WASHINGTON ― For months, Donald Trump has whipped his crowds into a frenzy with details about Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state and the ensuing FBI investigation. The crowd would break into chants of “Lock her up!”
But the GOP nominee didn’t go there himself until the second presidential debate, when he pledged to direct his attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton, should he win the election. “You’d be in jail,” he told her.
Trump has since made his desire to see the Democratic nominee in shackles a central part of his increasingly unhinged stump speech. Instead of basking in the “lock her up” chants, he’s now leading them.
To many observers, this behavior is un-American and anti-democratic. It certainly violates our modern conception of individual rights and democratic norms.
Many of the critiques have classified Trump’s policies and rhetoric as distinctly foreign ― the stuff of distant dictators. He is reminiscent of a Latin American strongman, wrote McClatchy’s Franco Ordoñez. Esquire’s Charles Pierce refers to Trump as “El Caudillo del Mar-a-Lago.” Others have said Trump is just like some African dictators, and The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah, a South African native, made that comparison in a sketch showing the candidate uttering phrases identical to those of such notable tyrants, past and present, as Uganda’s Idi Amin and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. Trump has also been compared, fairly, to former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who was also a wealthy sex maniac with right-wing anti-immigrant tendencies.
But Trump and the policies he has endorsed are thoroughly American. Jailing political opponents, rounding up people based on race, threatening journalists with libel suits, and rejecting the legitimacy of elections ― all have precedent in the darkest parts of our history. Trump has favorably cited some of these past policies in his speeches.
The connections to America’s shameful record aren’t surprising, given that Trump’s political mentors include Roy Cohn and Roger Stone. Cohn was the infamous counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy during his witch hunt to weed out supposed communists in the 1950s. Stone was a hatchet man carrying out President Richard Nixon’s “dirty tricks,” which included sabotaging his opponents’ campaigns through programs of spying, theft, misinformation and infiltration.
Here are a few of the ways Trump’s seeming heresies actually fit into American history.
‘Lock Her Up’
If Trump made good on his promise to throw Clinton in prison, it wouldn’t be the first time a president prosecuted a rival candidate.
In 1918, Eugene Debs, leader of the Socialist Party and five-time presidential contender, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for giving a speech opposing U.S. entry into World War I. Debs had received more than 900,000 votes, or 6 percent of the popular vote, in 1912. He was charged under the Espionage Act, which had been amended to ban “any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States.”
President Woodrow Wilson, who won the 1912 and 1916 races, refused to pardon Debs despite public calls for his release. Wilson’s Justice Department, under Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, cracked down on socialists like Debs, labor unions and other perceived radical groups as part of a campaign to stifle dissent against the first world war.
Debs ran for president again in 1920, while still behind bars and topped 900,000 votes again ― more than 3 percent of the vote that year. President Warren Harding released the 66-year-old from prison in 1921.
Over a century earlier, the U.S. government under President John Adams had set out to lock up political opponents. The Federalist-controlled Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, an attempt to curb the growing political power of Thomas Jefferson and the first Republican Party. Jefferson and his allies praised the French Revolution, while Adams and the Federalists saw it as dangerous barbarism.
The Federalists drummed up support for the Alien and Sedition Acts, which placed strict controls on immigration and allowed the government to jail people for speech deemed anti-government, by casting them as protection from French immigrants fomenting revolution in the United States. They then used the acts to go after their opposition. Rep. Matthew Lyon, a Republican from Vermont, was jailed for denouncing the government. Newspaper publisher Benjamin Franklin Bache of Pennsylvania was imprisoned and died of yellow fever before he could be tried for sedition. Anthony Haswell, a Vermont printer, was sentenced to two months behind bars for reprinting Bache’s newspaper. James Thomson Callender, a Scottish writer living in Virginia, was sentenced to nine months for insults directed toward President Adams in his book The Prospect Before Us.
The laws backfired politically. The Sedition Act expired in 1800, and Jefferson and the Republicans won election that year. The Federalists never recovered, and the party disbanded in 1816.
Trump has pledged to immediately deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, while claiming that he would “round them all up in a very humane way, in a very nice way, and they’re gonna be happy, because they want to be legalized.”
He has pointed to President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1954 Operation Wetback, which rounded up and deported Mexican laborers, to buttress his own case. Eisenhower was a “good president,” said Trump, because he “moved 1.5 million illegal immigrants out of this country.”
But that program suffered from widespread civil rights abuses, including crackdowns on Latino neighborhoods, deportation of U.S. citizens of Mexican descent and, in some cases, the killing of people. Beyond that, the term “wetback” is considered a slur.
The government also forcibly removed hundreds of thousands of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans during the Great Depression, kicking them out of the country amid fears that they were taking the limited jobs after the 1929 stock market crash. This policy came to be known as “Mexican repatriation.” In 2012, the California government issued a formal apology for the forced expulsion of U.S. citizens of Mexican descent during that wave of deportations.
Law and Order
“I am the law-and-order candidate,” Trump has declared. But what exactly does that mean?
The use of law-and-order rhetoric threads through American history from the post-Civil War South to today. It’s most often used to describe efforts to control those who challenge the established power structure ― more specifically, to control African-Americans.
When Jim Crow was the law of the land, “law and order” meant the defense of white supremacy, even if that included extrajudicial mob violence.
Martin Luther King Jr. notes this in his “Letter From Birmingham City Jail” in 1963: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negroes’ great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens’ ‘Counciler’ or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice...”
“I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice, and that when they fail to do this they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress,” King continued.
Law-and-order rhetoric exploded into presidential politics a few years later with the campaigns of Alabama Gov. George Wallace and Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard Nixon. Amid riots, assassinations and student protests over the Vietnam War, the famed segregationist Wallace said in 1968, “There has to be some law and order in our country.”
Nixon copied Wallace’s call for law and order with a campaign of racially coded messages around crime and disorder. In his speech accepting the 1968 Republican nomination, Nixon told delegates, “When the nation with the greatest tradition of the rule of law is plagued by unprecedented lawlessness …then it’s time for new leadership for the United States of America.”
Nixon promised to marry “order” with “progress” in that speech. But what came next was a crackdown on radical groups, particularly the Black Panthers, and the so-called War on Drugs, which raised penalties for drug possession, increased incarceration rates and specifically targeted black communities for enforcement.
Law-and-order politics drew votes and launched public policy through the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. Politicians from both parties pushed for “tough on crime” initiatives that would swell the U.S. prison population and reduce the number of African-Americans eligible to vote, thanks to felon disenfranchisement laws largely adopted during the Jim Crow years.
Crime has overall been on the decline since 1995, prompting efforts to scale back those policies that put some communities under near-constant police watch. Trump’s law-and-order rhetoric, however, indicates that he wants to continue targeting minority communities for greater surveillance and imprisonment.
‘A Hell Of A Lot Worse Than Waterboarding’
Throughout his campaign, Trump has vowed to revive the torture program that tainted the George W. Bush administration ― but he wouldn’t stop there. At one Republican primary debate in February, he said he would “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”
“Don’t tell me it doesn’t work,” he said at a later primary campaign event. “Torture works.”
Torture is illegal under U.S. and international law. It also doesn’t work.
The Bush administration’s torture policy did not procure any useful intelligence and was used against falsely imprisoned innocents and the mentally ill. These tactics broke the bodies and minds of prisoners, while also making it nearly impossible to publicly prosecute individuals like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who were actually involved in plotting the 9/11 attacks.
A Ban on Muslims
In a press release issued in December 2015, the Trump campaign announced, “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”
The United States enacted policies banning the immigration of Chinese in 1882 and limited or banned immigration by East Asians and select Southern and Eastern European communities in 1924. Lawmakers argued that such individuals could not assimilate into American society and were dangerous. Some proponents also believed immigrants from those regions to be intellectually inferior.
These days, Trump supporter and New Hampshire state Rep. Al Baldasaro (R) has favorably compared the GOP nominee’s proposed Muslim ban to the internment of Japanese Americans that President Franklin Roosevelt ordered, and the Supreme Court upheld, during World War II. The internment policy forcibly removed and detained more than 110,000 Japanese Americans in violation of their civil rights. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation apologizing and providing reparations for the victims and their families.
Past racial and religious immigration bans have led to both official and unofficial violence against the affected communities. The same is true today, as hate crimes against Muslims have jumped to their highest level since the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
Fear of ‘Rigged’ Elections
For months, Trump has hinted to his supporters that this year’s election would be rigged in favor of Clinton. The hints turned into outright declaration on Oct. 14 when he told a crowd, “This whole election is being rigged. The whole thing is one big fix. One big ugly lie. It’s one big fix.”
That claim is easily the most dangerous thing Trump has said during his entire campaign. A presidential candidate calling into question the integrity of the election outcome stokes the fears of some people that their votes will not count. When the legitimacy of voting itself is under fire, political leaders need to reassure their supporters and affirm democracy. The only other path heads toward disunion.
Here’s what happened one time some of the losers would not accept the results of a presidential election. In the 1860 contest, Republican Abraham Lincoln defeated Democrat Stephen Douglas, Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge and Constitutional Union candidate John Bell. A month and a half after the election, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the union.
In that case, the Southern states didn’t actually think that Lincoln had rigged the election to his favor. But they decided they could not accept an opponent of slavery as the leader of their country and chose slavery over the union. They seceded before Lincoln even took office.
The end of the Civil War did not resolve the legitimacy crisis. Instead, many Southerners went on to question the legitimacy of their states’ Reconstruction governments. The essential complaint was that the newly freed African-American voters had a strong voice in their election. The Ku Klux Klan targeted black voters and their white allies with a campaign of terror. Under the Compromise of 1877, the national Republican Party agreed to pull back U.S. troops in the South, abandoning the freed slaves and their right to vote in exchange for continued political power.
Trump has called for his supporters to monitor voting sites in urban areas for potential fraud, a move that also has precedent in the post-war South. For decades under Jim Crow rule, the Klan and other groups of white citizens watched polling places and backed the use of lynching and violence to prevent African-Americans from voting.
In recent years, Republicans have been ginning up largely unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud and have passed laws across the country to tackle in-person voter fraud ― a “problem” that actually has an incidence rate between 0.00004 and 0.00009 percent, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. GOP officials in Kansas, North Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin, among many other states, have used overblown claims of voter fraud to justify the passage of voter ID legislation. Even House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has raised the false prospect of “legal votes” being canceled by “illegal votes.” Yet investigations and court rulings keep finding that in-person voter fraud is so rare as to not justify voter ID restrictions.
During the 2012 recall election for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), groups backing him discussed floating false rumors of voter fraud in case the race was too close to call. “Do we need to start messaging ‘widespread reports of election fraud’ so we are positively set up for the recount regardless of the final number? I obviously think we should,” one staffer suggested.
Now Trump is capitalizing on those fears, calling on his largely white supporters to go to black and other minority communities to ensure that the election is not rigged in Clinton’s favor.
His supporters have said they’ll do just that and seek to intimidate voters at polling places. One person said he would engage in “racial profiling,” looking for “Mexicans” or “Syrians,” and “make them nervous.” (It is illegal to intimidate voters at a polling place. In fact, Congress passed laws to prevent the Klan from trying that during Reconstruction.)
All this fear-mongering about election tampering has consequences ― in people’s hearts and perhaps in their actions. One Trump supporter, quoted in the Boston Globe, ominously noted, “If [Clinton’s] in office, I hope we can start a coup. She should be in prison or shot. That’s how I feel about it.”
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Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.
CORRECTION: President Warren Harding commuted Eugene Debs’ sentence but did not officially pardon him.