Politics & Policy

The Problem with ‘Lock Them Up’ Politics

Vendor at the 2016 Republican Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. (Reuters photo: Lucas Jackson)
The criminalization of political differences destroys what’s left of civility in our political culture.

For a year, Democrats listened to crowds at Trump rallies and even the delegates at the Republican National Convention engage in chants of “lock her up.” Today, the Internet is reverberating with Democrats engaging in some virtual revenge as the latest leaks about the investigation into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians have indicated that Jared Kushner is a “person of interest.”

That means liberals are chortling about the president’s son-in-law having to choose between a jail cell and informing on his wife’s father. Of course, even the Washington Post story that reported the leak indicated that Kushner is not a target of the investigation or even a principal focus of its activities and that he hasn’t actually been accused of any wrongdoing. But in a fishing expedition in search of a crime that no one can put his finger on — whether it is treason or incomplete disclosure forms — anyone can be a person of interest when he’s at the nexus of the Trump campaign and government like Kushner.

Of course, Ivanka’s husband isn’t the only one being fitted for an orange jumpsuit by Trump’s foes. Former national-security adviser Michael Flynn has already invoked his Fifth Amendment rights to avoid incrimination. It appears the former general didn’t report the money he got from a Putin propaganda outlet or the fees he was paid for lobbying for another authoritarian government, Turkey’s, when he was getting ready to work in the West Wing. That’s certainly fishy and might be criminal, but so far all we know is that he may have not told the truth about his activities and conversations. That’s enough to cause the wiseacres on morning talk shows to label the decorated veteran not merely a bad choice for the NSA but a Russian “spy.”

Flynn is, of course, in no position to complain about people hoping to see him in jail, since he was the one that led the crowd in “lock her up” chants at the GOP convention in Cleveland.

It’s important to state that if anyone on the Trump campaign really did collude with the Russians in any way with respect to the 2016 election, they do deserve to be locked up. The same applies to anyone else in the administration. That principle still is valid even if those now looking to nail Flynn, Kushner, or anyone up to and including the Donald on any possible charge in the past dismissed the very real apparent violations of regulations and laws involved in Hillary Clinton’s e-mail scandal as well as various other Obama administration scandals involving the IRS or actual spying on journalists. Nor were those treating Trump’s shifting excuses for firing FBI director James Comey as evidence of wrongdoing the least bit interested in the fact that the former secretary of state could never keep her story straight about her own potential legal problems.

But our real dilemma isn’t the threat to the integrity of our democratic system that Russian intervention supposedly posed or even whether the rule of law is imperiled by the inherently political considerations that make certain scandals worthy of special prosecutors while others that also involve serious issues are not.

The problem is that both parties seem to have lost the ability to oppose an administration or candidate without seeking to “lock up” the other side.

Let’s concede that the legal issues involved in Clinton’s handling of e-mails were not trivial and would have exposed a less exalted personage to serious jeopardy. The charges lodged about Flynn and collusion are also potentially serious, even if the accusations of treason against him and Trump may ultimately be grounded in nothing more than a desire by Democrats to make the bad dream of the 2016 election results go away. Nonetheless, the present climate is worrisome.

This isn’t the first time in our history that political differences have been criminalized. Using possible wrongdoing by political foes as an election tactic is as old as the republic. But the contemporary “lock them up” mentality is about something more than the old impulse to exchange one set of political rascals for another.

In our bifurcated society, in which the warring political camps read, listen, and watch different sets of media, the contrast has ceased to be one between the enlightened party you agree with and the unenlightened party you wish to throw out of power. The current process by which foes are delegitimized means that all too many Americans don’t merely disagree with their opponents. The questioning of motives has now escalated to the point where Democrats believe that Republicans are not merely hard-hearted tools of the corporate class but willing to commit treason to gain a political advantage or increase profits to private interests. That’s hardly surprising, since many on the right not only condoned Trump’s birther smears about Obama but actually thought Hillary Clinton wanted four Americans to be murdered by terrorists in Benghazi and deliberately exposed U.S. secrets to foreign powers.

The contemporary ‘lock them up’ mentality is about something more than the old impulse to exchange one set of political rascals for another.

It’s possible that Trump, Flynn, and Kushner are guilty of serious crimes, but at the moment the public evidence for that assertion is virtually nonexistent. The Russians may have wanted to influence the Trump campaign, but all we have to justify the notion that they actually got some takers among the president’s supporters or even family is pure innuendo. But liberals believe it because they have discarded the idea that our politics is a competition between two equally legitimate if opposing sets of ideas and people. Conservatives who wanted to “lock up” Hillary were, regardless of her shortcomings and mendacity, guilty of the same sort of thinking.

Our constitutional system is not foolproof, but it works best in the context of a civic culture rooted in virtue and respect for differences. After Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, neither party can claim to care much about virtue. And as both sides embrace a “lock them up” outlook, tolerance of opposing views in the public square has been discarded in favor of a Facebook-feed mentality in which all ideas and persons who don’t confirm our pre-existing prejudices and assumptions can be deleted and “defriended.”

The result isn’t just the collapse of civility that is taken for granted on both sides of the aisle but a political cycle in which the impulse to criminalize differences has become the default reaction to losing an election. If that is where we are, America is not merely a bifurcated nation but well on its way to banana-republic status.


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