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Michael Zoosman

Trump and Capital Punishment: Sounding the Death Knell for American Democracy

Image: Abe Bonowitz, co-founder of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty” and Executive Director of Death Penalty Action, tolls the bell that is sounded at execution protests across the United States. (Photo: Courtesy of Death Penalty Action)
During every execution in the United States, Death Penalty Action* holds a virtual vigil simultaneously with local death penalty abolitionists protesting outside the prisons and state capitals or governor’s mansions where the state-sponsored killing is taking place. When these gatherings are in person, those in attendance toll the same massive bell at the time the state is putting to death the execution victim. Accompanying this solemn act is a recitation of the final lines of John Donne’s renowned poem “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” intoning:

Therefore send not to know

For whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee.

If these bells start ringing again at the federal death chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana, under a second Trump presidency, they will not only mark the collective failure of American society to uphold the inherent human right of life, but this time they also could very well sound the death-knell for American democracy as we know it.

The increasingly real prospect of a Donald Trump presidency and dictatorship has existentially terrifying implications. Esteemed Washington Post editor Robert Kagan, among many others, recently outlined how far America already has begun to venture down this perilous path in his soul-striking op-ed entitled “A Trump dictatorship is increasingly inevitable. We should stop pretending.” As if on cue, just as I was writing this essay, Trump pledged he would be a dictator only on “Day One” of his presidency. If Kagan’s horrifying predictions come to pass, and if Trump’s dictatorial promise extends beyond “Day One,” then one of the most clear and present dangers the new regime will pose to the human right of life itself will be its renewed rush to kill the forty-two human beings currently housed on federal death row.

The use of executions for personal gain by political leaders is one of the oldest tactics in any would-be tyrant’s playbook. The multiple ceremonial political killings that Governor Ron DeSantis has pledged and carried out in Florida as he makes a presidential run in 2024 serve as but the most recent examples of this enshrined historical precedent. In all, DeSantis sacrificed six human beings for the sake of power this year. Donald Trump not only dwarfs DeSantis in the polls, but also leads him in his own notorious executive execution record. In the final months of his first presidential term, Trump completed an unparalleled federal killing spree that left twelve men and one woman dead in its wake. During a second Trump term, it is perfectly reasonable to expect a second and much more far-reaching bloodbath that will take the lives of many federal death row prisoners whose appeals have been exhausted. Furthermore, if the former president does manage to trump the Constitution with his ruthless narcissism, as Kagan and others have warned, there is no end to the possible ways in which he might utilize the American death machine for his nefarious personal, political ends. In the latest example of this kind potentially lethal rhetoric, Trump invoked his lust for executions yet again when he stated in a recent campaign speech that retired top general Mark Milley deserves the death penalty.

Trump Praises Hitler for “doing a lot of good things”

As many of the thousands of members of the group “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty” and I firmly believe—and as other descendants of Holocaust survivors have written—it is not at all wrong to compare Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler, particularly considering their shared authoritarian leanings and reliance on the power of the state to kill. As the 2024 campaign continues, Trump continues to seem to invite this comparison. Just this month he borrowed the xenophobic and hateful slogan that Hitler employed when he explicitly stated that immigrants were “poisoning the blood of our country.” While Trump subsequently attempted to distance himself from Hitler by assuring the American public that he is not a “student of Hitler,” his promise rings hollow in the wake of his previous statements and actions, including allegedly having both kept a book of the Fuhrer’s speeches at his bedside table and praised Hitler for “doing a lot of good things.

Let there be no doubt: For Hitler, reliance on the death penalty as a cure for what he considered social problems occurred on an exponentially more prodigious scale than what the world has seen from Trump thus far.  Still, a cursory review of the Fuhrer’s use of “judicial” executions offers a chilling warning for what Trump’s return to power might mean for those incarcerated—and beyond.

Like Trump, Hitler forebodingly revealed some of his thoughts about the death penalty when he said that “…after ten years of hard prison, a man is lost to the people’s community anyway. Thus what to do with such a guy is either put him into a concentration camp, or kill him. In latest times the latter is more important, for the sake of deterrence.” (Richard J. Evans: Rituale der Vergeltung. Berlin 2001, S. 828). Like Hitler, Trump also cited this fallacy of deterrence as a justification for devaluing human life and human rights when he recently doubled down on his comments in favor of executing drug dealers. As if this were not enough, Trump has clearly stated his hope of using more firing squads and carrying out group executions, even wishing to televise these slaughters for an intended deterrence effect.

The historical record proves without question that Hitler ruthlessly fulfilled his promise for unprecedented state killing. Not long after Germans elected Hitler their chancellor in 1933, the infamous Reichstag fire that destroyed Germany’s primary legislative building cleared his path to dictatorship and consolidation of ultimate power. The ensuing first year of Hitler’s reign included the mass murder of his political opponents in what posterity would come to know as the notorious Night of Long Knives, arguably an extended and extreme version of Trump’s promised “Day One” dictatorship. The newly-minted Fuhrer’s thirst for mass executions soon reverberated throughout his party. As early as the 1934 Reichsparteitag (“Rally of Victory”), leading Nazi jurist Hans Frank boasted that the “reckless implementation of capital punishment” would be a special feature of the Nazi regime.

And so it was. From 1907-1932—just before Hitler came to power and including World War I—Germany had issued 1547 death warrants, of which 393 were executed, according to Manfred Messerschmidt. In spectacular contrast, official statistics report that under Hitler’s leadership between 1933 and 1945, 16,560 death sentences were passed and 12,000 were carried out. The People’s Court alone handed down 5,243 death sentences, whereas military courts passed around 20,000 more death sentences. In 1989, the legal historian Ingo Müller estimated the total number of death sentences imposed by Nazi courts-martial during the Second World War at 33,000, of which 89% were carried out. (See Peter Lutz Kalmbach: military police, security service, special forces. Police organs and court martial in the final phase of the Second World War. In: Criminalistics. Independent journal for criminological science and practice , 2014, p. 454 ff.) This is the model that a leader like Hitler presents for a politician with dictatorial ambition like Trump, who already is an avid advocate for capital punishment.

The extent of any nation’s reliance on the death penalty serves as a barometer for that society’s core values. Hitler’s use of state killings as a hallmark of his reign reflected how the Third Reich did not at all value human life, making it one of the most existentially dangerous and destructive regimes in recorded history. Likewise, the possibility that Trump might keep his word and drastically expand capital punishment constitutes a life-threatening red flag for the future of democracy in the United States. The death penalty has long festered in this land, casting an ominous shadow that has darkened America’s projected image as a beacon of human rights to the world. The image of a battered, indicted, vindictive and increasingly unhinged Trump wielding this deadly tool as a weapon of choice to fend off 91 criminal charges and assorted civil trials, all while holding the reins of a world superpower, should strike terror into the hearts and minds of the citizens of this country. Instead, more and more Americans seem to support him, with his lead at the polls now growing daily as he leans into his projected role as a victim of voter suppression, and as death threats are levied against judges who rule against him.

“Never Again!”

Jewish death penalty abolitionists have warned the world for decades of what can happen when a society opens its doors to state-sponsored killing. Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel knew very well of the danger of inviting in this man-made “Angel of Death.” Prof. Wiesel famously said of capital punishment: “Death is not the answer.” He also said this, which is akin our anthem at L’chaim:

“With every cell of my being and with every fiber of my memory I oppose the death penalty in all forms. I do not believe any civilized society should be at the service of death. I don’t think it’s human to become an agent of the angel of death.” 

To help prevent the realization of Prof. Wiesel’s legitimate concern that the world might witness the rise of yet another nation in bed with this metaphorical Malakh HaMavet (Hebrew: “The Angel of Death”), it is incumbent upon those in power now to make it as difficult as possible to put to death the inhabitants of the federal killing fields. President Biden therefore should use every tool at his disposal to commute all federal death sentences, and demolish the federal death house—the stand-alone execution facility at Terre Haute, Indiana. Congress as well should strive to pass the bill to abolish the federal death penalty. Granted, none of these actions would necessarily stop Trump, who has indicated time and again that he does not care a whit about the Constitution. He easily could find another gruesome way of continuing the Nazi legacy of state-sponsored killing, perhaps following the lead of states such as Alabama, which is set to inaugurate its new gas chamber this January, or Arizona, which offers Zyklon B as an option. Preventative actions by the Biden administration would, however, add extra obstacles as Trump strives to execute his plans—plans which, if they are as megalomaniacal as many individuals reasonably fear, merit the creation of any and all safeguards now, before it is too late to do so.

The opening chapter and verse of the millennia-old Jewish text Pirkei Avot ( “Ethics of the Fathers”) teaches that it is imperative to “make a fence around the Torah” in order to ensure that the values that society holds most dear are upheld. To co-opt a well-known phrase used by Trump and his supporters, citizens of this country must in like manner “build a wall” around the value of human life, and fortify it as strongly as possible. If they do not, then life itself—that most central foundation for any civilized society —will fall victim to the Angel of Death to whom Trump appears to have pledged terminal allegiance, like Hitler before him. If that happens, then the bell that tolls at each execution indeed also would be sounding for what remains of our waning American democracy…and so for us all.

Many will rightfully object that any expansion of the death penalty in the United States would require congressional action and judicial approval. If, however, the many “good things” that Hitler did, according to Trump, included capitalizing on the burning of the Reichstag and destroying the remaining democratic institutions in Germany, then it is not beyond the realm of possibility that current constitutional, legislative and judicial failsafes and barriers to broader reliance on state killing could very well become moot with Trump’s ascension to power. While this may now seem like a big “if,” it is undeniable that it has happened already in twentieth-century Germany and many other times in this world. If humanity is not vigilant and does not learn from past mistakes, it can indeed happen again.

I pray that history will prove these fears to be overblown. Given my own family’s history and that of my people, however, I am not willing to consider this eventuality without sounding this alarm, nor shall I feel any regret, as a cantor, chanting my concerns as vociferously as possible in the public sphere. This, too, is part of the universal responsibility and human burden of carrying the torch of “Never Again!”

*This article is the opinion of its author and does not reflect any specific policy position of Death Penalty Action with regard to candidates for political office.

This piece originally appeared on Jurist and is being re-published here with the express permission of the authors. For correct citation: Michael J. Zoosman, Jurist, December 29, 2023. Donald Trump and Capital Punishment:Sounding the Death Knell for American Democracy The author, a Jewish chaplain and death penalty abolitionist, argues that a second Trump presidency threatens democracy by exploiting the death penalty for personal and political gain, drawing alarming parallels with authoritarian regimes such as that of Adolf Hitler.

Cantor Michael J. Zoosman, MSM

Board Certified Chaplain –  Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains

Co-Founder: “L’chaim: Jews Against the Death Penalty” 

Advisory Committee Member, Death Penalty Action

About the Author
Cantor Michael Zoosman is a Board Certified Chaplain with Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains (NAJC) and received his cantorial investiture from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 2008. He sits as an Advisory Committee Member at Death Penalty Action and is the co-founder of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty.” Michael is a former Jewish prison chaplain and psychiatric hospital chaplain. Currently, he is a multi-faith hospital chaplain at a federal research hospital, the National Institutes of Health - Clinical Center. His comments here represent his own opinions.
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