Cameras pointed, we’re live and the
spotlights are on. Trump and Clinton
circle each other, clutching microphones:
Clinton dressed in a white trouser suit,
Trump in a black suit with a red tie.
Trump: "If I win, I’m going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation, because there’s never been so many lies, so much deception.”
Clinton: "It’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country."
Trump: "Because you’d be in jail."
This was the dialogue that unfolded at the widely televised penultimate presidential debate in October 2016. It was also the origins of “Lock Her Up” – a phrase that roared through the maniacal crowds at Trump rallies leading up to and after the election.
It was quite clear that locking one’s opponent in a cage was not an officially sanctioned policy of Trump’s administration, but it was a phrase firmly rooted in his campaign’s attack strategy, which was aimed directly at Clinton’s much distorted email scandal. While a lot of criticism throughout the election cycle has focused on resuscitated ideas of gender and the spectacle of gender choreography in reference to the presidential debates, Trump’s disdain for women throughout has been nothing but constant and abundantly clear – so much so that it would be impossible to posit any additional comment.
It would, however, be easy to dismiss Trump’s loose vernacular as warped political candour or a fumbling demagogue’s attempt at rattling the sabre for his/the world’s entertainment. It may even have begun as this, but it quickly devolved into an unmitigated battle of legal fact verses fiction. Pitchforks raised and torches lit, Trump supporters began frenziedly booming for Hillary’s public incarceration, while judiciaries and legal academics began frantically picking through what if scenarios and speculations, asking the question: “Could a sitting president legally accomplish this?” Entertainment had morphed into speculation, and speculation had in turn morphed into a viable threat, manoeuvring actuaries with a complexity comparable to a Thomas Pynchon novel.
A frequent description used to describe Trump’s election win has been “this is like something from fiction” – a description that is worth interrogating, largely over why this idea feels so ultimately alien given the cinematic, cultural and historical nature of the American collective consciousness. Throughout the 20th century and up until now, Hollywood has frequently depicted its presidents as stereotypical male role models: powerful men of honour who command with a sense of moral urgency and a predilection for action. Films such as Mars Attacks, Air Force One, The Contender, The American President and Independence Day have all depicted American presidents (ironically Democrats) as protagonist martyrs defending the flag and constitution from outsiders. As an audience, we have often heard the phrase “The president is on the line” or “Fire the weapon”. These quotes, although caricatures of American leadership, would not I imagine be too distant in Trump’s mind from examples of exemplary presidential leadership skills. “Lock Her Up” could be classified as possessing a similar aesthetic of delivery.
And so to answer the question “Could a sitting president, legally accomplish this?” Yes, if a special prosecutor were to agree with Trump’s assessment that Clinton’s email practices violated criminal laws about mishandling classified information. As such, I imagine Hillary’s incarceration to be a spectacle of televisual cruelty: cameras, fences, electricity and neon lights. A tuned-in audience one hundred million strong.