As the political focus moves from Cleveland to Philadelphia this week, there is hope among many Democrats that their convention can offer a positive, hopeful balm for last week’s nasty, brutish gathering and its distressing reliance on violent rhetoric. But there is also fear that the heightened anger and antipathy toward Clinton, which last week included calls for her imprisonment and extrajudicial punishment, could be contagious. This is especially disturbing because of where that rhetoric inevitably led last week: to suggestions that someone should do the candidate physical harm.
The most widely reported of these calls was made last week by Donald Trump’s adviser, delegate, and New Hampshire state representative Al Baldasaro, who said in a radio interview that Clinton “should be put on the firing line and shot for treason.” Baldasaro explained that he saw Clinton’s executable offenses as being linked to the right-wing furor over the Benghazi attack and Clinton’s email server: “She is a disgrace for the lies that she told those mothers about their children that got killed over there in Benghazi. She dropped the ball on over 400 emails requesting backup security.”
This strain of fury was stoked by prime-time convention speakers including Patricia Smith, whose son was killed in the Benghazi raid. “For all of this loss, for all of this grief, for all of the cynicism the tragedy in Benghazi has wrought upon America, I blame Hillary Clinton,” Smith said. “I blame Hillary Clinton personally for the death of my son.” (Since then, the mother of Ambassador J. Christopher Stephens has publicly asked the Trump campaign to stop invoking her son’s death in such an “opportunistic and cynical” way.)
Baldasaro didn’t back down, but later amplified his calls for Clinton’s death, noting in a follow-up interview with BuzzFeed that, “anyone that commits treason should be shot … I believe Hillary committed treason.” This time, it seems, he was referring to the email scandal, claiming that “when people take confidential material off a server, you’re sharing information with the enemy. That’s treason.”
Baldasaro was not alone in his calls for the death of the candidate who’s about to be the first woman ever nominated by a major party for the presidency. Earlier in the week, Michael Folk, a member of the West Virginia House of Delegates, had tweeted at Clinton, “You should be tried for treason, murder and crimes against the U.S. Constitution…then hung on the Mall in Washington, D.C.”
As several people on Twitter pointed out, this use of the language of treason, even without explicit calls for execution, is far from anodyne. Five thousand copies of a flyer depicting John F. Kennedy as “Wanted for Treason,” and enumerating his sins, which included appointing anti-Christians to federal office and telling “fantastic LIES to the American people,” were distributed in Dallas, Texas, in the days before his 1963 assassination.
The allegations of treason, lying, and criminality seem to offer moral cover to those who really, really hate Clinton, who hate her so much that their loathing can only be satisfied by fantasies about her violent and public demise. It allows her harshest critics to feel that their desire to hurt her stems from patriotism, perhaps to reassure themselves that their hate is not misogynistic but rather a commitment to moral, righteous justice.
On Friday, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani gave a speech in which he reiterated the claim that Clinton is a “criminal,” running not for office but to try to avoid “an orange jumpsuit,” and that if Donald Trump becomes president, he will “reopen the case.” Then, moving on to her electoral prospects, he felt comfortable using this language about her chances at the polls: “Hillary, we’re going to kill you in upstate New York.” According to Politico, he raised his voice and added, “We’re going to take you out in New York.”
The language of physical harm is catching. When NPR’s “The Takeaway” reported from Cleveland bars last Thursday night after Trump’s speech, they interviewed a GOP vice-chair who slurred, “We’re building coalitions of the Asians, of the Orthodox Jews, Italians, Irish,” before growling, “We’re gonna hurt her.” The “Takeaway” hosts were briefly taken aback but then laughed off how much these jubilant, aggressive hordes had had to drink.
All of this is why it is particularly alarming, as the Democratic convention kicks off in Philadelphia, to see protesters on the left voice their dismay with Clinton using the same “Lock her up!” chants and signs that say, “Hillary for Prison.” It’s why it’s so disconcerting to hear Green Party candidate Jill Stein stoke those protesters convictions that Hillary is a lawbreaker by telling them, as she did on Sunday, that she will urge Bernie Sanders to withdraw his endorsement of Clinton “based on the outright, purposeful sabotage of your campaign by the DNC and by Hillary Clinton.”
The left certainly has its own longstanding, legitimate beefs with the candidate — about her vote to invade Iraq; her hawkishness; her position on Palestine; her relationship to banks; her support of her husband’s 1990s legislation, including the crime bill and welfare reform; her tendency toward safe centrism, as seen in her decision to pick Tim Kaine as her running mate as opposed to Elizabeth Warren or Sherrod Brown. But none of these issues are what’s being invoked when crowds of purported lefties shout about unproven crimes, fraud, rigging, sabotage, or when they cheer for Clinton’s imprisonment.
Some progressives are eager to turn the hacked DNC emails into a scandal that proves malfeasance that thereby delegitimizes primary results, but it does no such thing. In fact, the email hack, as embarrassing as it might be, provides ample evidence that there was no rigging of the primary process by the DNC. There were a bunch of people who worked for the Democratic Party who hated Sanders, who hadn’t been a member of the party for very long, and who was seriously challenging the party favorite. They didn’t do anything about it. The one guy who suggested, horribly, that they attack Sanders on his lack of faith got shot down. It should now be abundantly clear that there was no systematic conspiracy to rob Sanders of the Democratic nomination. (And if there had been, it certainly could not have been pulled off by an organization that cannot tell its ass from its elbow. The only good news in all this is that Deborah Wasserman Schultz, who was not good at her job, is no longer in charge of the DNC.)
When RoseAnn DeMoro, the executive director of National Nurses United, tweets that “our election was stolen, rigged” and that Wasserman Schultz was not “acting on her own”; when progressives cheer for WikiLeaks, which yesterday retweeted Ann Coulter’s racism and some anti-Semitism of its own; when Democrats are chanting “Lock her up!” the language and objectives of left and right become increasingly indistinguishable.
This isn’t issues-based dismay over Hillary Clinton, and if it once were, it has transformed into something far more grotesque and dangerous. The merging of left-leaning political antagonism toward Hillary with the distortions of the right has left us here, with progressives — people who care deeply about our planet, about health care, about immigration, about minimum wage and police brutality and voting rights and reproductive rights and the future of the Supreme Court — heaping outsized condemnation not at the fascistic ogre who rose in Cleveland last week, but at the only person who realistically stands between him and his stewardship of this country. A vocal portion of the left is now aping the fantasy constructions of the right wing, showing themselves more focused on Hillary’s personal destruction than on any of the crucial issues at stake in November. Welcome to the Democratic National Convention.