Ever since Tim Snyder wrote “On Tyranny” and Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt penned “How Democracies Die,” it has been chic to say that the common democratic values that bind our country are imperiled. This comes out particularly strongly when President Donald Trump tweets about being in office past 2024, or when commentators fret about whether Trump would try to cling to power even if he lost at the ballot box.
I have found most of these scenarios pretty ludicrous, but Tom Pepinsky wrote a very, very disturbing essay in Politico that did get me to worrying. His argument is that polarization in the U.S. has spread beyond policy disagreements to more fundamental disagreements about the U.S. political regime: “It’s called ‘regime cleavage,’ a division within the population marked by conflict about the foundations of the governing system itself — in the American case, our constitutional democracy. In societies facing a regime cleavage, a growing number of citizens and officials believe that norms, institutions and laws may be ignored, subverted or replaced. ... “Regime cleavages emerge only in governing systems in crisis, and our democracy is indeed in crisis.”
We can see this in the behavior of Trump and his acolytes in response to impeachment, a process that is as enshrined in the Constitution as, say, the Electoral College. Trump repeatedly has tried to delegitimize the process by calling it a “coup.” In the past few days, he has gone so far as to encourage the media to name the whistleblower and claim that he would be going after one of his own NSC staffers.
Really, though, for Trump and his supporters, this started with the “lock her up” chants in 2016 and his claim that he would prosecute opponent Hillary Clinton if he was elected. That was and remains extremely dangerous rhetoric. Jailing one’s political opponents is a surefire way for Freedom House to downgrade a country from “free” to “partly free.” (Trump supporters may claim Clinton committed real crimes, but after an extensive State Department investigation, it turns out that just ain’t so.)
Clinton is not in prison, even though the “lock her up” chants persist at Trump rallies. Those chants are still inappropriate. One of the problems with Trump encouraging this kind of rhetoric is that it begets outbidding and escalation. When Trump attended Game 5 of the World Series, chants of “lock him up!” rang out in Nationals Park, prompting considerable debate about the appropriateness of such chants. It seemed to be a spontaneous act of the fans, much like when Trump got booed (and cheered) at the UFC championship over the weekend.
A Nov. 3 event, however, felts different. The Washington Examiner’s John Gage reported: “Rep. Ilhan Omar blasted President Trump during a rally for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders by saying he was defending neo-Nazis and ‘coddling’ white nationalists, which drew ‘lock him up’ chants from the crowd.” Later on, the chant recurred during Sanders’ speech.
Let’s stipulate that Trump opened up this Pandora’s box three years ago during the 2016 campaign (and some Bernie supporters went there as well). Let’s further stipulate that among President Trump’s multiple impeachable offenses while in office are acceptance of foreign emoluments, obstruction of justice and abuse of power.
This is still a disturbing chant, however, and I wish Sanders had shut it down. If Trump loses in 2020 and does face criminal prosecution, it will be incumbent on the next president to do everything in his or her power to makes such an action be entirely about the rule of law rather than political retribution. Tolerating “lock him up” chants reeks of mob justice, which is pretty antithetical to the rule of law. It epitomizes the shift from political cleavage to regime cleavage.
Furthermore, if these chants become more frequent, there is a practical effect on Trump’s behavior. The more convinced he becomes that losing in 2020 would imperil his freedom, the more likely he will push for even more egregious forms of cheating than extorting the Ukrainian president to get dirt on the Bidens. You name the dirty deed, Trump will embrace it if he knows his only other recourse is prison.
Am I holding Sanders and other Democrats to a higher standard than Trump? You are gosh-darn right I am.
I do not want to vote for someone who plays with the same illiberal fire as Trump. I certainly do not want to see outbidding by Trumpists as to which side will apply the law with greater vengeance.
Please, let “lock him up” be confined to spontaneous baseball crowds. Do not let it be a staple of Democratic rallies.