Opinion writer

It’s become a running theme at the Republican convention. From the podium and the delegates comes the refrain, “Lock her up!” The suggestion is that Hillary Clinton was not just wrong, negligent or dishonest but should be imprisoned. In lieu of policy disagreements we now criminalize the opposing party’s nominee.

Some Republicans will argue that she should have been prosecuted for her handling of emails. But you know, she wasn’t. She’s been cleared of criminal wrongdoing. The verdict now will be a political one, decided at the ballot box. The zeal to not only beat but imprison one’s opponents has never been the basis for a national party’s presidential campaign. Until now.

When leftwing anti-war activists demanded that President George W. Bush and VP Dick Cheney be prosecuted for war crimes the right screamed foul. How dare they take political differences and convert them into legal inquests! Now the right has apparently decided if you cannot beat the netroots you might as well join them.

The Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal wrote in September, 2008: “For those who do not inhabit the fever swamps, it should be obvious that prosecuting on the basis of policy difference – circumventing the impeachment mechanism put into the Constitution for just this purpose – would cripple the operation of government. And not just Iraq or other things one party or the other may dislike, but everything–guns, butter, and all.”

When the special prosecutor went after Scooter Libby, the right uniformly denounced the move. National Review’s Kate O’Beirne declared, “We think he should be pardoned, Neal [Conan, host], because we think it’s a classic example — his prosecution, criminal prosecution — of criminalizing political disputes.” Mark Steyn wrote in 2007, “Patrick Fitzgerald’s disgrace is the greater, and a huge victory not for justice or the law but for the criminalization of politics.”

Outside the Trump base, many Americans will find this criminalization lingo distasteful in the extreme. And if they felt uncomfortable before last night, watching New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s show trial of Clinton might have pushed them over the edge.

During the campaign Christie liked to say he would “prosecute” the case against Clinton. He seemed at the time to be speaking metaphorically, promising to make a political case against her in the debates. But he apparently took the notion literally. Most of his speech was built around declaring her “guilty” of various missteps:

Well, tonight, as a former federal prosecutor, I welcome the opportunity to hold her accountable for her performance and her character.

We must present those facts to you, a jury of her peers, both in this hall and in living rooms around our nation. . . .

As to Hillary Clinton, putting herself ahead of America guilty or not guilty? Hillary Clinton, lying to the American people about her selfish, awful judgment guilty or not guilty? Time after time the facts, and just the facts, lead you to the same verdict both around the world and at home.

In Libya and Nigeria guilty.

In China and Syria guilty.

In Iran and Russia and Cuba guilty.

That is not how we normally discuss our differences in America. We don’t talk in this country about criminalizing poor political judgment or flawed policy. That is what separates us — or has until now separated us — from Vladimir Putin’s Russia or Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. Communist China conducts political show trials; not here.

The criminal prosecution rhetoric underscores the discomfort many feel with giving Trump — a peevish, resentful narcissist — control over the Internal Revenue Service, the FBI, the NSA, the CIA and, of course, the military. Jamie Kirchick argues that the following scenario is not all that far-fetched:

Try to imagine, then, a situation in which Trump commanded our military to do something stupid, illegal or irrational. Something so dangerous that it put the lives of Americans and the security of the country at stake. (Trump’s former rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Marco Rubio, said the United States could not trust “the nuclear codes” to an “erratic individual.”) Faced with opposition from his military brass, Trump would perhaps reconsider and back down. But what if he didn’t?

In that case, our military men and women, who swear to uphold the Constitution and a civilian chain of command, would be forced to choose between obeying the law and serving the wishes of someone who has explicitly expressed his utter lack of respect for it.

A party calling to lock up its opponents. A presidential nominee speaking about ordering war crimes, “opening up” libel laws to punish critical journalists, and forcibly rounding up 11-12 million people. This, folks, is the current Republican Party. If this is a permanent disposition rather than a temporary temper tantrum induced by an unhinged demagogue that will pass with Trump’s defeat, the GOP deserves extinction.