(CNN)The chant grew out of a chorus of boos when President Donald Trump’s face was flashed on the big screen during the World Series in Washington.
Trump tried to grin through the din as it neared 100 decibels in the stadium — facing a hostile crowd at the first world series appearance for a Washington ball club since 1933.
He’d arrived at the stadium after the national anthem and declined the traditional honor of throwing out the first pitch because Trump worried the body armor would make him look “too heavy.” But body image should have been the least of his worries.
Perhaps Trump had a right to expect applause because earlier that day he’d announced that US troops had killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the evil leader of ISIS — an event that should have at least temporarily united our fractured nation.
But, of course, Trump was being hit with a rhetorical stick he basically invented after presiding over countless chants of “lock her up” directed at Hillary Clinton.
He was not a victim here. He was receiving a taste of his own medicine. But it’s a toxic brew that’s a sign of the unprecedented ugliness we’re heading into: an election where hard partisans on both sides will be calling for the imprisonment of their political opponents.
This is Banana Republic stuff. But it’s happening on our watch.
There’s no moral equivalence in this ballpark outburst. And there is more than a little irony in the fact that earlier this month Trump’s own State Department just cleared Hillary Clinton after finding there was no deliberate mishandling of her emails.
The fact is that the real rap sheet that’s developed over the Trump presidency has been for his team. Campaign chairman Paul Manafort is in prison. Longtime fixer and personal lawyer Michael Cohen is in jail despite his regret for enabling Trump’s lies. His first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents and is awaiting sentencing. In total, five people sentenced to prison amid seven guilty pleas … and more associates may be heading this way. Don’t blame the “Deep State,” blame bad actions and the facts.
But Trump and obedient Attorney General William Barr have been busy pitching a counternarrative with the full force of the federal government behind it. It’s the upcoming Durham report — also known by its Trump-pumped shorthand “investigate the investigators,” pushing the big lie that the real interference in the 2016 election wasn’t by Russia helping the Trump campaign … but between Ukraine and the Democrats.
Trump has even hinted in the Oval Office that it might ensnare former President Barack Obama.
And, of course, the current impeachment inquiry got kicked off by Trump’s demand that Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, be investigated for corruption in Ukraine. (There’s no evidence of wrongdoing by Biden or his son.)
It’s all part of the same crazy quilt of confirmation-bias conspiracy theories designed to project and deflect on Democrats for political benefit in the upcoming election.
This is dangerous stuff. This is a President whose own lawyer has argued in court that he could literally shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not be prosecuted in office and who seems to be aiming to not just smear but possibly indict and arrest his political opponents.
We are playing with fire as a nation. Consider the kindling it’s connecting with — increasingly bitter and personal polarization: a world that Trump didn’t create but he continues to exacerbate.
More than 70% of Republicans and Democrats think that members of the two parties cannot agree on basic facts, according to a Pew survey.
What’s more, Pew has found that a majority of Republicans believe Democrats to be “unpatriotic” and “immoral” — while members of both parties see the other as “closed-minded” — amid bitter partisan gaps that have grown significantly since 2016.
It gets worse: 42% of people in both parties consider the opposition not simply wrong about politics but “downright evil,” according to an academic study called “Lethal Partnership,” cited in the New York Times.
Evil exists but it’s a word best attached to people like ISIS leader al-Baghdadi. Not fellow citizens in a democracy which depends on an assumption of good will and an ability to reason together.
Trump has been throwing around words like “evil” to refer to his political opponents and critics who dare try to hold him to account.
He’s described Washington DC as full of evil people, called the New York Times “evil” and said John McCain’s handover of former British spy Christopher Steele’s dossier of Trump-Russia connections to the FBI was for “evil” purposes.
This creates a fear-fueled feedback loop, as we begin to hear an echo of this anger and intolerance bubble up on the far left.
The “Lethal Partnership” study found that just under 20% of people in both parties agree that their political opponents “lack the traits to be considered fully human — they behave like animals.” Lest we forget, dehumanizing political opponents usually leads to ugly things: the same study found that 20% of Democrats and 16% of Republicans admit to sometimes thinking that “we’d be better off as a country if large numbers of the opposing party … just died.”
Against that backdrop, the President’s retweets of right wing talk about “a second civil war”– or a Trump supporter’s posting of a “satirical” video showing the President engaging in a mass shooting of his critics in a church — starts to look a lot more sinister.
The “lock them up election” we’re about to endure isn’t just about a desire to imprison political opponents — the opposite of a functioning democracy. It reflects an impulse to get rid of them entirely.
To some unhinged souls that could sound like an incitement to violence. Because that was literally the defense offered up by the lawyer for Cesar Sayoc — the man who sent pipe bombs to CNN and prominent Democrats — and it’s part of an uptick in violent threats against journalists and political opponents of the President.
American democracy has been through a lot — including an election during a civil war. But we’ve never experienced anything like this. And if we don’t de-escalate — beginning with the President — we could find ourselves in a world of hurt that insults the hard-won success of the American experiment. We need to do better than a “lock them up” election.