The Trump Administration has published its 100-day plan. Read carefully: it includes mass deportations, as well as a Nixonian plan for federal funding of the police. The cycle continues.
The similarities are striking (especially the noxious racial undertones of both punitive turns,) but this is not merely a re-run of the late sixties: Trumpland is much worse than the early days of Nixonland in several ways.
First, when Nixon ran a campaign of aggressive criminal justice, there was at least partial justification for the public’s support of him. He had data in hand showing that crime rates were rising. Whether or not the public felt it on an everyday basis or it was governmental manipulation, it wasn’t complete distortion. It’s true, as Steven Raphael tells us, that the rise in crime may not have been as dramatic as we think, because crime rates seem to have been considerably underreported until the 1970s because of incomplete FBI data collection (not all counties were included.) But this means that, even if crime wasn’t rising that dramatically, there was plenty more of it than there is now.
By contrast, we are now experiencing the lowest crime rates in forty years (and, if the inacuracies from the 1970s are big, even in longer.) Trump’s capitalizing on a one-year rise in murder rates is simple deception. And, again by contrast to Nixon, there isn’t even a horrible redball crime in the form of the Manson murders to sway public opinion to the cause of oppressive crime control. The basis for this return to Nixonian policies is based on pure fabrication.
Second, when Nixon’s policies started fueling arrests and convictions, we didn’t already have so many people in prison. The arc of growth was enormous, but it grew from a much lower place. Even with recession-era reductions, prison population has only started to decline. An increase in prosecutions and incarcerations means enhancing an already grotesquely bloated criminal justice apparatus.
Third, after years of Nixonian growth, states already know all the tricks of prison construction: rather than taxing voters (who might like prisons, but don’t like paying for them) they’ll use lease-revenue bonds to house people.
And fourth, privatization is already well fused into the wheels of the penal machine. By that I don’t mean private prisons – I mean mostly the pervasive privatization of the insides of public prisons. In a hypercapitalist America, headed by the epitome of hypercapitalism, this industry is already well-positioned to take advantage of a further increase in incarceration.
I don’t think all of this is happening because the economy is better, but that certainly isn’t helping. Don’t get me wrong: of course I’m happy that the economy has improved. But one of the effects of this will be that a neo-Nixonian influx of money into policing and sentencing is going to create the same cycle I talked about in Cheap on Crime: we can afford to, so let’s arrest and charge lots of people, and let the states worry about how to pay for incarcerating them.
We’re looking at some dark times ahead. On many fronts.