President Donald Trump went to the World Series game in Washington Sunday night, with predictable results: He was fiercely booed. That’s fine; there’s a long, mostly healthy history of fans booing politicians at ballgames, and letting the president know that they don’t like him is as American as, well, baseball. At least three banners appeared calling for impeachment. Again, perfectly fine. That’s appropriate free speech and very healthy given the facts of what the president has done.
But Trump’s opponents also loudly chanted “Lock him up!” That’s not so good. As political scientist Jennifer Victor tweeted: “Publicly calling for your political opponents to be jailed without due process is an authoritarian strategy, even when liberals do it. Of course, it’s much worse to hear it from elected leaders than spontaneously from an unprompted crowd, but still. This is polarization”
I’d say it’s spreading lawlessness more than polarization, but otherwise I totally agree.
Protest is an important part of democracy, and that includes raucous and pointed protest. This is not a plea for civility. It’s an argument that the content of protest matters. Communications scholar Jennifer Mercieca put it this way: “Chanting ‘lock him up’ feels good, but it’s also an act of desperation that says that you don’t believe in the rule of law.”
The episode sparked quite a bit of discussion on Twitter, and at least three justifications for the chant have been proposed. The first is that, well, Trump is in fact a crook who does not himself support the rule of law, so he deserves it. Stipulating that those things are true about him, it doesn’t matter. Indeed, if the ultimate reason Trump should be removed from office is his lawlessness, then it’s urgent to express that in terms of the values his opponents believe are important.
Another justification on offer is that Trump’s opponents are the people who actually believe in due process, and “lock him up” is merely shorthand for saying he should be tried and held accountable for his crimes. The problem with this is that people of all ideologies — left, right, center, whatever — can wind up valuing results over democratic processes. Perhaps some of those who were chanting meant that they wanted him indicted, convicted and sentenced while his rights are fully protected, but we can’t know everyone meant that. And the chant only encourages those who do not.
Similarly, some have said that the chant is OK because it merely mocks Trump’s own words. Mocking those in office is surely a healthy impulse. But it’s also exactly what Trump and his supporters often say when they themselves are called out for outrageous, anti-democratic rhetoric. The line between mocking and sincere forms of anti-democratic rhetoric is thin. This is why the content matters.
A chant that a bunch of citizens break into on their own is by no means as dangerous to democratic values as one that’s prompted and encouraged by political candidates or, worse, the U.S. president. And it’s absolutely the case that Republican willingness to strain governing norms may make it essential to embrace tactics that would otherwise be better off avoided. And there’s always the question of whether any particular norms actually protect democracy or just protect those who currently have influence. And Greg Sargent of the Washington Post is certainly correct that the challenges of a lawless president to the constitutional order are more important than a chant at a ballgame.
Nevertheless, how democracy is defended matters. I side with those who want to find a way to oppose lawlessness without devaluing the importance of the rule of law.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.