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The Republican National Convention and the criminalization of politics

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Chris Christie delivered easily the most chilling speech of the Republican National Convention. He didn’t just attack Hillary Clinton. He led the crowd in a mock prosecution of Hillary Clinton.

Christie’s conceit — a prosecutor inviting a mob to condemn the accused on count after count — resembled a show trial more than anything else, free of any and all protections for the defendant.

Obviously it wasn’t a real trial of any kind. But the implication was nonetheless clear: Clinton deserves to be dragged to court for what she’s done when what she’s done is pursue policy options that Chris Christie doesn’t like. The implicit threat, too, was clear: Christie is clearly auditioning for attorney general in a Trump administration, and his audition was to lay out the reasons he would try to jail the leader of the opposition party.

It was a performative case for criminalizing disagreement, a perverse and authoritarian pageant that preyed on the worst, darkest tendencies of the Trump movement.

Christie's charges against Clinton were numerous, and went beyond even the most extreme of Donald Trump’s talking points in some places. They included:

  • "Ruining Libya and creating a nest for terrorist activity"
  • "An apologist for an al-Qaeda affiliate in Nigeria resulting in the capture of innocent young women"
  • "Putting big government spending financed by the Chinese ahead of good paying jobs for middle-class Americans"
  • "She called Assad a different kind of leader. There are now 400,000 dead. Think about that: 400,000 dead. At the hands of the man that Hillary defended."
  • "An inept negotiator of the worst nuclear arms deal in American history"
  • "A failed strategist who has permitted Russia back in as a major player in the Middle East"
  • "A coddler of the brutal Castro brothers and betrayer of the family of fallen Trooper Werner Foerster"
  • "Lying to the American people about her selfish, awful judgment"

After each of these accusations, Christie would ask the crowd: "Guilty or not guilty?" And the crowd would roar back, "GUILTY!" occasionally adding in a chant of "Lock her up!"

There were two genuinely unusual and somewhat shocking dimensions to Christie’s speech. One was the sheer severity of the charges he leveled against Clinton. He didn’t merely accuse her of mishandling Boko Haram. He directly accused her of responsibility for Boko Haram’s schoolgirl kidnappings, calling her an "apologist" for one of the most brutal terrorist groups on the planet. He didn’t merely accuse her of mishandling Syria but also implied she was responsible for every death in the Syrian civil war.

These are truly grave charges for which there is no evidence, yet Christie leveled them casually, like they were any other campaign talking point. That’s a remarkable escalation of rhetoric — even for this bananas election.

The second shocking element of the speech was the ease with which Christie essentially called for the criminalization of political disagreement. You can like or dislike the Iranian nuclear deal. But helping negotiate it, and supporting it, is not a crime. Doing that is participating in statecraft. Christie suggested that bad policy should put you before a jury ready and eager to condemn you for anything they deem mistakes.

But what made Christie’s speech genuinely scary was that it was a distillation of the Republican convention so far, not an aberration from it. Both nights featured the crowd breaking into frequent, raucous chants of, "Lock her up!" Former Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn repeatedly stopped his own speech to echo the crowd’s call to imprison Clinton.

Jailing the presumptive Democratic nominee has been the one point of enthusiasm and consensus in a Republican convention that has otherwise been listless and unfocused, with primetime speakers frequently addressing a half-empty arena and party leaders delivering speeches that go out of their way to avoid much mention of their nominee, Donald Trump. Absent the unifying power of proud partisanship, Republicans have turned to a particularly toxic form of negative partisanship, and have come together around not just their hatred of Clinton but their belief that she is a criminal.

And not merely that she is a criminal because of conduct that might run afoul of the law, not merely because the crowd thinks her email handling crosses a line that FBI Director James Comey didn’t think it crossed. They think she deserved to be tried and convicted for pursuing the public policies she believes to be correct.

That is not a healthy attitude for a major political party to embrace. And it’s an actively dangerous case of norm erosion for mature political leaders like Chris Christie to encourage. The jailing of political opponents is something that happens in dictatorships and banana republics. It is not something an advanced democracy can accept as a normal demand.