While covering a Ted Cruz event just prior to the Iowa caucuses in February, I noticed that a remarkably large number of attendees were wearing buttons with an image of Hillary Clinton’s face behind bars and the legend “Hillary for Prison.” While it was no surprise these movement-conservative activists held the former secretary of State in minimum regard, the savage intention of seeing her incarcerated added a new, banana-republic-style savagery to the usual partisanship. It was also a reminder of the conservative preoccupation with claims of Clinton’s alleged responsibility for the American deaths in Benghazi in 2012.
To be clear, the jail-my-opponents idea wasn’t entirely unprecedented among ideologues and partisans; after all, many liberals routinely described former vice-president Dick Cheney as a war criminal.
But the desire that Hillary Clinton be sent to the hoosegow has risen to the level of an official Trump campaign meme, and perhaps even a campaign promise. The mainstreaming of this meme began, like many of the hounds of hell unleashed in this election cycle, with a remark by Donald Trump himself, in response to a Clinton speech disputing his national-security credentials:
“After what she said about me today in her phony speech — that was a phony speech, that was a Donald Trump hit job — I will say this, Hillary Clinton has to go to jail. She’s guilty as hell.”
Trump’s extended argument, so to speak, was that Clinton was defending Obama’s foreign policies out of fear that she would otherwise be prosecuted over her email usage at the State Department. So he did not specifically endorse the very popular conservative idea that she deserved a stretch in the slammer for Benghazi, or, indeed, for Whitewater and other massively investigated pseudo-scandals of the 1990s. But Trump’s statement that “Hillary Clinton has to go to jail” set a new level of discourse between major-party presumptive presidential nominees.
One suspects the polling after the FBI announced it would not pursue criminal charges in the email case emboldened Trump and Republicans generally to take the “Hillary for Prison” meme out of the closet and rattle it at Democrats like a hobgoblin. According to some surveys, a majority of Americans were disappointed by the FBI’s decision. It’s not clear whether most non-Republicans expressing that sentiment understood the complex question of how criminal liability is established, and it’s even less clear if they wanted to see Clinton in leg irons.
But after the first night of the Republican convention, it is clear GOP inhibitions on this subject have been entirely lost. As Vox’s Andrew Prokop noted, calls for Clinton’s incarceration were made by three separate speakers Monday:
During retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn’s speech, the delegates began to chant, “Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her up!” Soon, Flynn agreed, saying, “Lock her up, that’s right! It’s unbelievable!”
Earlier, Colorado Senate nominee Darryl Glenn had said that since Clinton “loves her pantsuits,” “we should send her an email and tell her she deserves a bright orange jumpsuit.”
And Pat Smith, mother of a victim of the Benghazi attacks, said, “I blame Hillary Clinton personally for the death of my son,” as she choked back tears. When an attendee yelled out, “Hillary for prison,” Smith responded, “That’s right, Hillary for prison! She deserves to be in stripes!”
It does not appear that these exclamations (with the possible exception of Glenn’s) were part of prepared remarks vetted by convention officials. But in a well-run convention, speakers are warned not to go off-script, particularly in response to chants from delegates wanting the bloodiest red meat available, as they often do.