Republican conspiracy theories about Democrats in general and the Clintons in particular have been so ubiquitous for more than two decades it’s easy become numb to them. But it should still be jarring to see the nation’s top law enforcement officer joking about throwing political rivals in prison. And this is what Attorney General Jeff Sessions did today, repeating a “lock her up” chant being made by conservative students at Turning Point USA's High School Leadership Summit.
Rather than educating students about the rule of law, Sessions exemplified the authoritarian instincts of the Trump administration.
While Sessions may have been chuckling while repeating the Republican catchphrase, it’s still a serious matter. What distinguishes a system governed by law and the monarchical system Americans rebelled against in the 18th century is that the executive branch is not supposed to arbitrarily target individuals. Students leading a “lock her up” chant represented an excellent opportunity to make the point that working against the election of Hillary Clinton is democratic politics; claiming that she should be thrown in jail although investigations have not revealed any illegal conduct is not. For the Attorney General to encourage the authoritarian perspective rather than the democratic one is disturbing.
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Disturbing, but not necessarily surprising. Sessions has always been the most Trump-esque member of Trump’s cabinet. Sessions was the first senator to endorse Trump for the Republican presidential nomination. Trump’s belief in the use of the law as a weapon against perceived enemies was central to Sessions backing him. And Stephen Miller, the Trump adviser behind the Trump administration’s vile family separation policy and “Muslim ban,” was a Sessions aide.
Sessions also exemplifies the evolution of the Republican Party into a coalition that could be led by Trump’s white nationalist authoritarianism. In 1986, a Republican-controlled Senate rejected Sessions for a U.S. District Court judicial nomination because of his history of racism. Trump then became a major figure in the Republican Party through his embrace of the racist conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and Sessions became his logical choice for his Attorney General. In the Trump-era Republican Party, it seems, racism does not disqualify someone from becoming Attorney General of the United States.
That is, to put it mildly, a dismaying trend.
And there is a further irony to Sessions kidding on the square about locking up a political rival who hasn’t actually done anything illegal: The context of Sessions’s speech was an argument against the alleged suppression of conservative speech on campus. Sessions unleashed a series of conservative buzzwords to make this point, asserting that colleges are “coddling” students “through things like trigger warnings about microaggressions, they have cry closets, safe spaces, optional exams, therapy goats, and grade inflation.” Leaving aside the exaggerations inherent in stories about “cry closets,” talking about throwing political opponents in jail exists in some obvious philosophical tension with the overall message
But Sessions’s Department of Justice has not exactly demonstrated a robust commitment to the values of free and open exchange. Dozens of protesters were prosecuted by Sessions’s DOJ for protesting at Trump’s inauguration, a much greater threat to free speech than campus discourse about “microaggressions.” It is another common Trump administration tactic: Immigration and Customs Enforcement has also targeted journalists and activists. And Trump has threatened to take press credentials away from critical reporters and made threats to selectively use antitrust law against media it considers unfriendly to the administration.
All of this represents an apparent belief that opposition to a Republican administration or conservatives in general is fundamentally illegitimate. This can be seen in many ways, most notably in the efforts of Republicans at both the federal and state level to prevent people of color from voting. Demonizing the opposition is a critical part of advancing such efforts.
Sessions repeating the “lock her up” chant, then, is no laughing matter; opposing Donald Trump is not a crime. Still, the Attorney General embracing authoritarian values rather than the rule of law and the democratic respect for political disagreement is an all-too-perfect illustration of Donald Trump’s Republican Party. In embracing conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton, Sessions is hardly an outlier — he’s invoking something that helps to unify his party.
Scott Lemieux is a lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the University of Washington. He is the co-author of Judicial Review and Democratic Theory and contributes regularly to The Week, Reuters, and the New Republic.