When We Call to Abolish Prisons, What About Trump?

Image of a Trump sticker.

Image by Jon Tyson.

On June 8, 2023, former United States President Donald Trump was indicted on federal criminal charges for retaining classified material in his Mar-a-Lago estate, and then lying about it. As a result of an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), he withheld over 11,000 documents, with at least 100 marked as classified. They were located “in a ballroom, a bathroom and shower, an office space, his bedroom, and a storage room.” If convicted, Trump could face a lengthy prison sentence.

Upon hearing the news, I, like I am sure many CounterPunch readers, felt a sense of satisfaction. Yet, I find that uncritical endorsement of his indictment, often published in left-leaning outlets, ultimately serves to reinforce a prison system that is rooted in a legacy of slavery, lynching, and segregation and of which is designed to regulate and punish those most marginalized, even if it catches a few elites in the process.

Claims that the indictment reflects fair-and-impartial justice, for instance, obscure this racist legacy. Opinion columnist and former Judge Advocate General’s Corps officer David French wrote in the New York Times, “[G]iven what we know now, not charging Trump under these facts would be an immense scandal, an abject failure of the rule of law (italics added).” He reminded that, “No person is above the law,” concluding, “[T]his is a republic, not a monarchy, and if the Justice Department can prove its claims, then Donald Trump belongs in prison.”

Legal experts have also taken to Twitter to highlight legal protections provided by the U.S. judiciary, particularly in response to conservative lawmakers defending Trump on social media, such as Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-California) referring to Trump’s indictment as a “grave injustice” and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) arguing, “If the people in power can jail their political opponents at will, we don’t have a republic.” To such claims, University of Michigan Law School professor Barb McQuade reassured on Twitter protections provided by American law, “Trump gets due process, like everyone else.” Joyce Vance, a former U.S. attorney and current law professor at the University of Alabama, also reaffirmed the ideals American law when writing that, with the indictment, we have “…double[d] down on the commitment to preserve an American Republic from succumbing to a dangerous cult leader with fascist tendencies.”

Not just a sense of mythologized blind justice, but calls for Trump’s imprisonment have a tinge of retribution as well—a key ingredient of the U.S. prison system. While discussing the shaky grounds of his April “hush money” indictment, Jacobin writer Branko Marcetic conceded, “Sure, lock him up. Trump certainly deserved it.” Writer Ben Beckett insightfully added that Trump’s April-prosecution would not defeat Trumpism as a whole, as it does not address inflation or cuts in social spending. Yet, he argued that prison is, at least, part of the solution, “So go ahead and throw the book at him. But give us something to vote for, too.”

Certainly, Trump’s political allies have used reprehensible violent and vengeful rhetoric to defend him. Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake implied retribution from Trump’s gun-toting base, and Republican Congressman Andy Briggs posted on Twitter, “We have now reached a war phase. Eye for an eye.” Yet, as is evident, even more nuanced and sensible accounts of Trump’s criminal involvement still rely on a carceral concession that someone—even if it is Trump—deserves to be locked up, to have the book thrown at him: it is only fair, after all. Subsequently, we become penal spectators who thrive in retributive justice.

In a time when Trump’s potential incarceration certainly feels good, I remind myself of the importance of abolitionism, a multifaceted and largely grassroots set of practices and philosophies that focus on building community relationships, while dismantling the prison industrial complex (PIC) in all of its forms, including police, criminal courts, cages, probation, and electronic monitoring. Such demands are rightfully met with hesitancy, “What about sex offenders?” “What about murderers?” I wonder, “What about Trump?

Yet, discourses of blind and retributive justice only reinvest in a system that fundamentally suppresses social movement, disciplines wage labor, and regulates “those on the losing end of economic and political arrangements.” Indeed, the indictment is meant to protect national security—which includes the U.S. prison system. Rather, we need, as Mariame Kaba puts it, a discourse and practice of abolitionist care that is counter to logics of retribution and a faith in the U.S. criminal punishment system to do anything but serve capitalist order.

It may feel good to see Trump face consequences for his actions. Trump wrote on Truth Social, “I never thought it possible that such a thing could happen to a former President of the United States”—and I am sure many of us have felt similarly. But in a time when the FBI and the Justice Department are heralded as heroes, as well as victims of Republican politicians and right-wing extremists, it is important to maintain scrutiny, not just of Trump, but the system prosecuting him as well.

Kevin Revier is an Assistant Professor, Criminology & Criminal Justice at Arcadia University.