CLEVELAND — It’s pretty disturbing to hear a large crowd at a major party convention repeatedly call for the jailing of the leader of the other major party.
And I’ve heard that happen again and again at the Republican convention so far, as the clear favorite chant of the attendees is: "Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her up!"
It’s not just the crowd. Three speakers at the podium on the first day of the convention called for Hillary Clinton to be jailed.
And Chris Christie’s speech on day two, while nominally a critique of Clinton’s foreign policy judgment, was framed as a "prosecution" of Clinton in which he repeatedly asked the crowd whether she was "guilty" or "not guilty."
Naturally, the crowd interrupted Christie four times with the "lock her up" chant. Indeed, the idea of sentencing Clinton to prison has been the only thing that’s really excited the crowd so far on this listless second day.
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.
Three speakers on day one called for Clinton to be locked up
The idea of jailing Hillary Clinton was endorsed three times by speakers at the podium on Monday — two that were scripted, and one that wasn’t.
The scripted — and therefore preapproved by the party — nod to the idea was from Darryl Glenn, a far-right conservative from Colorado who surprisingly won the GOP’s nomination for that state’s Senate race last month.
Glenn said that since Clinton "loves her pantsuits," "we should send her an email and tell her she deserves a bright orange jumpsuit," to laughter and cheers from the crowd.
Later on, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn — a man who was on Donald Trump’s shortlist for vice president — endorsed the idea too. During his speech, attendees began to chant, "Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her up!" And Flynn soon agreed, saying, "Lock her up, that’s right! It’s unbelievable!"
The rawest condemnation of Clinton came from Pat Smith, the mother of Sean Smith, who died in the Benghazi attacks. "I blame Hillary Clinton personally for the death of my son," she said, as she choked back tears. And when an attendee yelled out, "Hillary for prison," Smith responded, "That’s right, Hillary for prison! She deserves to be in stripes!"
Christie’s speech was cleverly designed to encourage "lock her up" chants
Now, Flynn and Smith aren’t politicians. And Glenn, although a Senate nominee in a high-profile race, doesn’t have a ton of political experience either.
But if there was any doubt that the party was deliberately encouraging this sentiment, that vanished with Chris Christie’s speech on Tuesday.
"Tonight, as a former federal prosecutor, I welcome the opportunity to hold her accountable for her performance and her character," Christie said. "We must present those facts to you, a jury of her peers, both in this hall and in living rooms around our nation. Since the Justice Department refuses to allow you to render a verdict, let’s present the case now, on the facts, against Hillary Clinton."
Then he ran through a series of familiar foreign policy criticisms of the Clinton and Obama administration — the Libya intervention, the attempt at a Russia "reset," the Iran deal. But after each, he asked the crowd, "Is Hillary Clinton guilty or not guilty?"
The crowd shouted back with joy ever time, "Guilty!" And four times, they halls filled with cries of, "Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her up!"
A political party shouldn’t encourage the jailing of the other party’s leader
Now, I can’t really believe I have to say this, but here goes: In a democratic society, it’s really disturbing for a political party’s leadership to basically endorse the idea that its main political rival should be jailed.
I mean, if Clinton were taking bribes or murdering people, that would be one thing. But we’re talking about her use of a private server and personal email account for State Department business here.
And 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 a case against Clinton for what she did.
But 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 convention attendees wearing shirts emblazoned with "Hillary for prison," and similar gear has been hawked at Trump rallies all year.
And it’s not just Trump. Ted Cruz, for instance, commonly joked on the campaign trail about Clinton going to jail. Additionally, 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.
What’s new and scary is that party elites — or whichever party elites still remain in the year of Trump — are now repeatedly egging on this sentiment from the floor of their convention, rather than trying to tamp it down.
It’s very much what their audience wants to hear. And it very well may be that convincing the electorate Clinton is a criminal is Trump’s only path to victory in November. But it’s different, it’s disturbing, and it’s not good for our democracy.