Fans at a baseball game booing the president of the United States — as they did Sunday night in Washington, D.C., during Game 5 of the World Series — is as American as mom and apple pie. It is a laudable form of democratic dissent.
Considering that President Trump almost never steps foot outside his hermetically sealed bubble of devoted followers and enablers, it’s almost certainly a good thing for him to hear from the voices of his political opponents.
What about the fans who chanted “lock him up” at Trump? It’s hard to chastise them either. When you consider the breadth of the president’s law-breaking and corruption; his unceasing efforts to obstruct justice and his abuses of power; and his use of that phrase against Hillary Clinton, a call for him to be held accountable for his actions is appropriate — even if the language might not be.
And yet, the whole episode has given me a palpable feeling of apprehension about the increasingly dark place to which are politics have moved — and where they are still headed.
Three years ago when Trump said — at a presidential debate no less — that Hillary Clinton would be in jail if he were president it felt like fascism in America.
Threatening to imprison one’s political opponents is what happens in banana republics, not in a country with a democratic legacy and peaceful turnover of power that dates back centuries.
So by that measure, it should be wrong to direct the same mantra at Trump, right?
Yes and no. When it comes to Trump, the “lock him up” chant is less a call for extrajudicial punishment, and more a demand for accountability.
After all, we have fairly clear evidence that the president has repeatedly broken the law. There are the 10 incidents of obstruction of justice in the Mueller Report; the obvious evidence of a quid pro quo in the Ukraine scandal; and the fact that he’s been implicated in a criminal conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws.
Anyone who suggests there is a moral equivalency between the mob sentiment of the “lock her up” chants directed at Clinton and the implicit calls for justice in the “lock him up” chants is selling snake oil.
In an ideal world, Trump would be impeached by the House, removed from office by the Senate, and potentially prosecuted for his public actions by the Justice Department. No American should be above the law, particularly the president of the United States.
But, “Impeach, remove, prosecute” doesn’t have the same ring as “Lock him up.”
Still, one has to engage in some serious cognitive dissonance to ignore the deeply corrosive impact on American democracy when a sizable portion of each party thinks the other side’s leaders should be in jail.
This is true even if one recognizes which political party is overwhelmingly responsible for it.
Assigning blame doesn’t answer the question of how does this debilitating partisanship and polarization end.
Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?
Increasingly, it’s hard to see. There’s no reason to believe that the modern Republican Party has any interest at all in crafting a political strategy that appeals to the “better angels of our nature.”
We can expect more of the same that we’ve experienced for the past nearly three years if Trump is reelected — and likely a far measure worse.
If Democrats take the White House and both Houses of Congress, the only way they will be successful if they push through their policy agenda, irrespective of GOP complaints, scrap the filibuster, and potentially pack the Supreme Court with liberal judges. The inevitable pleas for bipartisanship from the GOP and the pundit class are a call for more dysfunction and inaction in Washington because there is no legitimate reason to believe it will happen. Rightly or wrongly, such a path will simply feed conservative anger.
If they seek the mythical common ground of bipartisanship or if Republicans continue to control the Senate, it will mean more gridlock, more inaction, and continued polarization.
Either way, it’s hard to see any path forward that doesn’t lead to more enmity and greater, more intense division.
But where does that leave America? How can any decision by Congress or the president be considered legitimate when half the country thinks the people making them are criminals and have no legitimacy to rule? How does America come together when 79 percent of Republicans and 80 percent of Democrats think member of the other party don’t share their values?
I’d like to say I have an answer to all this, but I don’t — none of us do. It’s impossible to identify a silver bullet that will compel the two parties to find common ground. It’s hard to find a national issue that will bring the country together and recognize its shared future as Americans. Maybe that’s always been the case and we simply mythologize the past as being one of country over party and bipartisan cooperation. But rarely before have we seen such intense partisanship between the two parties, such abject delegitimization of political opponents — and never have we had a president who had so mightily earned it.
It’s fun to cheer the boobirds in Washington on Sunday night. It’s comforting, I suppose for some, to see the discomfort on Trump’s face when he heard them. It’s easy to dismiss the decorum scolds bemoaning “lock him up” chants. What is harder is recognizing that it only gets worse from here.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.