Donald Trump has often had harsh words for his critics, even calling them “un-American,” but on Monday, he ratcheted that up significantly while talking about the State of the Union during an appearance in Ohio.
“You’re up there, you’ve got half the room going totally crazy, wild—they loved everything, they want to do something great for our country. And you have the other side, even on positive news—really positive news, like that—they were like death and un-American. Un-American,” the president said. “Somebody said, ‘treasonous.’ I mean, yeah, I guess, why not? Can we call that treason? Why not? I mean, they certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much.”
Spoiler alert: We cannot call that treason.
There is a legal definition for this, and dourly refusing to clap during a partisan speech isn’t covered. The State of the Union was supposed to be Trump’s bipartisan moment in which he reached across the aisle. Apparently that effort stopped the moment he concluded the speech, if not earlier, since literally calling your political opponents traitors is perhaps the least bipartisan step one can take in a two-party system.
One wonders who the “somebody” who Trump cited was; at times, “somebody” is his proxy for an idea that he came up with (cf. “many people are saying”), while at other times it’s shorthand for something he saw on Fox and Friends or Twitter. It’s a decent bet in this case that somebody was Trump himself, because it’s not the first time recently he’s made a similar charge. In January, speaking to The Wall Street Journal, he attacked Peter Strzok, an FBI agent who wrote texts (not tweets, as Trump said) critical of him.
“What went on with the FBI, where a man is tweeting to his lover that if she loses, we’ll essentially go back to the—we’ll go to the insurance policy, which is—if they lose, we’ll go to phase 2, and we’ll get this guy out of office,” he said. “I mean, this is the FBI we’re talking about. I think that is—that is treason. See, that’s treason right there.”
This, too, is outrageous: Strzok was exchanging private text messages about someone who wasn’t even president. But (and this is important), there’s no reason a federal employee can’t criticize a sitting president. Trump’s attacks on both Democrats and Strzok are the latest manifestation of the president’s Sun King-esque conflation of himself with the government. This leads Trump to believe all American successes are reducible to him, all criticism of the government is a personal attack on him, and, most dangerously in this case, that any personal attack on him is therefore an attack on the United States.
Usually when Trump makes an outrageous statement like this, his aides try to walk it back by insisting it was a joke. Right on cue, White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said Trump was being “tongue in cheek.” On some level, this is probably true—the nonchalance with which he accused Democrats of treason is a sign of his unseriousness.
The nonchalance, the sort-of-jokiness, is part of what makes it so chilling, too. Treason is one of those terms, and crimes, that loses its power from overuse, not unlike accusing people of Nazism. James Hohmann notes that George W. Bush never publicly used the word during his presidency, and Barack Obama used it only twice, on successive days, deploring the tendency to label one’s political opponents as traitors.
Just because Trump is not, at this moment, referring Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to the Justice Department for prosecution as traitors doesn’t make these accusations without consequence. In the case of Puerto Rico’s hurricane recovery, Trump’s pique at being criticized seemed to actually result in the federal government downplaying the need for aid to the island; Puerto Rico remains in bad shape months after the hurricane left.
There are several possibilities for what might happen if and when “treason” becomes a term casually tossed around for those with whom one disagrees. One is that people who actually betrayed the country might get off easy. The other is that the state will become a tool for punishing dissent and disagreement with the president. Perhaps the most likely outcome is both.
On the one hand, consider the Russia probe. There is at this point no evidence of any crime that rises to the level of treason, but there is evidence of disturbing behavior involving foreign powers. That includes Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos’s admissions that they lied about conversations with Russians; the swirling questions about Carter Page’s interactions with the Russians; the prospect that Paul Manafort sought to subvert the Trump campaign to settle a debt with a Russian oligarch; and the central, broad question of whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russians to change the course of the election. If Democrats are guilty of treason for simply sitting on their hands, then these crimes can be downplayed into insignificance.
On the other hand, making treason a common accusation makes it much easier to punish political opponents for lesser offenses. There is no lack of irony when Trump accuses Barack Obama of McCarthyism, and his son calls the Russia probe the same. The anti-Hillary Clinton campaign chant of “lock her up” began as a sort of joke, too, but on Monday the White House said it wants a second special counsel to investigate the Justice Department’s handling of the 2016 election, including its decision not to charge Clinton with any crimes for her use of a private email server and account. In other words, what was a joke has now moved toward actually reopening a prosecution for political ends.
Trump accused Obama of using the state for political ends, but he’s actually doing it. Meanwhile, the president is eroding the independence of the Justice Department and the FBI and raging about the lack of loyalty to him personally among top leaders. He has referred to the press as “enemy of the American people.” He’s doing this while accusing Democrats of treason for not clapping and Peter Stzrok of treason for thinking lowly of him.
That’s not treasonous, but it certainly is un-American.