Now he says the shackles are off him.
I’ve watched political debates for 56 years. But Sunday’s featured the most shocking and frightening thing I ever heard in one: Trump’s threat to jail his opponent.
We take for granted our free and open political competition. But if government can interfere with that, voting is meaningless. That happens in too many countries, like Russia, Cuba, Iran, China, Egypt, and now Turkey, where politically challenging those in power means jail. Dictators everywhere pervert laws and courts to lock up critics. Even in some ostensible democracies like Singapore and Malaysia, governments abuse judicial processes to persecute and neutralize political opponents. We’ve just learned of South Africa’s well-respected finance minister being hit with corruption charges, an obvious political set-up (while President Zuma gets away with huge transgressions).
America was established to avoid just that kind of pernicious abuse, with a strong system of checks and balances, including an independent judiciary, and the First Amendment guaranteeing free expression. Our record is not spotless. The 1790s Alien and Sedition laws put a congressman behind bars for his anti-administration views; during the Civil War, some pro-slavery Northern politicians too were jailed; and Nixon tried to use the IRS to harass opponents. Yet those were exceptions that prove the rule. Throughout our history, the rule has been that you don’t use control over the levers of government power to beat on and intimidate political foes.
That, once more, has been a key underpinning of our democracy, because it gives opponents a fair chance of winning elections. And this is not even so much a consequence of our system and rules as it is a part of our culture. It’s our civic and political ethos; the way we’ve grown up to behave.
The matters for which Trump threatens to jail Hillary Clinton have been fully investigated by the relevant federal authorities, and as explained by the (Republican) FBI Director, they determined that no criminal charges are appropriate. But even if that were not so, a candidate talking about jailing his opponent is a visceral, terrifying threat to the kind of country we are. Hearing it froze my blood.
This is not how America does politics.