I first realized Republicans fantasized about putting Hillary Clinton in jail back in January, at a retail campaign stop for Ted Cruz at a restaurant in Osage, Iowa. The conservative base was obviously furious about Benghazi and thought Clinton broke the law with her private e-mail server, but when the small crowd erupted at Cruz’s joke that “perhaps the presidential debate will have to be held in Leavenworth,” it was clear the idea of Clinton behind bars was truly firing people up.
Fast forward six months to Cleveland, where this has become one of the central themes of Donald Trump’s Republican National Convention. There is a plane circling the Quicken Loans Arena carrying a huge “Hillary for Prison” banner, courtesy of right-wing radio host Alex Jones. A large billboard truck with the same graphic is tooling around the convention perimeter.
Even the worst reading of Clinton’s conduct with classified information would not dictate that she serve serious prison time. But Trump—and the political party that has now officially selected him as their nominee—is now mainlining a concept normally reserved for Third World countries: that political opponents should be locked up.
“We all know she loves her pantsuits, but we should send her an e-mail, and tell her she deserves a bright orange jumpsuit,” declared Colorado senate candidate Darryl Glenn, one of the few promising young stars the RNC was able to lure to the stage. Patricia Smith, whose son Sean died during the attack in Benghazi, said “I blame Hillary Clinton personally for the death of my son” and added, in unscripted remarks, that “she deserves to be in stripes.” Retired General Michael Flynn, who was rumored to be a vice presidential possibility, also agreed that we should “lock her up.”
This all built to Chris Christie’s speech on Tuesday, when he quite literally led a show trial of Clinton in prime time. “Well, tonight, as a former federal prosecutor, I welcome the opportunity to hold her accountable for her performance and her character,” Christie said. “We must present those facts to you, a jury of her peers, both in this hall and in living rooms around our nation.” He ticked off a long list of Clinton transgressions and got into a call-and-response with the audience, who would proclaim Clinton “guilty!” in unison. Several times, a “lock her up” chant broke out.
In several interviews, delegates and other RNC attendees were enthralled by the idea. For months they had been told by GOP leaders far and wide that Clinton had broken the law with her e-mail server, so many had the predictable belief that Clinton deserved to be punished.