This is also not how democracies work. Elected officials do not jail their foes. The Constitution specifically prohibits bills of attainder—legislation designed to punish individuals, thereby circumventing the judicial process—to bar despotic rulers from persecuting their opponents. The jailing of political opponents is a feature of repressive dictatorships, not vibrant democracies.
But it is fully in keeping with how Trump’s campaign has worked. He accepted the nomination in Cleveland in July. The defining chant of that convention was not, “Make America Great Again.” It was “Lock Her Up!”
And on Sunday, that’s exactly what Trump vowed to do.
On the convention floor in Cleveland, I wandered over to the New York seats. Here were the delegates from Trump’s home state, who’d also been represented in the Senate by his Democratic opponent. I wanted them to explain to me what the chant meant to them. Did they literally wish to put Clinton behind bars?
“She’s mean and nasty,” said Tony Scannapieco, the Republican chair of New York’s Putnam County. “She’s a crook. She should be locked up.” David DiPietro, a state assemblyman from Erie County, had also joined the chant. He felt that she’d intimidated FBI Director James Comey into not pursuing charges. He “didn’t want to be found dead,” DiPietro said. “It’s as simple as that.” Bill Reilich, the town supervisor of Greece, New York, was equally emphatic. “99.9 percent of the people are law abiding citizens, and they know that if they break the law there will be consequences,” he said.
Not every delegate I tracked down felt the same.
Josh Filler, a delegate from Maine, told me the chant was “a euphemism for ‘hold her accountable,’” and was frustrated that the media insisted on taking it literally. The chant, explained North Carolina delegate Rion Choate, was just a way to “say that she’s wrong for the country; that she’s not been honest.” Like a lot of the delegates with whom I spoke, he was upset by FBI Director James Comey’s press conference, which he felt had short-circuited the process. “I think that Director Comey should have let due process of law proceed,” he told me.
Many were angry at what they perceived as a double standard, one that led to ordinary Americans being punished for rules a privileged elite could casually flout. Outside, at a protest, I met Donald Philip Larson, the Republican nominee in Ohio’s 9th congressional district. He told me he’d been a communications officer on a fast frigate; if he’d brought home classified communications as Hillary had done, he said, he’d have landed in jail. “I think it’s very dangerous when someone running for president is held to a different set of rules,” said Kyle Kilgore, a 22-year-old delegate from Virginia.
Wes Nakagiri walked around the convention floor in an orange prison jumpsuit, wearing a Hillary Clinton mask. (Actually, the Michigan delegate told me, it was sold as a ‘female presidential candidate’ mask, but Hillary’s features were unmistakable.) “Hillary has trouble with the truth,” he said. “I’m sure everyone here knows; I’m not sure everyone in America knows what she did.” He, too, was chanting “Lock her up,” but he mused that it might be “better for Trump that she’s not locked up,” because her continued freedom illustrated a system rigged in favor of insiders.