You can hear the disembodied voice of far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones booming through downtown Cleveland from several blocks away. “Now we’re going to push even harder, with more ‘Hillary for Prison’ t-shirts! How many ‘Hillary for Prison’ t-shirts we got here today?!” he screeches into the microphone.
I count at least 10 among the couple hundred people gathered here on the grassy bank of the Cuyahoga River Monday for the America First Unity Rally, organized by a band of eccentrics calling themselves Citizens for Trump.
Another t-shirt in the crowd, homemade, features a buck-naked woman, on her knees, pictured from behind, with Clinton’s head grafted onto her body. “Trump Will Lick Hillary’s Pussy Good,” it reads, with a smirking Trump in the background. Another shirt depicts a mash-up of Clinton’s face with Batman’s Joker: bugged-out eyes, green hair, smeared makeup, the words “What Difference Does It Make” — a reference to the Benghazi scandal — emblazoned across the bottom in red.
On display at this week’s RNC is just about every version of “Hillary Clinton” dreamed up over the last quarter century by wing-nuts like Jones and his rhetorical cousin, Roger Stone. Needless to say, none of these “Hillary Clintons” bear much resemblance to the Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail, nor would they be recognizable to people who don’t pay much attention to right-wing talk radio.
Stone, a self-described GOP “hit man,” addresses this disparity when he takes the stage, in a summer suit and striped suspenders. “Let’s be very clear: The Hillary Clinton you see on TV is not the real Hillary Clinton,” he says. “She’s a reptile!” someone in the audience screams. Stone, showing uncharacteristic restraint, doesn’t go that far: “She is a short-tempered, foul-mouthed, greedy, bipolar, mentally-unbalanced criminal,” he says instead.
He digs deep, listing a series of scandals the Clintons have been embroiled in — or erroneously linked to — since the late Seventies: “travelgate,” Vince Foster, cattle futures. He rattles off the names of the women who’ve accused Bill Clinton of sexual harassment or assault. Then he gets to the Clinton Foundation: “This is not a charity; this is a slush. fund. for. grifters!” Stone booms.
He summons a chant of “No justice! No peace!” and adds a call to action: “We demand the prosecution of Bill and Hillary Clinton for their crimes!”
People like Stone and Jones used to exist on the party’s fringe; Jones, for instance, popularized the theories that 9/11 was an inside job and that Sandy Hook was a hoax. (His company sells those “Hillary for Prison“ shirts.) But over the last three election cycles, their messages have slowly leeched into the GOP water supply. And under Trump — one of the earliest and most enthusiastic proponents of the Obama “birther“ conspiracy — those messages have blended so seamlessly into the Republican mainstream that it‘s now virtually impossible to separate them.
This week, inside the convention hall, the same messages being spewed on the waterfront are being legitimized onstage and broadcast on national TV.
The mother of a soldier killed in Benghazi says Clinton was personally responsible for his death. Sen. Ron Johnson calls Clinton a “cold, calculated” liar. Businessman Andy Wist says “her only accomplishment is beating the rap every time she breaks the law.” Mitch McConnell tells folks, “Hillary Clinton will say anything, do anything and be anything to get elected president.” Ben Carson links her to Satan.
Mixed in with the character attacks are policy distortions. NRA official Chris Cox says “a Hillary Clinton Supreme Court means your right to own a firearm is gone.” Talk-radio personality Laura Ingraham says Clinton “doesn’t believe in borders.”
The theme is most potent in a speech delivered by Chris Christie Tuesday night. Christie, a former federal prosecutor who is rumored to be angling for an attorney general appointment after missing out on Trump’s VP slot, makes the argument that Hillary Clinton should be prosecuted — not just for her use of a private email server, which the FBI recently investigated, but for creating ISIS, being a Boko Haram “apologist” and “putting big-government spending financed by the Chinese ahead of jobs for middle-class Americans.”
Christie links Clinton to some 400,000 deaths in Syria because she once called the nation’s president, Bashar Assad, a “different kind of leader.” He declares Clinton guilty of giving Iran nuclear weapons, normalizing relations with Russia (something Trump has bragged he would do), and finally — stay with me here — of betraying the family of a murdered New Jersey state trooper because Clinton failed to demand, as a condition of renewing diplomatic relations with Cuba after half a century of enmity, that officials there track down and extradite the officer’s suspected killer so she could be tried in the U.S.
Christie’s speech brings down the house. The applause he receives is deafening — many decibels louder than the cheers that broke out a few hours earlier when Donald Trump was officially declared the party’s nominee. Christie has to stop talking at several points when the frothing crowd drowns him out with chants of “Guilty!” and “Lock her up!”
Those chants have become the unofficial slogan of the week’s proceedings, punctuating Wednesday evening’s speeches as well. “‘Lock her up!’ I love that!” Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi says from podium. Scott Walker draws on the same sentiment when he says of Clinton, “If she were any more inside, she’d be in prison.”
On Tuesday, Al Baldasaro, a New Hampshire state representative who is in Cleveland as a Trump delegate and adviser to the campaign on veterans issues, took the trash talk to its logical conclusion, calling for Clinton’s execution. “This whole thing disgusts me,” Baldasaro said of Benghazi. “Hillary Clinton should be put in the firing line and shot for treason.”
That was too far even for the Trump campaign, which distanced itself from the remarks.
But looking around the convention hall after Christie‘s speech Tuesday, one wonders if there are any reasonable Republicans left in the party, any individuals at all still grounded in reality — the reality where where Clinton has been deemed “extremely careless“ but not criminally negligent for her email server, and where 10 congressional committees and four years of investigations into Benghazi have failed to find any evidence of wrongdoing.
Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona gives some hope on that front, gently chiding Christie on Twitter: “@HillaryClinton now belongs in prison? C’mon. We can make the case that she shouldn’t be elected without jumping the shark.”
Flake isn’t in Cleveland, though. He, like scores of other Republicans disenchanted by Trump, is watching the inmates take over the asylum from home.