If there’s one slogan that encapsulates what is happening at the Republican convention in Cleveland it is not any of the official ones. Not Donald Trump’s ‘Make America great again’ or his ‘America First’ line with its awkward echoes of American fascists through the ages. Instead it is the one emblazoned on thousands of T-shirts worn inside the convention centre or flogged on every street corner.
‘Hillary for prison 2016’ has become the theme of the Grand Old Party’s summer gathering in Cleveland, the one unifying force as party officials try to bring Republicans together around their most divisive candidate in generations.
Freddy Gray and Scott McConnell discuss the American tragedy with Isabel Hardman:
It is displayed on delegates’ chests in the form of badges featuring Hillary’s face behind bars. It is brandished on home-made banners in Public Square, an open space given over to demonstrators and counter-demonstrators. At times it has been overhead, trailed behind a plane sponsored by a right-wing shock jock.
And it has become a rallying cry inside the convention centre, where speakers have demanded Clinton’s prosecution for her role in the Benghazi attack of 2012 (when as secretary of state she was accused of covering up details of how four American citizens were killed), for her use of a personal email server rather than a government one, and for being married to Bill Clinton. Patricia Smith, whose son Sean was killed in Benghazi, said she held Clinton personally responsible for her son’s death adding that she deserved to be ‘in stripes’.
Chris Christie, the bombastic governor of New Jersey, led a trial by convention on Tuesday, reeling off her alleged offences before asking delegates to deliver their verdict. ‘Is she guilty, or not guilty?’ he asked over and over again. Cries of ‘Guilty’ were interspersed with chants of ‘Lock her up.’
The strategy is a no-brainer for Republican advisers. Their own candidate has record high unfavourability ratings for a presidential candidate. Clinton fares only slightly better, so the sensible strategy is to go negative early, reminding wavering Republicans of the alternative to Trump. But it does not make for an edifying spectacle. And that was even before Al Baldasaro, a New Hampshire state representative, went on talk radio to say: ‘Hillary Clinton should be put in the firing line and shot for treason.’ Of course that is nothing that Donald Trump would ever advocate – executing a political rival is beyond the pale. Right?
It is just that we know how he operates by now. With generous use of innuendo, rumour and suggestion he has shown a mastery of subverting the public consciousness. So last month he set the ‘lock up Hillary’ meme running with his response to a foreign policy speech in which she had attacked Trump’s worldview. ‘That was a Donald Trump hit job — I will say this, Hillary Clinton has to go to jail,’ he said. ‘She’s guilty as hell.’
At other times he has used the construction, ‘People are saying,’ in order to propagate unsubstantiated conspiracy theories while keeping himself one step removed. Once the ideas have his backhanded endorsement, the mob will run and run with it. In this case, eventually calling for the execution of Clinton.
Trump’s campaign response? Perhaps the weakest imaginable. This is what Hope Hicks, Trump’s spokeswoman had to say about Baldasaro’s inflammatory words: ‘We’re incredibly grateful for his support, but we don’t agree with his comments.’
No condemnation, no plea for calm or regret. No rebottling of the populist genie. This ugly campaign is getting uglier and uglier, and there’s still almost four months to go.