In a moment of nostalgia for his fans, the crowd at President Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign kickoff rally in Orlando, Florida, harkened back to one of their favorite chants of 2016. Unable to resist the temptation to relive some of his greatest hits, Trump took shots at Hillary Clinton, whom he defeated to win the presidency, even before mentioning any of the two dozen Democrats vying to face him next year. The audience lapped it up as they always have and, on cue, responded to mentions of Hillary’s email scandal with a “lock her up” chant.
While those chants provoked some of the same disgust from Trump critics as they did in the past, there was far less tut-tutting about the spectacle of supporters of one political party demanding not just the defeat of an opponent, but her imprisonment.
The reason for the relative lack of outrage from mainstream media commentators was due in part to the silliness of Trump and his fans still pounding away at a defeated foe. But the main reason had little to do with their opinions of Trump. Rather, it is because Democratic presidential candidates and party leaders, and not just the crowds at their rallies, have been saying much the same thing.
Trump Isn’t Guilty of Collusion, So Now What?
Democrats spent much of the last two years fantasizing about the special counsel probe proving a conspiracy theory about Trump colluding with Russians to steal the election from Clinton. Robert Mueller failed to produce any such proof, killing Democrats’ hopes that he could make the bad dream from 2016 go away by taking down the Trump presidency.
Nor could he prove the claim the president had thwarted the investigation in any material way. But his report threw enough shade at the president on that issue that it is now an article of faith on the left that Trump was guilty of obstructing justice even if more sober Democrats know the charge could never be proven in court.
That has led to an escalation in the tone of anti-Trump rhetoric from Democrats. Indeed, as part of her effort to fend off left-wing members of her caucus demanding Democrats drag the country through a futile impeachment process, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told senior Democrats that she was not so much interested in impeaching Trump as she was in seeing him “in prison.”
Even more troubling are the promises from some of those vying to replace him in the White House that once in the Oval Office, their Department of Justice (DOJ) will seek to prosecute Trump. That was the vow of Kamala Harris, as well as of Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke. There’s little doubt that in the Democratic debates and on the campaign trail, their more left-wing competitors won’t be outdone in demonstrating their zeal for seeing Trump led away in handcuffs.
There is no difference between Trump’s vows to have Clinton’s email scandal probed in 2016 and what the Democrats are saying about the various fishing expeditions the House is conducting into any conduct before, during, and after the election on Trump’s part that might somehow be transformed into a criminal prosecution. That’s why some liberal legal commentators are echoing the same warnings about such statements that they uttered three years ago when Republican crowds first began chanting their desire for Clinton’s imprisonment.
Prosecution as a Political Tactic Is Un-American
Liberals may now dismiss retired Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz’s views because of his belief in the illegitimacy of the Mueller investigation and special prosecutor offices. But the longtime liberal legal thinker was right in saying, “It’s so un-American to prosecute your political enemies. That’s what they do in banana republics.”
The problem is not just that it’s not the president’s job to instruct the DOJ about which people they should be prosecuting, it’s that this sort of rhetoric is the product of a way of thinking in which political opponents aren’t merely to be debated and defeated at the polls, but delegitimized and treated as criminals.
As those who cheered Trump’s taunts of Clinton now see, it isn’t only one side of the political aisle that can be tempted into playing this game. Indeed, liberals are probably far more obsessed with the notion that Trump is a criminal who has evaded justice than conservatives were about the way they believed Clinton escaped accountability for her breaches of security protocols.
The problems created by this sort of thinking go way beyond the loss of an atmosphere of civility in which fellow citizens who differ on the great issues of the day will ultimately agree to disagree and abide by the verdict of the voters. Civility is not, as some may now claim, a secondary concern in a constitutional republic where the true test of democracy is the peaceful handover of power between the political parties.
But a country in which the two parties are convinced that their opponents aren’t merely wrong, but criminals who must be brought to justice, is one in which the normal constitutional order is in peril. Bitter political rivalries were not invented in the 21st century. But the principle that has governed the way such contests are decided ever since John Adams reluctantly turned over the government to Thomas Jefferson after his defeat in the 1800 presidential election cannot hold up if political differences become routinely criminalized.
Treating election results as binding and to be respected regardless of their outcomes was another principle Democrats worried about in 2016 when some Trump supporters voiced the opinion that the only way he could lose was fraud. Yet as soon as Trump won, that is exactly what Democrats began to do, as they have treated the 2016 results as something to overturn rather than reluctantly respect. They’ve continued this practice after 2018 when they refused to accept the legitimacy of the Georgia gubernatorial election.
Is Peaceful Transition of Power Threatened?
The real danger is not the death of civility but that if you think the other side is criminal, you won’t play by the normal rules of American democracy and learn to live with it if they win elections. Once you begin thinking of your opponents as criminals, then any means, fair or foul, becomes acceptable to prevent them from attaining or keeping power regardless of the legal niceties.
Many Republicans think Clinton should have been prosecuted over her security breaches. And most Democrats believe Trump is guilty of crimes even if they define them, let alone have confidence that such charges could be successfully prosecuted.
Those opinions have been reinforced by our bifurcated political culture in which we read, listen to, and watch different media. W no longer believe in the same facts about issues (let alone how they should be decided).
That breeds not merely an unhealthy contempt for opponents, but also a tendency toward situational ethics in which the party and politicians you support are excused for the same behavior for which you demand jail time for their opponents. Even worse, the perception that the future of the republic is at stake in this contest also creates a sense that any tactic aimed at defeating opponents is to be preferred to electoral defeat.
One needn’t excuse anything Clinton, Trump, or any other Democrat or Republican has done to understand that this mindset is toxic to our political culture in ways that go far beyond the damage we think our opponents will do if they gain control of the government. The most distressing aspect of this trend is the lack of faith in the ability of our constitutional systems to survive bad presidents.
As hyperbolic as this panic on both the left and the right may be, the real danger to liberty is that the loss of faith in the system can lead to criminalizing the differences we have with political opponents. Both parties need to return to the normal business of debating policies and ideas rather than vowing to imprison each other. The alternative is nothing less than the transformation of America into a banana republic.