The veins on the man’s neck bulged. “She belongs in prison!” he screamed at the counter-protesters at Donald Trump’s campaign rally in Everett, Wash., as he waded in among them.
“She’s a crook! And I have every right to stand here and speak my mind! The First Amendment is being trashed right in front of your eyes! And you’re voting for Hillary! You people are nuts!”
It was a sentiment heard not just commonly at the rally, but obsessively. “Hillary For Prison!” people waiting in the lines would shout at passersby – far more often than any shouts heralding Trump himself. T-shirts bearing that epithet were wildly popular.
Another man, holding aloft a “Hillary For Prison 2016” sign, ran along the line of rally-goers that snaked for blocks through downtown Everett, shouting: “This is what Donald Trump is going to do for us! He’ll put Hillary in prison!”
Very few of them, however, seemed aware that the idea of marching Clinton off to jail for her alleged crimes – the details of which varied, depending on who you talked to, though most of the rally-goers seemed affixed to the idea that she had committed some felony involving her email accounts – originated with the conspiracist far right, particularly the conspiracy mill operated by radio host Alex Jones and his Infowars operation.
However, the “Hillary belongs in prison” idea long ago had migrated to mainstream right-wing media such as Fox News, and the theme has been specifically encouraged by Trump himself and his campaign for several months now, producing chants such as the one heard Tuesday night in Everett’s XFinity Arena, with about 10,000 people partaking: “Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her up!”
Trump himself encouraged it, offering the crowd a bizarre mis-rendition of Clinton’s handling of her email accounts: "The only way to learn the full depth of her public corruption is to read the 33,000 emails that she deleted. They're gone!"
The chants of “Lock her up!” followed.
"Not only deleted, folks,” Trump then continued, “this was after she was subpoenaed by Congress. And not only that, she bleached – which somebody said they'd never even heard of – in a very expensive fashion, used chemicals so that nobody will ever be able to see them. Who does this?"
[It’s not clear what kind of chemical process Trump was referring to, since chemicals have nothing to do with email deletion; it’s likely, as Karoli Kuns at Crooks and Liars noted, that he was confused about how a software program Clinton used to wipe her hard drives called BleachBit, actually works, but there are no chemicals involved.]
This is not particularly new for Trump. The “Lock her up!” chants were heard first at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July, and since then, the crowds at Trump rallies have seemingly become obsessed with the idea. That and the “Hillary for Prison!” chant can be heard with much greater regularity than anything resembling “Go Trump!”
Trump himself has actively encouraged it, at one point telling a crowd in California: “Hillary Clinton has to go to jail. She has to go to jail. I said that. She’s guilty as hell.”
That act in itself is viewed by many political observers to have created a new benchmark in American politics, and not a good one. The liberal blogger Heather “Digby” Parton described Trump’s incessant “Hillary in jail” jokes as “normalizing banana republic politics,” adding that “his relentless pounding by a presidential candidate about Clinton for being some sort of criminal is really unprecedented. We've certainly heard such things from protesters and pundits over the years. But I've never heard a candidate say it or suggest to his followers that he would jail his opponent if he wins.”
She’s not alone in that assessment. “It is extraordinary,” said Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “I can remember supporters of George McGovern calling Nixon and Kissinger ‘war criminals’ – but that talk was never encouraged by McGovern. During Watergate, ‘Jail to the Chief’ became a theme on signs and T-shirts and in chants, but again, this was not a campaign.”
The “Hillary For Prison” idea was first generated in August of 2015 by Jones at his Infowars program, leaping upon reports in leading news organizations that Clinton was facing legal difficulties over the handling of her email accounts. Jones and his fellow conspiracy theorists anointed themselves judge, jury, and executioners, declaring Clinton guilty of felony criminal misconduct even before the FBI was able to conduct its investigation.
Eventually, Jones began selling “Hillary for Prison” T-shirts at his website, and they became a best-selling item. He also led chants outside the Republican Convention in Cleveland – and soon the same chant, along with “Lock her up!”, were heard inside the convention hall.
Three different “scandals” have been suggested by different Trump backers as ostensible causes of the Democratic nominee’s deserved imprisonment:
- n The email scandal that Trump himself references in his speeches, even though it has been clear from the outset that the factual foundations for any criminal charges were dubious at best. The eventual FBI investigation (after which the Justice Department cleared her of charges) and report made it clear, as Kevin Drum at Mother Jones observes, that Clinton may at worst have exhibited questionable judgment, but otherwise the FBI’s report “is pretty much an almost complete exoneration of Hillary Clinton.”
- n The so-called “Benghazi scandal,” in which her critics blamed her, as Secretary of State, for the deaths of U.S. personnel in Libya during a terrorist attack on a diplomatic outpost. An eventual House investigation of the matter similarly cleared Clinton of any wrongdoing, though it did uncover the later email allegations.
- n The dealings of the Clinton Foundation, which some Trump supporters, including conspiracist pundit Wayne Allyn Root, have claimed constitute “a hanging, treasonous act.” (Root also suggested that Clinton was blackmailing FBI Director James Comey.) Allegations about the foundation’s work, long the target of the anti-Clinton Judicial Watch, recently got a boost from a credulous report by the Associated Press that itself became the focus of considerable criticism by other journalists.
None of these scandals – as with all of the many other scandals whipped up by her critics and political opponents that have targeted the former First Lady, U.S. Senator, and Secretary of State over the past 20 years and more – have ever effectively demonstrated that Clinton engaged in any kind of criminal wrongdoing, especially not the kind that could result in conviction and imprisonment.
Yet the rallygoers at Trump events have been unequivocal in joining their candidate’s assurance that Clinton is “guilty as hell” – of something. And the idea has spread so thoroughly that there was even a Fourth of July parade float in rural Iowa this summer featuring a Hillary Clinton mock-up behind prison bars.
And sometimes the talk borders on even uglier ends for Clinton than mere prison.
“Online, the talk from some Trump backers is much worse than jail for Hillary Clinton,” observed Sabato. “I've found some horrible comments in my Twitter feed to that end. I think the candidate and some of his more extreme followers encourage each other's worst instincts.”
The key role played by conspiracy-mongers like Jones and others in fueling radical and violent talk and eventually behavior in their followers has always been well-documented, and that is the real issue raised by Trump’s embrace of the theme.
“The kind of conspiracism pushed by Alex Jones and his ilk is not harmless,” says Mark Potok, Senior Fellow for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It names specific enemies and, in effect, promotes violence against those enemies.
“When rhetoric gets this extreme, it’s a recipe and also an excuse for violence. The fact that a major-party nominee like Trump would essentially endorse the furious tirades of his friend Jones is just astounding.”