Chanting ‘Lock Him Up’ at a Lawless President Is Good for Democracy

Make Trump sad again. Photo: Taso Katopodis/AFP via Getty Images

On Friday, Donald Trump’s White House admitted it had overseen 1,556 more family separations than previously acknowledged. Of these, more than 1,000 were carried out after a federal court had ordered the administration to keep migrant families intact. The total number of asylum-seeking families broken up by our government now sits at approximately 5,500. Many of these parents and children have yet to reunite. Some never will.

Two days after this disclosure, the president attended a baseball game. When his image flashed above the outfield in Nationals Park, the crowd’s cheers turned into boos, which then — in some sections of the stadium — turned into chants of “Lock him up.”

On cable news Monday morning, one of these developments registered as an attack on American ideals so obscene, it demanded bipartisan condemnation; the other, a banal event that scarcely merited a mention.

“Even at a time when there is a lot that our president does that I find disturbing, offensive, unconventional, I have a hard time with the idea of a crowd — on a globally televised sporting event — chanting ‘lock him up’ about our president,” Democratic senator Chris Coons said on CNN. “I frankly think the office of the president deserves respect, even when the actions of our president at times don’t.”

MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, meanwhile, decried the crowd’s chant as “un-American” and “fascist.” “We are Americans, and we do not do that,” Scarborough said, upbraiding the Nationals’ faithful in the tone of a father who is less angry than disappointed. “We do not want the world hearing us chant ‘Lock him up’ to this president or to any president … [as though] you’re going to actually imprison your political opponents.”

Many of Twitter’s self-styled defenders of democratic norms echoed this assessment. “Publicly calling for your political opponents to be jailed without due process is an authoritarian strategy even when liberals do it,” George Mason University political scientist Jennifer Victor explained. “Of course, it’s much worse to hear it from elected leaders than spontaneously from an unprompted crowd, but still. This is #polarization.”

It is, of course, understandable that commentators would devote less attention Monday to a days-old development in the family-separation saga than to a World Series crowd calling for the president’s imprisonment. What’s harder to comprehend, in my view, is how Coons & Co. can reconcile their vehement denunciations of the latter with the bare facts of the former — let alone with the broader context of presidential lawlessness from which those 1,000 extralegal family separations emerged.

Take Victor’s assertion that the Nationals crowd was calling for its “political opponents to be jailed without due process.” Ignore, for the moment, the false equivalency embedded in this phrasing (which casts Trump and booing Nationals fans as a pair of “political opponents,” rather than as a head of state and constituents subject to his authority). On what basis does Victor interpret the crowd’s chant as a call for the suspension of the rule of law, rather than as a demand for its reassertion?

When thousands of South Koreans took to the streets in 2016 “publicly calling” for the arrest of their corrupt president, few political scientists decried their dissent as an authoritarian assault on due process. When thousands of Venezuelans shouted similar demands in Caracas last year, U.S. lawmakers celebrated their democratic spirit. In these contexts, our political class has little difficulty understanding that calls for a lawless leader to face legal consequences are the opposite of authoritarian — or that mass dissent can serve as a backstop for democracy when presidents immunize themselves from formal systems of accountability.

By the time Trump’s face appeared onscreen in Nationals Park Sunday, the president had:

• Stated publicly, and repeatedly, that he believes the U.S. attorney general’s first responsibility is to “protect” him from legal scrutiny.

Fired and replaced the leadership of the FBI and DOJ for displaying insufficient personal loyalty to him.

• Intervened in a federal investigation in ways that a prosecutor could potentially consider obstruction of justice, according to the findings of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe.

• Publicly argued that he has an absolute right to coerce foreign governments into launching investigations of his political opponents.

• Withheld congressionally approved military aid to a U.S. ally under attack so as to coerce the Ukrainian government into launching an investigation of the Democratic Party’s 2020 front-runner, according to the sworn testimony of multiple administration officials.

Ordered his subordinates to turn away any and all asylum-seekers at the southern border, in defiance of federal and international law — while promising those subordinates he would use his pardon power to insulate those who carried out his lawless directives from the threat of legal accountability, according to the New York Times.

Fired and replaced the DHS officials who most vocally resisted his extralegal demands.

In other words: The president has publicly declared his contempt for the rule of law and attempted to subvert it in myriad ways — including ones that threaten to insulate him from the threat of legal or even electoral accountability.

Meanwhile, an executive-branch agency has unilaterally declared that a sitting president is immune from federal law as long as he or she remains in office. Thus the only immediate constraint on our avowedly tyrannical president’s authority is the threat of impeachment and removal — which, given the composition of the Senate, strikes most political observers as no constraint at all.

In this context, is a “Lock him up” chant really a more harrowing sign of creeping authoritarianism than a display of polite tolerance for the tyrant-in-chief would be? The former involves citizens ironically repurposing their abusive leader’s own demagoguery to protest his lawlessness. The latter assures that leader that he is not only above the law but also immune from social sanction.

To conclude that the “Lock him up” chant was an affront to democratic values rather than an expression of them, Victor and Scarborough must ignore most of the relevant context, impute the darkest possible intention to the chanters, and wildly misconstrue their relationship with Trump. Nationals fans are not the president’s political opponents; they are his constituents. And their conflict is not rooted (solely) in disagreements about policies and values; Trump enjoys extraordinary power over the chanters’ lives, a power he routinely abuses, in Victor’s and Scarborough’s own estimations.

A stronger version of the anti-chant argument would focus on its potential consequences, rather than its moral character: Chanting “Lock him up” at Trump may be a worthy expression of democratic dissent in the abstract, but in our hyperpolarized polity, it risks eroding norms of partisan toleration and emboldening the reactionary right.

And yet, while this argument at least does not require misrepresenting Sunday night’s events, it rests more on faith than evidence. After all, what in the past three years (or past two decades) of American politics suggests that the center-left’s good faith and performative respect for institutional traditions will constrain the right’s illiberalism and abuses of power? (Did Nancy Pelosi’s painstakingly slow, deliberate approach to impeachment prevent Republicans from casting her inquiry as a “Soviet-style witch hunt?” Did Barack Obama’s refusal to publicly disclose the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign before Election Day 2016 prevent Republican leaders from accusing him of orchestrating that investigation for electoral purposes?)

The indiscriminate “respect for the office of the president” that Coons counsels has done little to arrest our republic’s descent into lawlessness. If anything, it has hastened that regression: What, other than such “respect,” enabled the DOJ to insist, without controversy, that Donald Trump can’t be held legally accountable for federal crimes until he leaves office? Or the Obama administration to insist, with self-righteousness, that George W. Bush must not be held legally accountable for his abuses of power upon returning to private life?

Americans did not win their republic by respecting the offices of tyrants (whether those tyrants occupied the throne in 18th-century London or the plantations of 19th-century Richmond). We’ll need a little less reflexive deference to decorum — and a little more “Nattitude” — if we wish to keep it.

Chanting ‘Lock Him Up’ at Trump Is Good for Democracy