NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — It wasn’t quite the halcyon days of the 2016 presidential campaign, when lurid conspiracy theories about pizzeria dungeons and uranium deals hounded Hillary Clinton. Still, there it was, the classic chant, breaking out in the midst of President Trump’s two-hour speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual gathering of conservative grassroots activists: “Lock her up!”
Clinton is no longer conservatives’ favorite bogeywoman, that role having been largely usurped by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive Democrat from New York who was mentioned at the convention almost as often as Ronald Reagan. Still, the specter of the woman Trump beat hung over CPAC, in part as a reminder of what could have been, in part as a warning what may lay ahead — i.e., President Harris, President Biden, maybe even President Weld — if complacency were to take hold.
For the president and his supporters, Hillary Clinton is the horror movie villain who has been defeated — until the inevitable sequel, in which that villain returns reinvigorated, thirsting for revenge. One can never breathe easy. She could be hiding under the bed.
In fact, conservative commentator Tammy Bruce wished explicitly for a return. “In some ways [I] still want it to be her,” Bruce said, referencing Clinton in her CPAC appearance. “I sure hope it is, don’t you?”
“Wouldn’t it be awesome?” the moderator asked. The audience responded to the question with utter silence. Though rumors of a Clinton run in 2020 have surfaced in recent months, they have all been quickly debunked. With enough Democrats running in the presidential primary to fill a Boeing Dreamliner, even a candidate of Clinton’s stature could have trouble getting traction with voters.
Then again, what better than another Clinton run to relieve the greatest hits of the 2016 Trump campaign? His base may be glad to mock Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, or shower House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., with boos. But the hatred for Clinton among Trump supporters is like no other, a hatred supreme.
That much was in evidence when Mark Levin, the blustery talk radio host, announced in a stage whisper that he had a “big secret” to reveal. That secret was that “Hillary Clinton and the [Democratic National Committee] colluded with the Russia.” This appeared to be a reference to the Seth Rich conspiracy theory, which resides thoroughly in the realm of fiction. Levin the watched in delight as the audience erupted into competing chants of “USA” and “Lock her up.”
Levin went on to say that Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, the liberal stalwart who passed away in 2009, also “colluded with the Russians,” that Speaker Pelosi “colluded with the Syrians” and that Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas, “colluded with the Nicaraguans” (a reference to his 1987 attempt to circumvent President Reagan in peace talks). The obscure historical references appeared to be largely lost on the crowd.
It wasn’t long, however, before they were chanting, “Lock her up,” once again. Trump took the stage shortly after Levin, delivering the longest speech of his presidency to discourse on everything from 19th century trade policy (good, because the U.S. imposed high tariffs) to the weather at his Inauguration (bad, explaining why the crowd might have looked smaller than it actually was, because the grass was wet). His campaign against Clinton was, unsurprisingly, among the topics he dwelt on, though a potential more difficult challenge, against a better equipped political foe, looms in 2020.
In particular, Trump decided to revisit his unprecedented July 2016 call for Russian hackers to unearth emails from her private server that Clinton had failed to turn over to congressional investigators. Speaking at CPAC on Saturday, he marveled at how he had been taken seriously. In a mocking voice he recounted what he described as a satirical appeal: “Russia, please if you can, get us Hillary Clinton’s emails, please, Russia, please, please get us the emails.”
The crowd answered with three simple words that evoked the clanging door of a prison cell.
Although for many the chant of “Lock her up” represents little more than nostalgia for the great triumph of Trumpism, it is a guiding principle for Tom Fitton, head of conservative activist group Judicial Watch. For his part, he promised “more accountability for Hillary Clinton” in the next two years of the Trump presidency. He did not say what he meant, but the audience applauded all the same.
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