Imagine Donald Trump, but more competent. Clever, even. Imagine all the retrograde views and delusions about the state of the country and who its enemies are, but without the constant dick-tripping. Terrifying, no?
You are imagining Jeff Sessions, attorney general of the United States.
Sessions scares me more than Trump does, and he should scare you. He is perhaps the single most threatening figure in the Trump administration. Sure, Jared Kushner and Ivanka exude a certain preppy menace, haunting the president's every move like a his-and-hers version of the It Follows demon. Steve Bannon’s lumpy malevolence oozes inexorably into most White House discussions of domestic policy. But the White House has a whole cast of toadies with competing egos and agendas; their powers are limited by Trump’s own inability to think two, or even one, step ahead.
By contrast, the Justice Department’s broad reach into the nooks and crannies of our civic life has made Sessions the freelance point man for every single terrible thing on the Trump agenda, except perhaps interior decorating. If Trump’s first 100 days were a mushy but bitter mess, unpleasant to deal with but unformed, Sessions’s first three-plus months in office have been a sharply studded fastball to the solar plexus.
Immigration? Beyond being the group that is defending the travel ban, the DOJ is staffing up immigration judges to increase the rate of deportations. Sessions has told “sanctuary cities” that the department will withhold grant money and other types of federal funding unless they cooperate with immigration forces. The DOJ has also cracked down on lawyers offering legal aid to those threatened with deportation.
LGBTQ issues? One of Sessions’s first acts was to pull back the Obama-era department’s court arguments in favor of protections for trans students.
As for voting? Sessions, a harsh critic of the Voting Rights Act, put in charge of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division the man who helped craft one of the Texas laws the division is currently reviewing. Now he has recused himself from that particular case, so it's been turned over to another lawyer whose previous practice included ... defending laws intended to curb voting rights.
The entire planet? Sessions, a climate change denier who has dismissed CO2 as “plant food,” is now the man who'll decide whether to defend Obama-era EPA regulations should any company want to challenge them in court.
And then there’s criminal justice, the department's primary concern and the area in which Sessions seems most enthusiastic to see the country return to antebellum norms. Others have written at length about the gruesome racial injustice implications of Sessions’s re-engagement of the drug war (a failure of such dramatic scope that even a dum-dum like Rick Perry has embraced reform).
But Sessions also wants to bring back mandatory minimum sentencing and re-criminalize marijuana, and is an enthusiastic proponent of civil asset forfeiture (when police seize the property of those merely connected to criminal activity). All three of these policies have been shown to have unjust outcomes in the sense that they do not actually deter crime. Longer sentences do not keep people law-abiding. Addiction is a disease that responds to treatment, not laws. Civil asset forfeiture has tripled since 2008 — a metric that seems independent of small fluctuations in crime rates, and which may have more to do with laws that allow police to keep the assets to pad their own budgets.
Which isn’t to say these policies aren’t effective at anything: They work incredibly well to inflate rates of mass incarceration and impoverish those already at the mercy of the state — black and brown people, mostly.
Sessions has also decided that the department will not enforce “consent decrees,” mechanisms the DOJ has previously employed to force police departments to review and reform unconstitutional civil rights abuses. Whose rights tended to be abused? Black and brown people, mostly.
Would it shock you to know that as the AG of Alabama, Sessions once supported bringing back chain gangs, noting that in addition to being "constitutional and proper," "I don't think it's hurt the state’s image at all"? He hasn’t said much about that lately, but he did reverse the Obama administration program to end federal use of private prisons, where conditions can be just as inhumane as any chain gang.
Sessions’s rhetoric on crime has been as damaging as policy. His has been the loudest voice — next to Trump's — behind the vision of “American carnage” that deluded so many white Americans into thinking they needed a man like Trump as president. His fear-mongering is, like Trump’s, based on deceit: Crime is not on the rise, New York is not seeing “gang murder after gang murder,” legal marijuana is not leading to “real violence.” Perpetuating these myths has one purpose: creating the pretext for continuing to grind down the slow progress of real justice.
To read through Sessions’s opinions and policy recommendations is to discover a man whose proper place in the American story would be among the rusted, bird-shit-stained statues of the Confederacy heroes who share his name. His agenda doesn’t just go against modern progressive values, it is at odds with modernism itself. He even pulled the DOJ out of a program that reviewed the use of questionable science in courtrooms. You get the sense that the only forensic tests he’s really comfortable with are of the “throw the witch in the pond and see if she floats” variety.
Sessions is lucky, or smart enough, not to be trapped in the White House's real-life, leak-plagued Twitter canoe. At the Justice Department he is largely out of reach of Trump’s reverse-Midas touch, and free from the congressional quagmire; he has little to distract him from his primary project: prosecuting what we can only hope the history books will record as white male supremacy’s last full-frontal assault on the rest of America.