In one of the campaign season’s under-appreciated truths, Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed his admiration of authoritarian regimes, including Saddam Hussein’s approach to due process. The Republican nominee has similarly offered praise for China’s Tiananmen Square massacre, Vladimir Putin’s tactics in Russia, and even Kim Jong-un’s rule in North Korea.
By any fair measure, no major-party presidential nominee has ever gone quite this far in offering public praise for dictatorships, and it’s one of the more unsettling elements of Trump’s candidacy.
But this dynamic is made vastly more serious when the signature phrase of Trump’s nominating convention is “Lock her up!” being chanted by an arena full of enraged Republicans.
The toxicity of the combination matters. As we talked about yesterday, the United States is not some banana republic, where one party vows to lock up the leaders of the other. And yet, against the backdrop of a GOP nominee who has a creepy affinity for authoritarian politics, we’re witnessing a national convention in which Republicans appear eager to grab some pitchforks and make a citizens’ arrest.
And as of last night, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) positioned himself as the mob’s ringleader. Slate’s Michelle Goldberg captured the scene:
Christie began by criticizing the Obama administration for failing to hold Clinton accountable for her “dismal record” as secretary of state. “Tonight, as a former federal prosecutor, I welcome the opportunity to hold Hillary Rodham Clinton accountable for her performance and her character,” said Christie. The crowd erupted in chants of “LOCK HER UP! LOCK HER UP!” while Christie smiled and nodded. “Give me a few more minutes, we’ll get there,” he continued. “Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re gonna present the facts to you, you, tonight, sitting as a jury of her peers, both in this hall and in your living rooms around our nation.”A series of charges followed. Some, like Clinton’s mishandling of Libya, were at least partly legitimate. Others were bizarre. At one point, Christie faulted Clinton’s response to the mass kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria, which happened after she left office. After each accusation, he asked, “Is she guilty or not guilty?” Each time, the crowd roared, “Guilty!”
July 19, 2016: the day the Republican National Convention became a Kangaroo Court.
Not to put too fine a point on this, but this isn’t how politics is supposed to work in an advanced democracy. There’s nothing in the American tradition that offers parallels to tactics like these.
Steve Schmidt, a longtime Republican strategist, had this to say on MSNBC last night after Christie’s remarks: “It seems a little banana republican to me. It’s something that you’re not used to hearing in this country. We don’t lock up our political opponents.”
It’s often hard to predict how a mainstream audience watching at home will respond to developments. Maybe there are millions of American voters, unsure who’ll they support, who are moved by witch-trial chants and a party that’s desperate to incarcerate its presidential rival.
Or maybe the American mainstream will recoil. We’ll find out soon enough.
I still want to believe, however, that fair-minded observers, regardless of party or ideology, will appreciate the dangers of such a radical display.
For Republicans, defeating Hillary Clinton is a legitimate goal; imprisoning her is not. Rejecting Democratic priorities is valid; criminalizing routine political disagreements is not.
Putting on a show is worthwhile; putting on a show trial is not.