President Donald Trump rarely ventures out in public before crowds that aren’t predisposed to like him. His Sunday evening jaunt to Washington, D.C.’s Nationals Park was a rare exception. When the Jumbotron briefly showed him during Game 5 of the World Series on Sunday, the crowd erupted into a loud chorus of boos and a smattering of cheers. A fair number of those present also began chanting “lock him up,” a variant of the phrase that his own rallies etched into the American political lexicon. These received a pointed chiding on Monday from journalists and politicians alike.
“It really amazing how many Libs [sic] can’t even permit Trump to have *one good day* (nobody will remember this stuff by Tuesday) after US forces kill perhaps the world’s most wanted terrorist,” FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver opined on Twitter. “Frankly I think the office of the president deserves respect, even when the actions of our president at times don’t,” Delaware Senator Chris Coons said in a CNN interview. “We are Americans, and we do not do that,” MSNBC host Joe Scarborough told viewers during his Monday morning broadcast. “We do not want the world hearing us chant ‘Lock him up’ to this president, or to any president.”
We don’t? Why not? Most Americans, unlike the president, have no special affection for the foreign dictatorships that make a habit of tamping down any or all public displays of dissent. A Pew survey in February found that two-thirds of Americans hold mostly or very unfavorable views of Saudi Arabia and Syria. Three-fourths said the same thing about Russia, while nine in ten of them said it about North Korea. “The world” knows this, too. Demonstrators in Hong Kong aren’t waving American flags because they think we fetishize a reflexive deference to our own leaders.
All of this handwringing communicates a skewed idea of how power works and how it should work. Roughly 44,000 spectators attended Sunday’s game, but only one of them can actually command the Justice Department to go after his political rivals. It’s no threat to the American republic when the crowd at a baseball game spontaneously turns a demagogue’s illiberal rhetoric against him. If anything, it’s a healthy sign. What’s more troubling—and perhaps more dangerous–is the idea that the president should be immune to public scorn simply because he’s the president.
Generally speaking, there’s a strong taboo in liberal democracies against calling for one’s political opponents to be arrested or imprisoned outright, even when there’s evidence of criminal behavior. This is not a free pass. It’s acceptable and necessary to call for political figures who are accused of wrongdoing to resign from office, to demand that they be fired or dismissed, and to urge the electorate to not vote for them. Authoritarian regimes have a tendency to criminalize opposition or dissent; the taboo, in theory, helps prevent free societies from falling into the same habit.
Trump, for his part, doesn’t seem to care about political norms or taboos as a matter of principles. He invokes them when it suits him and violates them when it doesn’t. He threatened to jail Hillary Clinton throughout the 2016 campaign, then claimed he was the victim of a “witch hunt” when his own behavior during that election came under the Justice Department’s scrutiny. He often describes the House’s impeachment inquiry as a would-be coup d’etat, while demanding that California Representative Adam Schiff, that inquiry’s lead figure, be arrested for treason. There is no intellectual or philosophical consistency at work here, only pure self-interest.
When all other things are equal, it might be troubling for any crowd to chant that a political figure should be jailed. The problem is also whether elected officials encourage the chants and use them to justify their abuses of power, or whether they discourage it when given the chance. Andrew Scheer, the leader of Canada’s Conservative Party, intervened earlier this month when a campaign rally in Ontario began chanting “lock him up” while he criticized Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “We’re going to vote him out,” Scheer told the crowd. “Vote him out! Vote him out!” (Trudeau later won the election even though Scheer’s party received the most votes.) Elizabeth Warren, one of Trump’s potential Democratic rivals, also stopped a similar chant at a Nevada rally earlier this month aimed at a pro-Trump protester who disrupted it.
All things weren’t equal during Sunday’s burst of public outrage, even though observers like Scarborough thought they were. “So let’s see if I’ve got this straight: When crowds chant ‘Lock her up’ toward Hillary, it is illiberal and anti-American. (I agree),” he wrote on Twitter. “But when crowds chant the same toward Trump, it is suddenly a fulsome exercise of sacred First Amendment rights. What hypocritical clowns.” Pro-Trump and anti-Trump crowds alike have the First Amendment right to chant “lock him/her up,” of course. But the average crowd-goer can’t actually lock anyone up. The president can.
Do Sunday’s events normalize Trump’s illiberal behavior? Context matters. Nobody orchestrated the “lock him up” cheers among the crowd. They arose spontaneously at a sporting event where the president happened to appear, not at a political rally where one of his opponents sought to remove him from office. And they weren’t directed at just any random public official. They were aimed at the president who’s done more than anyone since Richard Nixon to defy the principle that the state’s power to investigate and prosecute shouldn’t be abused to destroy one’s political opponents. This wasn’t a harbinger of creeping illiberalism; it was a mocking repudiation of it.
It’s also worth noting that being locked up is a potential problem for Trump when he leaves office. Contrary to Coons’ remarks, the crowd wasn’t reacting to the abstract office of the president, but a flesh-and-blood man who’s been accused of multiple crimes. Special counsel Robert Mueller strongly suggested that he only didn’t charge Trump with obstructing justice because DOJ policy immunizes sitting presidents. Michael Cohen told Congress in February that Trump would fraudulently inflate and deflate the value of his properties to avoid paying taxes, a claim that some of the available documents seem to support. Dozens of women have credibly accused him of sexual misconduct, including harassment, assault, and rape.
This doesn’t justify “lock him up” chants at Democratic rallies. If anything, Trump’s wrongdoing makes it more urgent that candidates tamp down such rhetoric so they can better insulate any prosecution from his counter-attacks. But the baseball crowd’s spontaneous chants have a different valence. Trump’s response to all this is that he’s effectively untouchable. Last week, Trump’s lawyers told the Second Circuit Court of Appeals that local Manhattan prosecutors could take no action against their client if he hypothetically shot and killed a man in the middle of Fifth Avenue, at least so long as he’s the president. He asserted in July that Article II, the part of the Constitution that defines the executive branch, gives him “the right to do whatever I want as president.” The crowd at Nationals Park has disagreed.
There’s nothing wrong with civility as an ideal. It only goes awry when it is invoked as a cheap means of favoring power over principle and collegiality over consequences. Indeed, if Trump faces actual consequences for his wrongdoing after leaving office, there will be those who argue against it in the interest of civil peace. The last president to be ousted from office received a pardon from his successor. Barack Obama decided to “look forward” after taking office in 2009, allowing Bush administration officials to go unpunished for torture and other crimes. Only a single financial executive on Wall Street went to prison for his role in the crash. The sense that elites get away with things that other Americans wouldn’t helped elevate Trump to the White House. It would be a mistake if that impunity also extended to his actions once there.