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Why Hillary Clinton, not Donald Trump, was the unifying figure at the RNC

The RNC convention crowd loved chanting, "Lock her up."
The RNC convention crowd loved chanting, "Lock her up."
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

For an event dedicated to the naming of Donald Trump as presidential nominee, the Republican National Convention's big name wasn’t always Trump — it was his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.

The speakers and delegates fixated on disparaging Clinton at the convention, at times more so than praising Trump, drowning the stadium in boos and "lock her up" chants at the sound of her name.

Speaker after speaker called out Clinton for everything from the email scandals to jeopardizing national security to being the direct cause of ISIS’s growth in the Middle East.

On the second night of the convention, the few Republican Party speakers who dared to show, including House Speaker Paul Ryan and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, mentioned Clinton almost four times more than they mentioned Trump in their speeches.

Delegates on the convention floor were just as easily enthusiastic about chanting for Clinton’s imprisonment as they were cheering for Trump’s Mexican border wall, a staple of his political platform.

This is a symptom of an increasingly polarized political landscape

Calling for Clinton to be locked up — a rallying cry enthusiastically chanted every night of the RNC convention — is a notably hostile claim for American politics. It’s a development more reminiscent of the impeachment trials of President Dilma Rousseff in Brazil than typical political rhetoric in the United States.

The chant seems to be a byproduct of the "Hillary for Prison 2016" campaign, a commentary on Clinton’s role with the 2012 Benghazi attack and the controversy surrounding her use of a private email server while at the State Department.

But it doesn't end with chants: Dr. Ben Carson equated Clinton to Lucifer, and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi interrupted her own speech to egg on delegates shouting for Clinton’s imprisonment from the stage.

Contextually, the escalation in language makes sense in an increasingly polarized country, Purdue University political science and media professor Josh Scacco said.

"It tracks with long-term trends in the polarization of the public," he said. "Individuals now do not live amongst others of different partisan affiliations. It becomes easy to demonize the unknown other in these circumstances."

Simply losing in an election has no longer become a harsh enough penalty for political disagreement. Partisans are calling for blood. (Quite literally — a Trump delegate said Clinton should be shot for treason.)

For a divided Republican Party, hating Hillary Clinton is a unifying message

Trump is undeniably a divisive character in the Republican Party. Voted in by the American people but opposed by the Republican Party establishment, he has led to many non-endorsements among more traditional conservatives.

Trump himself has shown no intention of being a party man. In his speeches, his view of the future of the Republican Party extends only through his own election. His brand of politics is an "insurgency" into the Republican Party, Scacco said, and one that has left the party unsure of its future platform.

The RNC brought this discord in the Republican Party into sharp focus. For one, the convention was lacking key figures in the Republican Party. Prominent Republican governors, including John Kasich, governor of the state where the convention was being held, opted to stay away from the event. Rising stars in the party like South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who delivered the State of the Union response this year, and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez were also not in attendance.

Among the conservatives who did participate, many were careful in their speeches; Sen. Ted Cruz, who spoke at the convention but deliberately did not endorse Trump, even as the entire arena booed, was a chief example.

"A lot of people are there to think about their future in the party," University of Wisconsin Madison political science professor Barry Burden said. "They don't want to be attached to a sinking ship."

So instead, many speeches have targeted Clinton to find common ground, Burden said.

In essence, Clinton has become a symbol of unity in the Republican Party. And for a party that has been out of the White House for eight years, attacking the incumbent party is an easy and expected bite; George W. Bush was targeted in the 2008 Democratic convention, just as Bill Clinton was at the 2000 RNC, Scacco noted.

Polling supports this. A recent Washington Post/ABC poll found 57 percent of Trump’s support is coming as a vote against Clinton.

"Parties attempt to indict the incumbent president and with [him] the party's nominee," Scacco said. "Opposition to Hillary Clinton unites the party in a way that Trump cannot at this moment."