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Republican elites are feeding their base’s hatred of Hillary Clinton in scary ways

Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty

CLEVELAND — One of the most striking recurring suggestions of the Republican convention’s first day was that Hillary Clinton should be sent to prison.

During retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn’s speech, the delegates began to chant, "Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her up!" Soon, Flynn agreed, saying, "Lock her up, that’s right! It’s unbelievable!"

Earlier, Colorado Senate nominee Darryl Glenn had said that since Clinton "loves her pantsuits," "we should send her an email and tell her she deserves a bright orange jumpsuit."

And Pat Smith, mother of a victim of the Benghazi attacks, said, "I blame Hillary Clinton personally for the death of my son," as she choked back tears. When an attendee yelled out, "Hillary for prison," Smith responded, "That’s right, Hillary for prison! She deserves to be in stripes!"

To me, all this seemed like a new crossing of a line and an ugly degradation of a norm in American politics.

Sentiments like these frequently bubble up from the grassroots of both parties. Several liberal pundits and activists, and the occasional politician, called George W. Bush a war criminal who deserved to be impeached. And a Democratic outside spending group famously ran an ad blaming Mitt Romney for a woman’s death.

But having this sentiment bubble up from the base, or from a shady hit group, is quite different from spotlighting it on the stage of a party’s national convention.

It’s the latest sign that in the age of Donald Trump, the GOP’s elite gatekeepers are gone. The Republican grassroots strongly believes Hillary Clinton is an evil lying criminal who should be locked up.

And with Trump in charge — a man who has no shame whatsoever and is willing to viciously insult anyone who gets in his way — that’s essentially become the official position of the Republican Party.

Someone who called Clinton the c-word last week was allowed to speak

Conventions are heavily stage-managed affairs. The party chooses all the speakers and vets what they say — which is loaded on to a teleprompter beforehand. Party leaders are quite picky about whom they choose to spotlight and what they can say.

Yet on Monday, actor Scott Baio got a speaking slot, even though just last week he had tweeted this vulgar image:

When CNN’s Dana Bash asked him about the insult Monday night, Baio offered no apology. "It's just a picture somebody sent and we sent it out. You make of it what you want," he said.

It is very hard for me to believe that Mitt Romney or George W. Bush would have allowed Baio to speak in primetime after that tweet. But with Donald Trump, of course, anything goes.

Another speaker said she held Clinton responsible for the death of her son

The rawest condemnation of Clinton came from Pat Smith, the mother of Sean Smith, who was killed in the Benghazi attacks.

"I blame Hillary Clinton personally for the death of my son," an emotional Smith said. "When I saw Hillary Clinton," she went on, "she lied to me and called me a liar."

"Hillary Clinton is a woman, a mother, and a grandmother of two," Smith asked. "I am a woman, a mother, and a grandmother of two. How could she do this to me?"

Smith’s sincerity in her beliefs was obvious. But it was Republican Party leaders who chose to spotlight her from the floor. They knew in advance that she’d portray Clinton as a callous liar who cared nothing about a young American’s death.

That’s exactly what they wanted, and they wanted it front and center. These attacks are no longer relegated to fringe groups.

The delegates egged on the speakers

Pat Smith and Michael Flynn didn't had the words "lock her up" in their prepared remarks — instead, they were enthusiastically endorsing chants started by the delegates and attendees. "That's right. Hillary for prison. She deserves to be in stripes," Smith said.

That should be no surprise. The idea that Clinton is a criminal who should be in prison is something that grassroots Republicans very strongly believe. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 90 percent of Republicans thought Clinton should have been charged in the email scandal. I saw several shirts that said the "Hillary for prison" slogan today alone, and similar gear has been hawked at Trump rallies all year.

This is despite the fact that FBI Director James Comey, a former Bush administration official who had long been widely respected in both parties, concluded that "no reasonable prosecutor" would bring such a case.

Trump has played a role in characterizing Clinton as a criminal, but it isn’t just about him. Ted Cruz, for instance, commonly joked on the campaign trail about Clinton going to jail. And conservative media has for months portrayed a Clinton indictment as imminent, and suggested that the only possible explanation for a non-indictment would be corruption from the Obama administration.

That’s what their audience wants to hear, as it was at the convention on Monday night. The problem is that there’s no one around anymore to tell them anything different.

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