There is so much that is unprecedented in Donald Trump’s lurid, shambolic Republican convention that it is easy to become inured to each new low. On Tuesday night, the tweet ticker at the Quicken Loans Arena flashed a message from the white nationalist group VDARE: “Rep. Chris Collins has the crowd fired up against illegal immigration and for @realDonaldTrump.” At any other convention this would be a headline-making disaster; here it was just a blip. In the midst of all this ugliness, Chris Christie’s prosecutorial jeremiad against Hillary Clinton on Tuesday night, and the baying bloodlust of the audience, might seem normal. It is not normal.
Christie began by criticizing the Obama administration for failing to hold Clinton accountable for her “dismal record” as secretary of state. “Tonight, as a former federal prosecutor, I welcome the opportunity to hold Hillary Rodham Clinton accountable for her performance and her character,” said Christie. The crowd erupted in chants of “LOCK HER UP! LOCK HER UP!” while Christie smiled and nodded. “Give me a few more minutes, we’ll get there,” he continued. “Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re gonna present the facts to you, you, tonight, sitting as a jury of her peers, both in this hall and in your living rooms around our nation.” A series of charges followed. Some, like Clinton’s mishandling of Libya, were at least partly legitimate. Others were bizarre. At one point, Christie faulted Clinton’s response to the mass kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria, which happened after she left office. After each accusation, he asked, “Is she guilty or not guilty?” Each time, the crowd roared, “Guilty!”
Certainly, there’s nothing new about Republicans hating Clinton; they’ve been doing it for decades. Nevertheless, American presidential campaigns are not typically built around the dream of jailing the opposing candidate. Prime-time convention speakers usually pay lip service to the cliché of disagreeing without being disagreeable. Convention planners have not, in the past, staged their events like fantasy show trials. They have not sought to work their crowds into ecstasies of hatred. Those chants of “LOCK HER UP!” might be common among conservatives nowadays, but we haven’t seen their like at a modern political convention.
Christie’s speech was logically incoherent. Even if you buy his damning interpretation of Clinton’s foreign policy errors, it doesn’t make sense to discuss them as matters of criminal malfeasance. Emotionally, though, that’s in keeping with how Clinton’s bitterest foes talk about her: as a person of absolute corruption, who, through some sort of occult trick, moves through the world with intolerable impunity. As many people pointed out on Twitter, the way that Christie punctuated his inquisitorial brief with the crowd’s cries of “Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!” made him sound less like a contemporary politician than a magistrate condemning a witch.
Hating Hillary is the great theme of this gathering. T-shirts and buttons for sale around the convention revel in it: “Hillary for Prison,” “Life’s a Bitch—Don’t Vote For One,” “I Don’t Often Hate, but When I Do… I Prefer To Hate Hillary Clinton.” It’s the one thing that binds together the GOP now that its nominee has blithely jettisoned many of the party’s central principles. It is also, in its dehumanizing fervor, inescapably intertwined with misogyny. It’s not that Republicans don’t hate men—they obviously despise Barack Obama. But their loathing of Clinton is even more primal. They want to see her not just beaten but destroyed and humiliated, dressed in an orange jumpsuit and locked away. And what we saw on Tuesday night was the delirious loathing of the torch-bearing mob.
Indeed, just after I wrote the above line, Ben Carson took the stage and tried to link Hillary Clinton to Satan, via her college hero, Saul Alinsky. “Are we willing to elect as president somebody who has as their role model somebody who acknowledges Lucifer?” he asked. The Trump campaign has a way of turning dog whistles into howls, of making the subtext text; this time it happened within the course of two hours. Compared to Carson’s speech, Christie’s seems almost ordinary. In the age of Trump, what was jarring at the beginning of the night is no longer remarkable by the end. That should shock us all.