Why We Shouldn’t Call Trump a “Criminal”

Dehumanizing language stigmatizes people with felony convictions who lack Trump’s money and fame.
Erica Bryant Associate Director of Writing
Jul 02, 2024

An estimated 24 million people in the United States have been convicted of felony offenses. Former president and current presidential candidate Donald Trump joined them on May 30 when he was found guilty of falsifying business records to hide a hush money payment and influence a presidential election. Since then, politicians and media alike have described him as a “felon” and “convicted criminal.”

Yet Trump’s experience of the criminal legal system is clearly an outlier. In the immediate wake of his conviction, his campaign, the Republican National Committee, and an allied fundraising group raised tens of millions of dollars, and he has wide support for the highest office in the country.

Others with past felony convictions, on the other hand, don’t have this kind of power. While Trump sells shirts adorned with his mug shot, many legally innocent people are sitting in jail before they even go to trial because they can’t afford bail. The criminal legal system is hardly just in its treatment of most people—particularly people of color—and far too often extracts guilty pleas even from the innocent. Many prisons are violent, traumatizing places that leave people worse off than they were when they entered. Even long after release, people with prior convictions face stigma, isolation, and difficulty obtaining jobs and housing. Dehumanizing language facilitates their further systemic inhumane treatment, continuing to punish them long after they have served their time.

The use of words like “felon,” “convict,” and “criminal” has long been discouraged by justice advocates. Even in the case of wrongdoing, using these kinds of dehumanizing terms to define people who are system-involved does not account for their full humanity or leave space for the potential for growth. As Eddie Ellis, a prison reformer and pioneer in pushing for humanizing language, said, “Calling me inmate, convict, prisoner, felon, or offender indicates a lack of understanding of who I am, but more importantly what I can be.”

Even the Associated Press recently updated its stylebook to encourage “person-first language” when describing people impacted by the criminal legal system, suggesting “someone who is incarcerated” or “someone in prison” in favor of “prisoner” or “inmate.”

It may seem like a small thing, but language shapes the way people think. And when we use dehumanizing language to describe former President Trump, we are, by extension, stigmatizing others who lack Trump’s wealth and connections.

Additionally, messaging that zeroes in on Trump’s conviction underperforms with voters. Despite record lows in violent crime, crime remains a primary concern for voters in the United States. But recent polling from Vera Action shows that voters don’t favor stale “tough-on-crime” policies. Vera Action’s survey compared a typical “tough-on-crime” Republican message against two different Democratic messages. One blasted Republicans for being “soft on crime” and focused on Trump’s recent conviction. That message performed worse with voters than a message built around a “serious about safety” narrative focused on fully funding “things that are proven to create safe communities and improve people’s quality of life, like good schools, a good job, and affordable housing.”

Indeed, voters are considerably more interested in solutions that address the root causes of crime than they are in responding only after crime happens. According to the survey, people respond better to messages from politicians who want to invest in services like treatment for mental health and drug addiction than traditional “tough-on-crime” messages that focus on police and prisons. A message focused on Trump’s criminal conviction with dehumanizing language performed worse than both.

Language is powerful. Using person-centered language to describe people who have been impacted by the criminal legal system is not just a better political move, it’s a step toward ensuring the respect, dignity, and opportunities that everyone deserves—not just former President Trump.