David O. Friedrichs

Dawn L. Rothe

The election of billionaire real estate developer and reality TV show star Donald Trump in November, 2016, as President of the United States, was something that was literally unimaginable a year and a half earlier, and indeed unimaginable for many people until it actually happened.  Trump was elected president, at least in part, because his claim – along with that of Senator Bernie Sanders – that the “political establishment” of both the Republican and the Democrat political parties was fundamentally corrupt, insofar as its highest priorities were its own political incumbency and the well-being of its largest donors from the corporate world and Wall Street. This claim is one that critical criminologists have long been making: it is absolutely correct and clearly resonated with millions of United States’ voters.  That former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – widely described as the most experienced and qualified person to run for President for a first term, in the modern era – was unable to defeat Donald Trump (the least experienced and qualified, in the judgment of many) could at least in part be attributed to the long history of the Clintons in ethically dubious and self-enriching or self-promoting initiatives.  That along with the Democratic National Convention’s favoritism of Clinton and downplay of Sanders further fueled the feeling of millions that the system is indeed corrupt and broken. That Trump has also been credibly accused of decades of ethically dubious, arguably fraudulent and wholly self-serving initiatives did not deter millions of voters from supporting him. Among many other “crimes of the powerful” that Trump was accused of we have systematic discrimination against minorities and women early in his career in New York City real estate, through the establishment of a blatantly fraudulent enterprise – “Trump University” – at a much more recent stage of this career.  The civil lawsuit on Trump University was settled for $25 million shortly after the election, allowing President-Elect Trump to avoid having to testify under oath on the allegations in this case. So Trump is alleged to have been party to a broad range of “white-collar crime” endeavors – cheating taxpayers, investors, contractors, employees and customers -  even though he was never formally indicted. And during the course of the 2016 presidential campaign Trump unambiguously stated that he would order what are effectively “crimes of states” – if elected – including the re-establishment of the use of water-boarding and worse forms of torture, and the deliberate killing of the families of suspected terrorist, along with carpet bombing. 

Millions of Trump supporters expect and hope that he will “make American great again” by – among other things – creating a booming, expanding economy, and restoring vast numbers of well-paying blue collar jobs in factories, mills and mines across the United States.  Who knows how that will manifest itself, but much intensified suffering of the powerless will surely occur. The “powerless” is not a monolithic entity, of course, but whatever transpires during the course of a Trump presidency it is quite certain that whole classes of the powerless – beginning with undocumented immigrants and would-be immigrants fleeing desperate circumstances – will suffer.

Proposed initiatives during his campaign by Trump and his political team – including getting rid of the Dodd-Frank law, tax cuts that will very disproportionately benefit the rich and powerful, and repealing or drastically downsizing the Affordable Care Act – are initiatives that are highly likely to facilitate future crimes of the powerful, and to amplify the suffering of the powerless. It remains to be seen whether “populist” initiatives such as the abolishing of the “carried interest” tax break for wealthy money-managers and the restoration of the Glass-Steagall Act would be put into effect. On the other side of this, a commitment to a dramatically ramped up “tough on crime” approach to conventional crime is sure to impose much suffering on a broad range of powerless – all-too-often innocent – constituencies. Trump’s dismissal of and hostility toward global climate change initiatives (and new treaties) has the potential of contributing to what some critical criminologists regard as the single biggest threat to humanity, going forward.  More immediately, the goal of “gutting” the Environmental Protection Agency will certainly facilitate a range of environmental crimes, again with the powerless especially vulnerable to victimization. Trump’s remarks about nuclear issues – including but hardly limited to not taking “first strike” off the table, and openness to expanding the number of countries with nuclear weapons – has the potential to enhance the probability of nuclear war, with millions of lives lost and vast damage to the human environment. And the foregoing merely scratches the surface of the broad range of crimes of the powerful that a Trump administration could either commit directly or facilitate.

The observation that “Prediction is difficult, especially about the future” has been attributed to the great physicist Niels Bohr (but also to Yogi Berra). The foregoing epilogue was produced shortly after the 2016 presidential election. Readers may already have some sense of how the Trump presidency will play out. Will unimaginably good things, or unimaginably bad things – or some complex mix of these – occur?  But much is at stake in anticipating the worst-case scenarios of what may lie ahead, in the spirit of a “prospective” criminology of crimes of states (Friedrichs, 2010).  

Criminological students of crimes of the powerful should have their work cut out for them in the years ahead.  Ronald C. Kramer (2016) has argued “that criminologists have a responsibility to act as public criminologists by speaking in the ‘prophetic voice’ concerning such crimes as the “use and threat to use nuclear weapons, the aerial bombardment of civilians, wars of aggression, torture, the failure to mitigate global warming and adapt to climate change ecocide, along with myriad other state-corporate crimes.” The dynamic of the dialectical – the stark thesis of the vast harms of autocracy by the rich and powerful giving rise to a progressive anti-thesis – is the biggest hope for critical criminologists and other progressive constituencies opposed to Trump.  The prospect of a full-blown legitimacy crisis in the years ahead can hardly be discounted.  Whatever transpires, crimes of the powerful will be a hugely consequential challenge for the immediate and regretfully the long-term future.


*This is the epilogue to a chapter titled Crimes of the Powerful: An Agenda for a Twenty-First Century Criminology in the forthcoming In Walter Dekeseredy and Molly Dragiewicz (eds.) The Rutledge Handbook of Critical Criminology (2 edition). Routledge Press

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President Donald Trump and Crimes of the Powerful