Whether the controversies surrounding her are real or dreamed up by Republicans, Hillary Clinton is generally blessed with good enemies. They can be counted on to invent ghoulish conspiracy theories (Vince Foster, Benghazi) out of nothing, or to identify a legitimate impropriety (her email practices as secretary of state) and react so out of proportion (suggesting, for instance, that the squeaky-clean conservative FBI director, James Comey, is covering up her crimes) that the story becomes about their outlandishness, rather than her conduct.
If we can whittle last week’s Republican National Convention debacle down to a partisan campaign story, it is probably that: Given four full nights to produce a live pro-Trump, anti-Clinton prime-time infomercial, the Trump campaign and the GOP created a spectacle. They left sane observers wondering whether blaming Clinton for the deaths of Americans in Benghazi, or at the hands of unauthorized immigrants, or just the general climate of Clinton hatred is appropriate. The convention accompanied, by no coincidence, a small outpouring of Republican officials claiming Clinton should be hanged, shot, or otherwise executed by the state for treason.
At the end of the day, the whole thing might have generated empathy for her where none existed before.
But the RNC wasn’t only defined by classic Republican overreach. It was in many ways similar to a conservative talk radio convention, or the annual CPAC convention in Washington, D.C., teeming with fanatics, where all incentives pointed to maximizing shock value. Out of that primordial soup of grievance and conspiracy theory grew an organic theme that coursed through the entire event.
Every night, at multiple interludes, the attendees spontaneously chanted “lock her up,” as if it were a harmless political platitude like “four more years,” or “hey hey, ho ho, Hilary has got to go.” They were frequently egged on by speakers on stage, who either implied that Clinton had escaped jail time through corruption or agreed with the crowd explicitly.
The impropriety of the rhetoric and the frankly unsettling mob-like mentality that inspired it have been widely commented upon already. But Republicans were broadly untroubled by any of it. “It’s just political rhetoric,” RNC chairman Reince Priebus told Mark Leibovich of The New York Times. “They’ll get over it.”
They were untroubled because it was different from the kind of overreach that normally gets Republicans in trouble. It may even redound to their political advantage, which is why the Clinton campaign needs to figure out how to deal with it. Her convention this week will surely focus on uplifting things, as a contrast to the bleak picture of America that Trump painted. But her surrogates should also seize the opportunity to remind the public and the media that this isn’t a banana republic, and we do not jail people who’ve committed no crime just because they’re our political enemies.
Political overreach tends to follow a pretty basic formula: Take something fundamentally true, a piece of bad news for the other party, and turn it into a reflection of your own lack of self-control. But the Clinton imprisonment fantasy theme of the convention, while certainly unconstrained, is far more diffuse than, say, fomenting Benghazi conspiracy theories, or implicating Comey in imaginary corruption. “Lock her up” isn’t an official party statement the way the creation of a new select committee is. It is less about any explicit connection to Clinton’s email server than creating a hazy sense that her candidacy, her right to contest this election, is illegitimate.
This kind of tactic isn’t new to the revanchist politics of the modern Republican Party. It was the subtext of GOP opposition to Bill Clinton in the 1990s and the actual text of right-wing attacks on Barack Obama. Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, built his appeal within the party five years ago as a leader of the birther movement.
But there are two surface differences between the notion that Obama’s an exotic foreigner born abroad and that Clinton escaped prison time she deserved thanks to her corrupt connections in the government. While both are outrageously false, birtherism is both easily refuted and a ticket to marginalization. Obama’s birth certificate is what it is and public officials or pols who call his citizenship into question will be identified as racists and rewarded with an angry and energized Democratic base.
By contrast, to suggest Clinton committed a crime, and, through a network of cronies, got away with it, isn’t a racialized (or in this case gendered) attack the way birtherism is, and it places Clinton in the impossible position of proving a negative. Comey said “no reasonable prosecutor” would charge Clinton with a crime—well, what does that prove? To the brave handful of GOP officials who’ve condemned the “lock her up” theme, it was the coda to a story about Clinton’s conduct as secretary of state, the moral of which is that Republicans will have to beat Clinton at the polls. But to the rest it’s just a way to thicken the miasma of malfeasance they’ve wafted around the Clintons for decades. If you’re a not-particularly-enthusiastic Democrat, and you hear Republicans are calling Obama a Muslim foreigner, it might strengthen your attachment to him. Hear instead that Clinton would be in jail if she weren’t playing by a different set of rules and you might start to believe it. She can’t hold up a certificate proving her critics wrong.
That presents a challenge for her surrogates, and really for her entire messaging apparatus. It’s a problem to have this stench lingering in the air, but just as difficult to address without playing into the hands of her opponents, who’d love nothing more than to turn “lock her up” into a matter of partisan debate. (“Should Clinton be jailed? Some say yes, some say no!”) But a deft communicator could discredit “lock her up” not by protesting too much on Clinton’s behalf, but by treating it as the unhinged chant of a pitchfork-wielding mob that would claim power by imprisoning political enemies. They couldn’t beat Obama, so they questioned his eligibility for office; they’re losing to Clinton, so they want her dead or in jail. These are authoritarian instincts that must be opposed.
Predicting the political fallout of an event like the RNC or of a new ubiquitous talking point like “lock her up” is pure guesswork, and it might be the case that the air of vigilantism around the whole thing will make non-Republicans more sympathetic to Clinton. But on top of all the troubling democratic implications of a major political party believing the opposition party’s leader belongs in prison, Republicans may have successfully damaged Clinton with a false but powerful narrative. And if that’s the case, she will need to be prepared to deal with it.