Political conventions traditionally feature exuberant and even intemperate rhetoric. But statements by speakers and delegates at the Republican National Convention pillorying Hillary Clinton as a criminal who ought to be locked up go way beyond pugnacious partisanship. The atmosphere at the convention in Cleveland this week at times has been reminiscent of a lynch mob.
Take Monday’s speech by retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who said the nation didn’t need a president “who believes she is above the law,” a reference to Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state. Fair enough, even though Flynn failed to add that the FBI and the Justice Department decided not to file criminal charges against Clinton. But then, responding to delegates’ shouts of “Lock her up,” Flynn shot back: “Yeah, that’s right, lock her up.”
Another speaker joining the mob to call for Clinton’s imprisonment was Patricia Smith, whose son Sean was one of four Americans killed in the Benghazi attack. Responding to a sign in the audience, Smith extemporized: “That’s right, ‘Hillary for Prison.’ She deserves to be in stripes.”
On Tuesday New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, introducing himself as a former federal prosecutor, conducted a call-and-response session in which delegates — whom he described as “a jury of her peers” — pronounced “Guilty!” as he reeled off a litany of supposed Clinton offenses. That most of them had nothing to do with alleged criminal activity (one of the charges was “ruining Libya”) didn’t make the exercise any less ugly. Nor did the fact that Christie didn’t call for Clinton’s imprisonment. Some delegates nevertheless added chants of “Lock her up!" to the chorus while holding their wrists together to simulate handcuffs.
It isn’t just on the convention floor that Clinton’s critics are calling for her to be imprisoned — or worse. On Tuesday a delegate from New Hampshire who advises the Trump campaign on veterans affairs said in a radio interview that Clinton should be “put in the firing line and shot for treason.” A pilot who doubles as a West Virginia legislator was suspended by United Airlines after he tweeted that Clinton should be tried for treason and then “hung on the Mall in Washington, D.C.”
Donald Trump has encouraged this unhinged rhetoric by calling Clinton “crooked Hillary” and saying that she “has to go to jail.” The chorus of “Lock her up” doesn’t put Clinton in any legal jeopardy, and it may not cost her the election. But it could hurt the country by making it harder for Republicans to work with her if she is elected even if they wanted to. How would they justify cooperating with someone their constituents have repeatedly been told is a criminal?
It’s not out of bounds to question a candidate’s character, and Clinton’s clearly is an issue in this campaign. But when one political party characterizes the candidate of the other as not just wrong but corrupt and criminal, the toxic effects are likely to linger long after Inauguration Day.