-right Supreme Court, 1/3 of whom were appointed by Trump.
And daily the wounds of border policing nativism cut deeper. More than 500 children separated from their parents at the border by Trump apparatchiks have yet to be reunited with their families. Meanwhile, according to a recent report from the Detention Watch Network, the Trump administration’s commitment to detaining immigrants despite a pandemic “added over 245,000 cases to the total U.S. caseload.” In the run up to the election, with the pandemic raging, ICE actually ramped up its “mass-scale sweeps”; more than 2000 people were arrested in July and August alone.
The entire worldview of the GOP revolves around maintaining and expanding carceral authority of police and prisons. Indeed, the above-all-else support for proto-fascist entities like ICE and Border Patrol may account for Trump’s unexpected support in south Texas in the election. The bevy of pardons granted to con-men, sycophants, and mass murderers is in keeping with the overarching political project of mass incarceration itself. The carceral state has always been an effort to impose the iron will of racial capitalism.
Even with Trump gone, the punitive impulse remains strong. Despite some high-profile arrests of putschists, the FBI and Justice Department have claimed that they may not have sufficient resources to prosecute all of the Capitol attackers. No such problem befell prosecutors after previous—and less lethal—attacks on the Capitol, including when 4 Puerto Rican Nationalists fired shots from the spectator’s gallery in the House of Representatives in 1954 and spent 25 years in prison, or when leftist anti-imperialists bombed the Senate building in protest of the 1983 US invasion of Grenada and were sentenced to decades in prison. While rightwing putschists marched in and out of the Capitol unmolested, one of the leftwing militants accused of the 1983 attack spent 5 years in preventative detention before being charged with the offense; 3 people spent between 14 and 25 years in prison for it, part of a broader legal campaign against a revolutionary left underground.