When President Donald Trump was displayed on screen at Nationals Park during Game 5 of the World Series Sunday night, he was greeted with a chorus of boos — and then, a chant of “lock him up.”
And since then, a debate has broken out among some critical of Trump in the political world. Was “lock him up” an acceptable way to taunt this perennially under-investigation president? Or was it a troubling sign of the deterioration of norms about the rule of law and political disagreement?
The context, of course, is that the chant is a variation of the “lock her up” chant — aimed at Hillary Clinton — that has been a mainstay of Trump events since 2016, and that Trump has been much-criticized for encouraging.
So MSNBC hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski argued Monday morning that the chants were “sickening” when Trump supporters did them — and that they were also “sickening” when aimed at Trump himself.
For that, the pair faced a torrent of Twitter criticism, mostly based around the retort that, actually, the two situations are quite different — either because of the differences between Trump and Clinton’s scandals, or the differing contexts (a baseball crowd vs. a political rally).
But within that backlash, there was an interesting split among some who argued that the sports fans shouldn’t be taken literally or seriously — and others who argued that, no, Trump really has committed serious crimes and he really should be in prison. The divide is a sign of differing viewpoints both on political rhetoric and on criminal prosecutions more generally.
The controversy comes just days after Trump’s own lawyer argued that, even if Trump murders someone in broad daylight, no charges can be brought against him while he is president. And despite the seemingly trivial setting, the incident does raise questions about how the Democratic Party will handle the issue of potential Trump administration criminality going forward.
How “lock her up” became “lock him up”
The now-infamous “lock her up” chant rocketed to national prominence at the Republican National Convention in July 2016.
The immediate context was that, just two weeks earlier, then-FBI Director James Comey had announced that he would recommend no charges against Hillary Clinton after investigating her use of a personal email account for State Department business — dashing Republicans’ hopes that Clinton would end up indicted.
But the fuller context is that, for decades, Republican base voters had been told by their politicians and media sources that the Clinton family was guilty of all sorts of nefarious crimes, from kooky mass murder conspiracy theories to supposed financial corruption. And if you become convinced that someone is a criminal, it’s natural to want her imprisoned.
So, in speech after speech at the convention, “lock her up” became the favorite chant of the crowd of delegates — sometimes egged on by speakers from the stage. After that, the chant became omnipresent at Trump rallies. Trump himself doesn’t lead the chant, but he usually stands by and lets it happen, and has sometimes chimed in with something to the effect of “lock her up is right.”
This struck many commentators as quite disturbing — Trump was running for the highest office in the nation on the platform that his opponent should be imprisoned. Furthermore, there was widespread consensus among legal analysts (except for some hardcore Republican partisans) that Clinton’s conduct in the email case wasn’t chargeable. Comey insisted that “no reasonable prosecutor” would bring such a case. But Trump responded by simply asserting that this was all the corrupt Obama administration trying to protect Clinton.
After Trump won the presidency, he continued to try and politicize the Justice Department, urging prosecutors to investigate his opponents — and though Clinton remains un-indicted, many are wary that a recent investigation into the origins of the Russia probe is just that. However, a plethora of Trump associates (from campaign chair Paul Manafort to national security adviser Michael Flynn to lawyer Michael Cohen) have been convicted of or pleaded guilty to crimes.
Additionally, Trump’s own activities have been scrutinized by special counsel Robert Mueller and prosecutors in the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. But Mueller ended up deciding to take no position on whether Trump committed criminal obstruction of justice — in part because the Justice Department had previously held that a sitting president can’t be indicted. And though SDNY’s probe spurred Cohen to say in court that he violated campaign finance law by making hush-money payments at Trump’s instruction, prosecutors have taken no further action in the case for unclear reasons.
Meanwhile, Trump’s critics also point to other potentially criminal conduct — from sexual assault allegations to apparent corruption involving his business — that seems not to have even been seriously investigated by law enforcement.
Into all this comes the World Series crowd
So then, on Sunday night, came the baseball crowd chant that launched a thousand takes:
Naturally, Trump-supporting conservatives weren’t enthused about all this. But a split quickly manifested among Trump critics as well.
For instance, several commentators who focus on legal issues felt rather queasy about seeing this favorite tactic of Trump’s used against him — believing in the importance of due process, and feeling hesitant to argue that anyone be “locked up” before a fair trial.
Others intermingled this due process concern with more of a focus on “civility” or, as Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) put it, a belief that “the office of the president deserves respect, even when the actions of our president at times don’t.”
Coons added, “It reminds me of things that happen in countries where rule of law is unknown or unestablished. And sort of whipping up public furor on both sides, I don’t think is constructive or helpful.”
MSNBC’s Scarborough and Brzezinski voiced similar views. “It’s un-American,” Scarborough complained. “It’s sickening. We are Americans, and we do not do that. We do not want the world hearing us chant ‘lock him up’ to this president or to any president.”
The interesting split among those who defended the chant
Other Trump critics responded with scorn or derision at those rebukes, seeing them as an attempt to chide baseball fans for not protesting the president properly. But while this second group of critics was united in agreement that the chant was fine, there seems to be an underlying difference in their reasons for coming to that conclusion.
Some commentators, for instance, stressed the particular context here — that this was a crowd taunting an incumbent president to his face with his own words, making it more of a form of protest, in contrast to a crowd urging a potential (or actual) president to lock up despised political opponents:
What’s seemingly implicit in these arguments is that, in a different context — say, a Democratic presidential campaign — chants of “lock him up” aimed at Trump would indeed be inappropriate.
However, other chant defenders took a different tack, arguing that Trump’s alleged crimes are indeed far worse than Hillary Clinton’s, and do indeed merit his “locking up.”
All this would seemingly imply that, yes, Democratic crowds chanting in favor of Trump’s imprisonment would be perfectly appropriate — because he should in fact be charged and imprisoned. (Though there is some variation in what, exactly, these critics think Trump should be imprisoned for — as there was for Clinton’s critics.)
Partly, this is a debate about political rhetoric and messaging. Trump made the case that Clinton was corrupt by simply stating that she should be in prison. Now that Democrats are faced with the challenge of convincing voters Trump is corrupt, some wonder, should they really hold back, when they feel his behavior is far more egregious?
There’s also a revealing difference in temperament seen in Sen. Coons’s comments that “whipping up public furor” isn’t “helpful.” Those with this viewpoint fear mob justice or the politicization of justice, and prefer that decisions about criminal charges be left in the hands of the professionals. But others believe the pendulum has swung too far toward elite impunity — they no longer trust the professionals to properly hold the powerful accountable.
And this debate that may not be purely rhetorical forever. If a Democratic candidate does win next year’s elections, he or she will get to staff the top levels of the Justice Department in early 2021. That new administration will face a series of choices about whether it’s best to just move on — or, perhaps, whether to try and lock some people up.