CLEVELAND — It’s bad for the country when one political party demands the imprisonment of the opposing party’s nominee.
That doesn’t mean Chris Christie’s show trial of Hillary Clinton on Tuesday night, complete with chants of “lock her up” from the Republican delegates, won’t be effective at discouraging people from voting for her.
Christie’s speech highlighted a variety of supposed failures of Clinton’s governance — even somehow blaming her for Boko Haram’s kidnapping of young girls in Nigeria — but this speech wasn’t really about its content.
What people will remember are the screams of “guilty” by the Republican delegates, and Christie’s unsubtle contention that the presumptive Democratic nominee is a criminal more deserving of prison time than the presidency.
Democrats called this wildly irresponsible, and even a lot of Republicans found it unsettling. Sen. Jeff Flake tweeted that Republicans shouldn’t “jump the shark.” Jonathan Last wrote for The Weekly Standard that it was “creepy.”
I’m concerned the tactic might actually work, because Clinton is an especially vulnerable target for these sorts of attacks.
She is not popular and is not trusted. In the most recent NBC/SurveyMonkey poll, a dismal 28% of respondents said she is honest and trustworthy; 69% said she is not. On average, voters are 17 points more likely to report an unfavorable view of her than a favourable one.
She has also just been a subject of an FBI investigation, which has damaged public perceptions of her. That FBI investigation concluded with an announcement that she did not do anything prosecutable — but the FBI director sharply criticised her, and noted that people who had taken actions like hers would ordinarily face non-judicial consequences, like the loss of a job or a security clearance.
A recent Associated Press poll found 56% of respondents thought Clinton had broken the law in conjunction with her email server, and another 36% believe she used bad judgment but did not break the law. If a majority of Americans think Clinton broke the law, why should we assume that calling for her to face criminal penalties would backfire on Republicans?
Clinton is in an awkward position when responding to the “lock her up” chants. She can insist, correctly, that she shouldn’t go to jail, but this invites a discussion of what lesser consequences she might deserve. “Reckless but not criminal” is a not-ideal talking point for a presidential candidate.
The conservative complaints about Christie’s speech came from the parts of the party that resisted Trump as a lawless authoritarian and see the show trial as feeding into his ethos. But one thing we have learned this year is that the appetite for lawless authoritarianism is much higher than most of us would have expected and hoped — among the Republican primary electorate and even among general election voters, 40% or more of whom say they are prepared to vote for Trump.
Another thing we have learned is that voters don’t necessarily take extreme rhetoric literally.
If Republicans were seen as seriously calling for an extrajudicial imprisonment of Hillary Clinton, I think that would backfire. But how many voters look at the chants simply as an expression of the view that Clinton is dishonest, illegitimate, and corrupted — and share the sentiment?
Polls during the primary repeatedly found that many Trump voters didn’t actually want immediate deportation of all immigrants living in the country illegally, one of his signature policies. For a lot of those voters, Trump’s call was really a symbol, an expression of frustration with immigration. Of course, for others it was literal — just as “Hillary for Prison” can appeal both to voters who literally want her in jail and those who just want to talk about how much they hate her.
Clinton’s best hope is that this line of attack is seen as overreach. That’s increasingly likely the more unhinged and irresponsible her Republican critics become — and as if on cue, one Trump delegate said Wednesday on a radio show that Clinton “should be put in the firing line and shot for treason.”
But will garden-variety “Hillary for Prison” rhetoric really backfire on Trump, or will it serve to feed voters’ existing perception that Clinton is not to be trusted?
I ask this question somewhat despairingly. A future in which Republicans routinely call for imprisonment of their Democratic opponents will not be a future where America has functional, first-world governance.
But fortunately, I don’t think this is just about a general trend toward the criminalization of ordinary politics. If Democrats had nominated almost anybody else, Republicans would have looked much more obviously ridiculous calling for the Democratic nominee to go to prison. I do not believe we would have seen “Biden for Prison 2016” shirts, and if we had they would have been laughed at.
Clinton has made herself unusually vulnerable to attacks on her honesty, her character, and her legal compliance. She and her husband created this vulnerability through decades of actions — going all the way back to her implausibly lucky trading in cattle-futures markets in the 1970s — that seemed to focus on technical compliance with the law rather than adopting an ethos of transparency, propriety, and avoidance of apparent conflicts of interest.
As I’ve written before, not every “Clinton scandal” has involved real wrongdoing — some have been invented whole cloth by the very real anti-Clinton conspiracy that fuels the Clintons’ aversion to transparency — but the Clintons attract fake scandals like flypaper because their way of doing business created so many real ones.
I have no idea what fraction of voters will think “lock her up” is an outrageous or ridiculous thing to chant about Clinton, but I’m not ready to assume it’s a majority.
This is an editorial. The opinions and conclusions expressed above are those of the author.
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