I Was Criticized for My Criticism of the ‘Lock Him Up’ Chant
Using Trump’s own lawlessness against him isn’t clever — it’s amplifying the damage
There is no question that Donald Trump is a terrible president. Between the incessant lying, self-dealing from the White House to benefit his own corporation, racists rants, defiling of the post–Cold War global order, and inhumane imprisonment of families and children on the southern U.S. border, he is objectively the worst president in at least a generation. Let’s face it, he’s in the running for worst U.S. president of all time.
So when the World Series crowd in D.C. reacted on Sunday to his image being projected on the Jumbotron, the jeers and boos were immediate and apparent even to the television-viewing audience. The camera stayed with Trump’s expression, and I saw a slight cringe, although I may be projecting my own imagined response a bit.
But then the chant started: “Lock him up!” the crowd screamed over and over. And that’s when my reaction changed.
The environment presents a unique circumstance. The crowd was probably slightly inebriated and maybe a bit frustrated with the home team’s inability to generate much offense after a hopeful series beginning. They mockingly took up the phrase that is so often chanted at Trump’s own rallies, from the 2016 campaign trail to the Republican Convention to today. There was an immediate humor to the moment. The stadium was trolling the president, master of trolls. I can imagine that if I’d been in that crowd, I too might have been caught up in the moment and unable to resist the chance to turn the president’s own phrase against him during a moment he could not control or escape. A rare opportunity, to be sure.
In addition to being a bit of a baseball fan and a political addict, I’m a scholar who studies legislative politics, political parties, social political action, and democracy. Every time I hear a Trump crowd chant “Lock her up!” about Hillary Clinton, I wince. And that’s why I tweeted my disapproval of the chants — an opinion for which I was swiftly criticized both on social media and in New York magazine. “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?” argued New York writer Eric Levitz. It seems I touched a nerve.
But Levitz is overlooking the core tenets of democracy. As a system of government that guarantees individual freedoms and protects people’s basic rights, democracies are most strongly characterized by their formal institutions. In the United States, the Constitution outlines the bodies of government — legislative, executive, judicial — that are designed to work in tandem to secure people’s rights. Everyone learns that part in grade school. But scholars also know that institutions alone are not enough to ensure democracy’s persistence. Democracies are also protected by a series of norms that people follow, particularly the political elites.
In their book How Democracies Die, political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt examine the rise and fall of dozens of democracies and observe that two norms are particularly important for democracy to survive: mutual toleration and forbearance.
Mutual toleration means that political parties must recognize their opponents’ right to exist. Claims that one’s political opponents are illegitimate, criminal, or unworthy amount to a violation of the norm that in democracies, ideas are meant to compete with one another in an open battle for public support. Disqualifying parties, elected officials, or groups of activists on an arbitrary basis defined by some leader amounts to saying that their voice is unwelcome and not valuable.
By forbearance, Levitsky and Ziblatt are alluding to the idea that a group in power is careful not to overexert their authority. That is, they opt not to use every possible ounce of political power against their opponent in an exercise of mutual respect and recognition that in democracies, majorities sometimes become minorities. The shadow of the future, or the realization that your opponents may have power over you after the next election, helps to keep political power in check.
Since Trump was elected, we’ve seen our political institutions remain largely intact, but we have experienced many violations of the norms of mutual toleration and forbearance, to a troubling degree. So when I heard the baseball crowd chant “Lock him up!” I could not help but hear in the chant a further degeneration of our democratic norms.
To argue that we should take the chant sardonically and not literally is the same failed argument that some have made about Trump’s calls for violence against those he perceives as his political foes.
Context is, of course, important. A baseball crowd chanting in a spontaneous reaction is much less serious than a political leader calling for it from a political party’s main stage. Degree of violation matters. A norm violation is most egregious when it’s committed by a political leader.
Calling for Trump’s imprisonment before a trial crosses a line in the sand and puts Americans on the wrong side of democracy.
If judging whether a norm has been violated requires that we stop and evaluate whether the speaker meant it literally or not, and how drunk they were, and whether people laughed or not, then the norms are already weaker. Norms are norms not because anyone writes them down and defines them in legal terms. Norms become norms by social acceptance.
The “lock her up” chant was intended to violate democratic norms, and the World Series crowd further violated those norms when they picked up the echo and chanted it against Trump. Whether many people in that crowd meant it ironically or not, surely at least some do actually hope that Trump goes to jail. At least some of them meant what they said so loudly, even if only a little bit.
It is absolutely appropriate use of free speech to openly criticize the president, to chant for his impeachment, and even to boo him. But calling for Trump’s imprisonment before a trial crosses a line in the sand and puts Americans on the wrong side of democracy.
We cannot attempt to reestablish democracy in the United States by adopting the chants of those who have broken it. Even doing so sarcastically amplifies the damage.