There Is Nothing Wrong With the "Lock Him Up!" Chants

by Neil H. Buchanan

After this week's Democratic presidential debate, a very stern columnist for The Washington Post chastised Senator Bernie Sanders for giving the wrong answer to Rachel Maddow's question about recent chants of "Lock him up!" at various gatherings, including at some Sanders rallies.  Stephen Stromberg instructed us as follows:
"The right answer is: 'It is understandable that people are frustrated with President Trump. But everyone else should resist stooping to his level. I wish people would not do Trump-like chants at my rallies.'"
But Sanders "bomb[ed] the ‘lock him up’ test," said Stromberg, by instead saying: "Well, I think the people of this country are catching on to the degree that this president thinks he is above the law. And what the American people are saying is: Nobody is above the law." Or, as Stromberg characterized it: "Instead, Sanders essentially said, “Well, people think the president is a criminal.'"

Remember, this was the WRONG ANSWER.  There is but one acceptable answer, and only if Sanders had said the right words -- "Hey guys, I wish you wouldn't go low like Trump's voters" -- would he have aced the test.

There might be reasonable disagreements about how one feels about "Lock him up!" chants, but this is silly.  What is going on?

One of the odd things about writing multiple columns per week is that it is all too possible to forget what one has written.  This can take many forms, the most common of which is to repeat an argument (not on purpose) that I have made in a previous column, which can cause a moment of embarrassment when I am reminded of the previous column.  Because arguments often need to be repeated and reformulated, however, this is not necessarily a bad thing even when it is inadvertent.

A different form of too-many-columns-to-remember amnesia is simply forgetting about a column entirely.  A month or so ago, I was having a conversation with Professor Dorf and started to make what I thought was a very important point.  Cutting me off (politely), he responded: "Yes, you wrote your column on that subject last week."  Duly chastened.

Earlier this week, I was glancing through the "dashboard" for this blog, and I noticed that I had fairly recently written a column about the possibility that we would soon hear "Lock him up!" chants at Democratic rallies.  The publication date was August 6, which is notable because it was before the incident at Game 5 of the World Series in which Washington Nationals fans spontaneously booed Donald Trump and then began the fateful chant.

Indeed, August 6 was long before anyone thought that the Nationals could possibly make the playoffs, much less beat the Dodgers or Astros.  In turn, it was almost three months before the good feelings about the Nats' surprise win were summarily trashed when a player donned a MAGA hat at the White House and smiled while Trump hugged him.  Time flies.

After that audience chant at Game 5, Senator Chris Coons reached for the smelling salts and penned a reprimand for The Washington Post: "‘Lock him up’? We’re better than that."  To be clear, I quite like Coons, whom I knew when he was in college (during which time he had an admirable moral epiphany and changed from being a Reagan-loving young conservative to a moderate Democrat), but this op-ed is an all-too-predictable example of the infuriating tendency among a certain type of Democrats to over-criticize themselves and doubt everything that they and their supporters do.

And although Coons's op-ed was not as annoyingly judgmental as Stromberg's (because being aggressively judgmental would itself be something that Coons would condemn), I have to say that Coons was doing something worse in his op-ed.  That is, whereas Stromberg was at least directing his ire at a specific person who most likely has the stature to make the chants stop, Coons was simply scolding a group of people who organically started to do something that they clearly enjoyed.

While there is nothing wrong with expressing the hope that groups will act in various ways (and not in other ways), the "we're better than this" formulation struck me as classic concern trolling, which I have never liked because it allows an author to pretend to be concerned about form rather than substance (and is also smarmy, smug, and/or unctuous -- take your pick -- to boot).  "I agree with you that he's a criminal, guys, but do you have to be so in-your-face about it?"

In any case, because I honestly do not remember writing my August 6 column, I also do not remember what motivated me to write it.  In it, I made no references to any recent incidents, so maybe I simply had one of those moments when I anticipated something that was all but inevitable.  No matter the reason for writing the column, however, I have to say that I quite agree with the oddly familiar stranger who wrote it.

In particular, I still see no reason why sarcasm should not be part of the arsenal in a political campaign. The reason that people at Nationals Park joined in the chanting, after all, was surely because they liked the wicked joke that it contained.  "Your crowds chant 'Lock her up!" all the time without the slightest hint as to what crime Hillary Clinton supposedly committed, and after she was exonerated by a full investigation.  You were not indicted because the Justice Department said you cannot be indicted; but that doesn't mean you won't eventually go to jail."

Of course, Coons and Stromberg (and other concerned souls) argue that it is bad for partisans to call for their opponents to be jailed, because (in Coons's words) "in the United States, we don’t simply lock up politicians we disagree with, and we shouldn’t chant about wanting to either."  As I wrote back in August, that is simply an inane way to think about this, and it is indeed an especially dishonest example of false equivalence.

Again, the anti-Trump chants can only be understood as a direct response to the Trump crowds' chants for the last three-plus years.  And I say that not in the sense that "they did it first," but in the essential sense that the anti-Trump version is -- to repeat -- a response to years of howling mobs calling for banana republic-style political hit jobs.  A response, that is, that says: "Yes, there honestly is a time when it is essential that one's political opponents go to jail, and that time is when they are actually guilty of crimes."

As my doppelgänger noted in August, it is of course possible to add a bunch of qualifiers about the circumstances under which Trump should be locked up, but he/I then argued that any such "qualifiers -- if he really did it, if a jury of his peers finds him guilty after due process is provided -- are implicit in a way that simply is not present in the ravings of Trump and his supporters," concluding:
"Based on everything we know, Donald Trump has committed multiple crimes, both before and after the 2016 election. If the facts as we know them are true, and if he is properly prosecuted, and if he is found guilty by a duly-empaneled jury, then he should go to jail. And short-handing that statement would not be proof that a speaker was just as bad as Trump."
Maybe Stromberg is right that Sanders should urge his supporters to take a higher road.  On the other hand, Sanders did not say that he approved of the chants.  As Stromberg described it, after Sanders explained that Americans are unhappy that Trump thinks he is above the law, Sanders "pivoted to talk about how the country would unite around his agenda."

That does not sound like someone who is inciting his crowds to revel in un-American political thuggery.  Instead, it sounds like someone who thinks that Maddow's question was frankly an attempt to create a distracting issue out of thin air and that there are better ways to spend one's allotted 75 seconds.

Would I start such a chant or join in, if I were at a rally?  Probably not, but so what?  This chant is something that actually makes an important point, which is that the true lawbreaker is Donald Trump.  People like Stromberg and Coons can gnash their teeth and wish that Democrats' supporters were all better behaved girls and boys, and maybe that truly would convince centrist voters that it is not true that both sides are the same.

At the very least, however, it is essential not to slander the chanters by claiming falsely that they are making the same immoral argument that Trump's voters are making.  Trump should be impeached, convicted by the Senate and removed from office, and then indicted and given due process in a court of law.  Based on everything that we know, he would then be found guilty by any jury that looks fairly at the law and evidence, at which point he should be locked up.

That is not, contra Coons, wanting to "simply lock up politicians we disagree with."  It is wanting to lock up people who have (brazenly and without remorse) broken the law.  That sounds very American to me.