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All you really need to know about Donald Trump is that he wanted to be king. For four years, effectively, he was: enabled by decades of predecessors who sought to expand executive power and only hindered by his own incompetence. There is a lot about the modern presidency that is decidedly un-regal; but it’s well known that Trump’s favorite parts were the aspects it still shares with the age-old notion of one man on a throne. He loves, and I mean, LOVES, to pardon the turkeys on Thanksgiving.
I don’t need to get into a grand theory of governance here, but one thing that kings were usually remembered for is how they dispensed justice. A good king was seen as fair and just. The basic social contract was that subjects of the king gave him the power to choose if they lived or died, in exchange for the king largely trying to make sure no one except for him got to kill them. This is still basically the case, but now our kings have to employ a lot of lawyers to figure out the killing bit. In Trump’s case, his best lawyer is Attorney General William Barr. And before they are deposed, they will have their blood.
Over the next two months, Barr’s Department of Justice plans to push forward on five federal executions during his and Trump’s last days in office, with the final killing scheduled just five days before Joe Biden is expected to take power. As Slate pointed out, the last time a presidential administration did this was in 1889, when Grover Cleveland, himself a former executioner, permitted three federal executions in his lame duck period. The unwritten rule, in the century and change since then, has been that American kings relinquish their power to kill after they have lost the will of the people. But like a true monarch, it’s not in Trump’s nature to let go of anything easily, norms be damned.
Federal executions are extremely rare. In the modern era, usually defined as the period after the Supreme Court reaffirmed the federal death penalty in Gregg v Georgia in 1976, the government has only killed 11 people. Of those, eight have been killed by the Trump Administration. The last pre-Trump federal execution was in 2003. By the time Joe Biden, who opposes a federal death penalty, takes office, that total may be up to 13.
What this signifies to me is a certain determination that goes beyond Trump’s enjoyment of “pomp and splendor,” as the Times put it in their piece about Trump’s favorite parts of the presidency. Trump loves to pardon his friends, pardon the Turkeys, and sometimes even pardon people like Alice Johnson, if their case is high-profile enough and if Kim Kardashian asks him nicely while Kanye wears a red hat in the White House. But his term-spanning use of federal execution shows that he also loves to kill. There is no pomp and splendor in death, but there is power.
The founding myth of America is that we founded this country to be rid of kings and tyrants. We venerate George Washington, the first president who stepped down when he could have ruled forever. We worship our holy Constitution, which is taught to students as a perfect example of governance done right, codified into law and balanced so that no one man should have all that power. And yet, by January, 13 people may be dead by the president’s hand. That many of these people committed heinous crimes is beside the point. We like to think that our society has changed from the days of kings, but if the social contract still grants one person or government or group the power to decide who lives and who dies, how far have we really come?