Neoliberal Authoritarianism: Notes on Penal Politics in Trump’s America

This post is part of a series on the possible impacts of Trump’s election on a variety of social justice issues. Click here to read more.

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by Alessandro De Giorgi*

I have a message for all of you: The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon—and I mean very soon—come to an end. Beginning on January 20th, 2017, safety will be restored.
—Donald J. Trump, Presidential Nomination Acceptance Speech, Cleveland, OH, July 21, 2016

The more of those that are in jail serving time, the less people are going to get murdered. It’s mathematics. And that’s really what happened since 1980 with the increasing number of people that were incarcerated. It worked.
—Jeff Sessions, Address to US Senate, Washington, DC, October 3, 2015

After 40 years of unabated penal expansion, a wave of reforms initiated in the mid-2000s under the bipartisan banners of “smart on crime” and “evidence-based” criminal justice policies have produced modest but consistent reductions in the size of the US prison population. Although targeting almost exclusively those fractions of the criminalized population identified as non-violent (and often at the cost of ramping up punishments for other categories of offenders), these reform initiatives attest to the recognition by the nation’s power elites of the problematic nature of mass incarceration—at least in terms of its compatibility with the neoliberal tenets of fiscal austerity and budget responsibility. Over the past few years, this reformist moment has created a few dents in the American carceral machine and in the law-and-order consensus that had dominated all levels of US governance since the punitive shift of the early 1970s. In this sense, the 2016 election of Donald Trump as the first president to run on a law-and-order campaign in several years may well forebode the premature end of the current season of reforms. Is this going to be the case?

Although any detailed plan for criminal justice (as for most other issues) has been conspicuously absent from Trump’s campaign, it is not hard to grasp the president elect’s views on the matter. An instructive read in this regard is Trump’s 2000 book The America We Deserve, a prescient compendium of policy proposals for a hypothetical Trump administration. Among other things, in this publication Trump nominates James Q. Wilson (one of the strongest supporters of mass incarceration in conservative academic circles) as his favorite criminologist (pp. 93-94); predicts that “when the population of adolescent males rises early next century, we’re going to have wolf packs roaming the streets, and not only downtown” (p. 99); laments that “no, the problem isn’t that we have too many people locked up. It’s that we don’t have enough criminals locked up” (p. 102); celebrates the wonders of zero tolerance policing, a position he has reiterated in the 2016 campaign by supporting the racially discriminatory practice of stop and frisk; and finally dismisses as “ridiculous” any sociological explanation of criminal behavior that attempts to connect it to “poverty, lack of opportunity, or early childhood mistreatment” (p. 94). As far as capital punishment is concerned, a good source of information on Trump’s views is the full-page ad he published on four different newspapers on May 1st, 1989, in the aftermath of the brutal rape and beating of a female jogger in New York’s Central Park. In the ad, titled “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY! BRING BACK OUR POLICE!” Trump invoked the execution of the five teenagers, all of them minors between the ages of 14 and 16, who were falsely accused of the crime—a point of view he has maintained as late as 2014, after the city of New York settled with the men for their wrongful convictions and a total of 40 years spent in prison.

Overall, Trump’s political posture—his calls for law and order, his xenophobic attacks on undeserving immigrants and dangerous refugees, his evocation of an imagined “people” betrayed by a clique of self-serving and corrupt politicians, his virulent anti-intellectualism, and his promise to restore a fictional golden age of cultural homogeneity, racial hierarchy, gender normativity, and obedience to authority—falls squarely within the coordinates of what in 1979 cultural theorist Stuart Hall defined authoritarian populism: an autocratic form of power that, unlike classical fascism, is compatible with the existence of representative institutions and is sustained by an active popular consent (Hall 1979, 15). Historically, a strong emphasis on law and order and national security has been an integral part of authoritarian-populist platforms—from Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power in 1979 to the more recent electoral exploits of Marine Le Pen in France, Norbert Hofer in Austria, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, to name just a few. And indeed, it would be reasonable to expect that the incoming Trump administration will attempt to capitalize on the punitive sentiments it has fueled during the presidential campaign and follow the all-too-familiar path to penal populism paved by the likes of Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan.

And yet, I will hazard the prediction that the Trump administration might not engage in a full-fledged campaign of penal expansion and carceral buildup. Penal populism is indeed a very expensive enterprise—as even a cursory glance at trends in criminal justice expenditures since the unfolding of the punitive turn in the US will reveal. If Trump were to jump on the wagon of populist punitiveness, his strategy would involve a significant expansion of the state sector—something hardly feasible without a sharp increase in public spending (and consequent tax increases) or a substantial investment of resources in already overfunded correctional departments—and this is something that Trump’s electoral constituency would most likely reject. On the other hand, large-scale experiments with private prisons in the past—especially following a series of financial mismanagement scandals in the 1980s and 1990s—have proven to be an expensive and overall ineffective alternative to state punishment.

The broader issue here is that while Trump’s populist ascendancy emerges as a conjunctural phenomenon, the US power elite’s commitment to the neoliberal dogmas of deficit reduction, fiscal austerity, and budget conservatism is of a structural nature. Particularly in the post-2007 recession environment, those principles provide the structural coordinates with which any political enterprise must be compatible. After all, the infamous taxpayer protection pledge introduced in 1986 by Americans for Tax Reform—an anti-tax lobbying group directed by Grover Norquist, one of the main crusaders of right-wing criminal justice reform—which commits elected officials to reject any tax increase under any circumstance, has been signed by 49 Senators and 218 House Representatives in the current US Congress, as well as by 13 incumbent governors and approximately 1,000 incumbent state legislators. In the end, neoliberal austerity could well represent the main obstacle to Trump’s authoritarian dreams, at least as far as penal expansion is concerned.

This does not mean, however, that Trump’s peculiar mix of authoritarian rhetoric and neoliberal measures will not have a profound, and harmful, impact on penal politics. At the state level, where most criminal justice policy is formulated, the rhetoric of criminal justice reform might well continue, as long as it can be framed as part of a broader cost-saving—rather than rights-granting—agenda. Here we might witness a lukewarm continuation of the piecemeal reforms aimed at reducing the number of low-level drug offenders in prisons, possibly in conjunction with a toughening of penal measures against more serious crimes. At the same time, however, it is likely that right-wing criminal justice initiatives such as Right on Crime will set the tone of the public debate on penal reform, with the effect of further narrowing the path towards any real decarceration for common offenders (while at the same time shielding corporate criminals from prosecution, for example by decriminalizing several financial crimes, deceptively defined as “regulatory offenses,” and by loosening strict liability rules for businesses). Moreover, it is likely that we will witness a strong acceleration of the (ongoing) privatization of broad sectors of extra- or post-carceral penal control—such as community supervision, probation and parole, electronic monitoring, prisoner reentry, and drug rehabilitation—with the related shifting of increasing portions of the costs of such “services” onto their “clients.” Finally, Trump’s vicious rhetoric—which has liberally drawn, and will continue to draw, from the racially coded language of crime and safety—will have profound and potentially long-term effects on the very way punishment is talked about, imagined, and ultimately administered in the courts, in prisons, or on the street. It may not be Clinton’s disgraced “super-predator,” but some version of that racialized imagery that may please Trump’s white supremacist base is likely to gain a renewed prominence in public discourse. Independently of how many new prisons are built or stricter laws are passed, that image is what prosecutors and judges will have in mind when executing the law and the police will look for when patrolling the streets. The consequences of this in a period of increasing evidence of police brutality and racial bias across all levels of the penal system cannot be underestimated.

As John B. Judis argues in a recent book, unlike left-wing populisms, which are based on a binary opposition between the people and the establishment, right-wing populisms “champion the people against an elite that they accuse of coddling a third group … Rightwing populism is triadic. It looks upward, but also down upon an out group” (Judis 2016, 15). Authoritarian populism is sustained by the ongoing production of undeserving “others” against whom ordinary citizens can be mobilized. Today, the quintessential image of the undeserving other pampered by the authorities at the expense of law-abiding citizens is most likely that of the undocumented immigrant, and the president-elect will hurriedly join his neo-fascist European partners in their ongoing crusade against refugees from “terror-prone” countries, against Muslim communities in the US, and for the deportation of as many “criminal aliens” as feasible. Although it is unlikely, as Raymond Michalowski argues in his contribution to this blog series, that Trump will be able to round up the estimated eleven million undocumented immigrants living in the US, it is likely that immigration raids, detentions, and deportations will increase, precipitating immigrant communities into an age of deep insecurity and fear: after all, the mass-deportation infrastructure has already been successfully tested by President Obama, under whose administration immigrant deportations have reached all-time highs.

To the extent that the immigration issue can be framed in the language of a moral panic about border security, immigrant crime, and global terrorism, the field of immigration control is where I surmise we will witness Trump’s authoritarianism unfold in its most unbridled form. Based on the first declarations of the new members of his administration, immigration control will be one of the very first policy areas the president will put his hands on, if only to score easy points and perhaps earn a few credits with major sectors of his constituency. His approach to penal politics will probably be, as I suggested above, less straightforward, though not necessarily less pernicious. As we wait for the next tweet to indicate the future of penal politics in the biggest carceral state in the world, we should get ready to defend the most vulnerable and oppressed fractions of the population against the combined attack of authoritarian control and neoliberal neglect.

Hall, Stuart. 1979. “The Great Moving Right Show.” Marxism Today, January: 14–20.
Judis, John B. 2016. The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics. New York: Columbia Global Reports.
Trump, Donald J. 2000. The America We Deserve. New York: Macmillan.

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*Alessandro De Giorgi is Associate Professor at the Department of Justice Studies, San Jose State University (e-mail: He received his PhD in Criminology from Keele University (United Kingdom) in 2005. Before joining the Department of Justice Studies, he was a Research Fellow in Criminology at the University of Bologna (Italy) and a Visiting Scholar at the Center for the Study of Law and Society, University of California, Berkeley. His teaching and research interests include critical theories of punishment and social control, urban ethnography, and radical political economy. He is the author of Rethinking the Political Economy of Punishment: Perspectives on Post-Fordism and Penal Politics (Ashgate, 2006). Currently, he is conducting ethnographic research on the socioeconomic dimensions of concentrated incarceration and prisoner reentry in West Oakland, California.

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