Democratic presidential nominee former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump listen to a question during the town hall debate at Washington University on Oct 9, 2016 in St Louis, Mo.
Just a few months ago, during the Republican National Convention, far-right activists embraced the “Lock her up!” mantra with unnerving enthusiasm. Rank-and-file Republican voters, adopting a strange fascination with cabinet-level email-server protocols, were convinced that Hillary Clinton was a criminal deserving of incarceration, and a variety of GOP leaders were only too pleased to egg them on.
But as the ridiculous line of attack snowballed, Donald Trump’s team advised caution. In the United States, leaders don’t try to lock up their political opponents after an election. To avoid sounding like tin-pot dictator, Trump’s aides said, he should steer clear of this garbage.
Three months later, Trump is not only expressing his admiration for dictators; he’s decided he no longer cares if he sounds like one.
As we discussed yesterday, Trump used the second presidential debate to declare his intention to abuse his power and order the Justice Department to prosecute Hillary Clinton after the election – for the express purpose of putting her “in jail.” It was the first time in American history a major-party presidential candidate vowed to a national audience he’d lock up his opponent if elected.
Yesterday morning, Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, dismissed the line’s importance, telling MSNBC this was merely a debate “quip.” She was mistaken. Trump and his team quickly embraced the put-Clinton-in-jail message, touting the line via social media, and by midday, Mike Pence was bragging about it on national television. By last night, the idea was effectively part of Trump’s platform, with the candidate himself re-embracing the argument during a campaign rally.
Which is all the more reason to shine a light on Trump’s undemocratic, dictatorial rhetoric. The New York Times reported this morning:
[Trump’s] move would take American democracy to a dangerous new place, legal specialists across the ideological spectrum said.
“It’s a chilling thought,” said Michael Chertoff, a former federal appeals court judge who also served as the secretary of Homeland Security and head of the Justice Department’s criminal division in the George W. Bush administration. Mr. Chertoff, who has announced that he will vote for Mrs. Clinton, added, “It smacks of what we read about tin-pot dictators in other parts of the world, where when they win an election their first move is to imprison opponents.”
Politico added that Trump’s over-the-top vow “provoked a sharp blowback from former U.S. prosecutors,” including many who served in Republican administrations.
Joshua Tucker, a politics professor at NYU, explained in the Washington Post, “[T]hreatening an electoral opponent with imprisonment upon loss of an election is not just a threat against that particular individual; it is potentially a threat against democracy itself. Democracy requires the assumption that electoral losers will cede power; threatening to lock up your opponent calls into question whether that assumption remains valid.”
As best as I can tell, Trump simply doesn’t care about such niceties as political norms, the American tradition, institutional limits, or basic tenets of a mature democracy. On the contrary, the more scandal his comments provoked yesterday, the more he turned up the volume.
To reiterate a point from yesterday, if this doesn’t make you nervous, perhaps you’re not paying close enough attention. To see this as business as usual, or somehow normal in American politics, is a terrible mistake.