President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign this week has accused former Vice President Joe Biden of constructing the modern prison-industrial complex, being the architect of American mass incarceration, and filling the nation’s prisons with low-level offenders. That the president himself has enthusiastically supported all these policies and more is, apparently, beside the point.
Part projection, part expectation that the voting public’s memory is too short and too overloaded to remember Trump’s own past statements and policies, the president’s campaign has accused Biden of numerous offenses against criminal justice reform of which the president himself has proudly committed.
But as the Trump campaign highlights Biden’s role in authoring the largest crime bill in American history, problematic comments about race, and his past work with racist members of the U.S. Senate in an apparent bid to turn off both suburban centrists and the progressive left, the president’s supporters risk drawing renewed attention to past statements and policies of Trump himself, whose own support for so-called “tough on crime” policies stretches back decades, and to deep extremes.
Among the proposals that Trump made during the 1990s, as a businessman and tabloid celebrity in New York City, included calling for treating fare evasion on the subway as a precursor to “serious crimes,” lamenting that police officers weren’t allowed to use violent tactics and racial profiling in locating and arresting suspects, calling for an increase in mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenders, and even advocating for the United States to bring back hanging as a form of capital punishment.
Trump also warned that once young “urban” men raised by single mothers reached what he called “strutting age,” cities around the country would “have wolf packs roaming the streets.”
This week alone, as Trump’s approval ratings have plummeted in the midst of growing civil unrest over police violence against black people, the Trump campaign accused Biden of having “fanned the flames of hatred and division,” of standing with “the people burning businesses in minority communities and causing mayhem,” of being “known for saying racially insensitive or racist things,” and of a “self-imagined reinvention as a racial healer,” which it has called “laughable.”
“Joe Biden supported the mass incarceration of black and Hispanic communities and has failed to lift them out of poverty,” Mercedes Schlapp, the campaign’s senior communications adviser, said on a four-way digital panel on race. “In stark contrast, President Trump has delivered unprecedented opportunity for black Americans.”
“Everybody has to do better, has to do better. This is a long-term problem,” Trump told Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade on Thursday, asked about high levels of distrust black Americans have for law enforcement. “This didn’t happen today. This happened, I mean, a guy like Sleepy Joe Biden was there for 43 years, then he says, ‘I think we should do this’... He’s been there for 43 years, he was vice president for eight years, he didn’t do a thing. His crime bill was a disaster.”
The Biden campaign characterized the attacks as “flailing,” the result of weakening support as a trio of crises—the coronavirus pandemic, the resultant economic instability, and now the second week of mass protests—showcase his “historic mismanagement” of the country.
“Trump knows he can’t run on his own sordid record of fomenting hate and division,” said Michael Gwin, the Biden campaign’s deputy director for rapid response. “Vice President Biden has called us to live up to our country’s highest ideals in this moment of national crisis and immense suffering, while Trump has continued to debase his office—even ordering the tear gassing of peaceful protesters so he could use a historic church for a political photo op. The only thing Trump’s attacks are accomplishing is reminding the American people that he is a small, weak, and desperate man manifestly unfit to lead our country.”
Many of Trump’s past—and present—hardline approach to criminal justice and law enforcement are rooted in the same era that gave birth to the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the massive crime bill authored by Biden that provided federal funding for 100,000 new police officers and more than $9 billion for the construction of prisons. At the time, crime was near its historic peak nationwide, and was the top-ranking concern among American voters.
But even for that period—when Hillary Clinton once described modern street gangs as being composed of “superpredators” without morals or empathy and support for capital punishment had reached its apex—Trump’s proposed solutions to crime were more aggressive than most, and were often loaded with the same coded racial terms for which his campaign has condemned Biden and other Democrats.
“When the population of adolescent males rises early next century, we’re going to have wolf packs roaming the streets, and not only downtown. If these kids are anything like those who terrorized urban America in recent years, we’re in for a very bad time,” Trump wrote in The America We Deserve, his first stab at public policy when he was flirting with running for president on the Reform Party ticket in 2000. “A lot of these boys don’t have fathers. All they’ve got is a mother and that mother might well be a teenager herself. As anybody knows, a single mother is going to have a hard time controlling a normal boy, especially when he hits strutting age. She can say, ‘Son, you stay home tonight and do your math,’ but he won’t hear her.”
Much of The America We Deserve is dedicated to law enforcement issues, the lion’s share of it channeling the policing tactics under the mayoral administration of Rudy Giuliani, who rose to national prominence on so-called “broken windows” policing that treated minor crimes as gateways to more serious offenses. That policing theory has since been decried as a force behind the disproportionate incarceration of racial minorities for crimes committed by white people with relative impunity, but Trump, whose campaign this week accused Biden of “building up America’s mass incarceration system,” was a big fan.
“Giuliani’s first police commissioner, William Bratton, was the first to see that the job of the police wasn’t to sit around waiting to answer 911 calls and hope that the person on the other end of the line was still breathing. It was Bratton who reoriented the police from being reactive to being proactive,” Trump wrote. “He insisted on treating minor crimes—subway cheaters and minor vandals—as precursors to more serious crimes and potential signals to others that anything goes. In other words, the word went out: We’re not going to let the little stuff slide.”
Trump also directly called for mass incarceration in that book, saying that anyone concerned about whether there were too many people in prison should be asked “how many thugs they’re willing to relocate to their neighborhood.”
“I could understand the argument that we have too many people in prison if the police were rounding up innocent people and locking them away. But that’s not the case,” wrote Trump, whose campaign this week attacked Biden for voting to extend mandatory minimums for minor drug offenses while in the Senate. “For the most part, you have to be a longstanding criminal to qualify for jail.”
Trump has also long been a vocal proponent of “toughness” in police dealings with suspects—of particular relevance as tens of thousands march on American cities in protest of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and other black people at the hands of law enforcement. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Trump lamented the end of an era when cops could break up street crime by beating suspects with sticks.
“These cops would walk in there and they had sticks in those days and they’d break up those gangs and those gang members were petrified of those guys—petrified,” Trump told the Tribune in 2015, suggesting that if cops did the same in modern times, they would be pilloried. “You have some rough cops, but the cops aren’t so rough today, to put it mildly, okay? And today the kids are shouting at the cops and calling them all sorts of names and laughing at them like it’s a joke. Different world. Today if the cops ever did that they'd have ’em arrested and given the electric chair.”
Speaking of capital punishment, Trump has long been an advocate of expanding both the crimes eligible for the death penalty and the manner in which the punishment might be applied. Trump’s call for the execution of five black teenage boys falsely accused of raping a woman in Central Park in the late 1980s—in the form of an advertisement published in every major New York City daily paper—has been well documented, but his onetime support for bringing back the gallows has largely been forgotten.
“My only complaint is that lethal injection is too comfortable a way for these criminals to go. I totally reject the idea that hanging these sorts of criminals is uncivilized,” Trump wrote in The America We Deserve, calling prison a “social promotion” for most criminals. “In fact I believe that letting them live would be totally uncivilized.”
The Trump campaign, asked about the president’s proposals about criminal justice in The America We Deserve and how they compare with the campaign’s attacks on Biden’s own record, told The Daily Beast that Trump has worked “tirelessly” to push criminal justice reform since his election.
“President Trump has worked tirelessly to undo the wrongs of the criminal justice system that Joe Biden has repeatedly claimed authorship to and spent decades legislating into law,” said Andrew Clark, the campaign’s director of rapid response. “Unlike Biden, President Trump didn’t hesitate to dismantle Joe Biden’s discriminatory legacy, signing sweeping reforms into law that have reduced sentences for Black Americans unfairly imprisoned under Biden’s plan and advocating for hiring to help them get a second chance. Where Joe Biden has a record of discrimination and excuses, President Trump has a record of reform and second chances.”
But in his radio interview on Thursday with Brian Kilmeade, Trump emphasized that even though black Americans do not trust law enforcement to treat them fairly, they should trust him.
“Well, I think it’s a very sad problem,” Trump said. “As you know, as a Republican I’m doing very well with African Americans and with the vote, with the—in the polls and everything, especially.”
Recent polling shows that Trump’s approval among black voters is around 14 percent.