Jonathan Bernstein: Fans got 'lock him up' chant wrong

Jonathan Bernstein: Fans got 'lock him up' chant wrong


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 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.



Catch the latest in Opinion

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

It has often occurred to me that the appropriate response to some of the ridiculous things President Donald Trump utters is: "He's an idiot." Don't get me wrong (as op-ed writers like to say). I'm not impugning Trump's IQ. By "idiot" I mean something a bit different: that Trump often doesn't know what he's talking about. (That doesn't exclude the possibility that some of his misrepresentations ...

If there is a silver lining to the flawed U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic, it is this: The relatively high number of new cases being diagnosed daily - upward of 20,000 - will make it easier to test new vaccines. To determine whether a vaccine prevents disease, the study's subjects need to be exposed to the pathogen as it circulates in the population. Reopening the economy will likely ...

The COVID-19 health crisis has had a devastating effect on the nation's restaurant industry. According to a National Restaurant Association survey taken April 20, 8 million of the nation's 11 million restaurant workers are currently unemployed. Hundreds of thousands of restaurants have closed, and one in five will not reopen. For the remaining restaurants, delivery sales have increased from ...

Will your neighborhood school open on schedule in the fall? The answer should vary by location, but some headline-grabbing declarations are prolonging the uncertainty for families and students. And uncertainty leads to fear - an infectious state of mind best treated with a dose of common sense. Special-interest groups encouraged educators to "scream bloody murder" if collective bargaining and ...

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Breaking News

Husker News