Trump’s Dark Assumption About America

The president is erasing the distinction between his political needs and the nation’s enduring interests, setting the stage for a potential crisis.

Evan Vucci / AP

A dark assumption seems baked into Donald Trump’s effort to strong-arm foreign leaders into unearthing dirt on Joe Biden: that Trump’s reelection victory is in the nation’s interests, because he and the nation are one and the same.

When that is a president’s mind-set, schemes that might seem unsavory and possibly impeachable become necessary acts of national service. Legitimate investigations into his behavior become plots against the state. An impeachment inquiry isn’t so much a constitutional process for determining whether a president violated the oath of office as a coup—a crime against country.

As Trump tries to preserve his presidency, he’s talking in just these grandiose terms, erasing the distinction between country and self, and grooming his base to see things the same way. That sort of thinking could ultimately portend a crisis, if Trump’s actions in the months ahead mirror his rhetoric. If Trump thinks of himself as the state, would he leave office were the Senate to convict him in an impeachment trial, or were he to lose the 2020 election? Or would he count on an embittered electoral coalition to rise up and repudiate the verdict?

The notion that a president won’t step aside when the time comes has always been unthinkable. Now it’s a question that’s openly debated—and will take on new urgency in the year ahead.

Trump’s grandiosity manifests itself in ways large and small. Through the first-person singular pronoun, he casts himself as the indispensable protagonist in the American story. At a Cabinet meeting last week, for example, he said, “I’m the one that did the capturing,” in reference to Islamic State terrorists. At another point, he said, “Look, I have the strongest economy ever.”

Perhaps the most extreme expression of Trump’s vaulting self-conception is his use of the word treason. Treason is a crime so serious that the framers took steps to ensure that it wouldn’t be misused for partisan purposes. It is a betrayal of one’s country, defined in Article III of the Constitution as levying war against the United States, or “adhering to” enemies and giving them “aid and comfort.” That’s not how Trump has sought to define it: disloyalty to a political leader or antipathy for that leader’s behavior.

Trump knows what treason means—or at least he once did. Talking to reporters aboard Air Force One in 2017, he described treason as Julius and Ethel Rosenberg passing secrets to the Soviet Union, acts of espionage that led to their execution in 1953. The word first popped up in his Twitter feed in September 2018, in reference to an anonymous op-ed in The New York Times describing how executive-branch officials resist Trump’s agenda. He has used the word two dozen times this year alone on Twitter, weaponizing it as his anger toward political opponents grows. Democrats who opposed his border measures, he tweeted in April, are “TREASONOUS.” Prosecutors working under Special Counsel Robert Mueller, he tweeted that same day, were perpetrating a “Treasonous Hoax!”

The latest enemy of the state is Democratic Representative Adam Schiff of California, the Intelligence Committee chairman who is running the impeachment probe. “I want Schiff questioned at the highest level for Fraud & Treason,” Trump tweeted last month. The crime: characterizing Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, in a way that didn’t match the rough transcript released by the White House. That doesn’t sound like grounds for lethal injection, but Trump doesn’t seem to care. Conspiring with Schiff is another traitorous villain, Trump told his 66 million Twitter followers earlier this month: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who authorized the impeachment probe.

Trump’s use of the word is anachronistic in the modern era, echoing the way monarchs deployed it in centuries past. Carlton Larson, a professor at the UC Davis School of Law and an expert on treason, told me that Trump has misused the term in ways that “confuse loyalty to the country with loyalty to Trump, which is the old English idea that treason was betrayal of the king.

“He’s completely inaccurate, woefully so, in his understanding of it, and it’s quite disturbing,” Larson continued. “I can’t think of another president who has tossed around that term so casually. In many countries, treason is used as a way to execute political opponents—and it’s because of that that we have a more limited definition.”

It’s not unusual for a sitting president to inflate his own importance. Large egos come with the job, and the trappings of the office would feed anyone’s hubris. Lyndon Johnson, walking toward what he thought was his helicopter after visiting troops in California, was told by an officer that it wasn’t his aircraft. “Son, they are all my helicopters,” the commander in chief replied. George W. Bush proclaimed imperiously during his second term, “I’m the decider.” Presidents can’t even enter a room in public without someone playing a song, as President Bill Clinton once noted.

But in comparison with past presidents, Trump’s sense of self is of a different order, his methods more audacious and his megalomania more blatant. He has tried to hijack the patriotic feeling that’s supposed to be the nation’s inheritance. In one telling moment earlier this year, at a conference of conservative activists, Trump came onstage and wrapped his arms around the American flag, fusing himself to the Stars and Stripes. “What he’s done is conflated himself with America,” Seth Norrholm, a neuroscientist who studies stress, anxiety, and trauma, and who has written about Trump’s mental state, told me. “He’s physically hugged the flag, but he’s also done that in his mind. If you attack him, you’re attacking America. You’re unpatriotic. ‘It’s very bad for our country!’”

That phrase is the core of Trump’s defense to any attacks on his conduct. Last year, Trump decried Mueller’s investigation as “an attack on our country, in a true sense. It’s an attack on what we all stand for.” In an appearance in Florida earlier this month, Trump said that CNN, whose pundits dissect his misstatements and stumbles, is “a terrible thing for our country.” So is the House impeachment inquiry into his efforts to pressure Ukraine, as he told reporters at the White House recently. Yet if Congress turns up evidence that a president has violated his oath of office, impeachment is a purgative that’s arguably good for the country, as the Constitution’s framers envisaged.

It’s possible, of course, that Trump’s rhetoric is just that—rhetoric. But what’s clear is that he’s been laying the groundwork for his base to be angry whenever it is that he leaves office. By signaling to his core supporters that his ouster would be a grievous injustice they shouldn’t tolerate, Trump is upending the basic premise that the president is a temporary custodian of the office and subject to laws and oversight. In a recent tweet, he quoted one of his prominent evangelical backers in saying his removal through impeachment would create an irreconcilable split reminiscent of the Civil War. He’s said that two years of his presidency were “stolen” from him by Mueller’s Russia investigation. His ex-lawyer and onetime confidant, Michael Cohen, warned at a congressional hearing in February that he worried that if Trump were to lose the 2020 election, he wouldn’t permit a “peaceful transition of power.”

Trump often taunts the press about just how long he plans to stay in office, suggesting he might linger beyond the two-term constitutional limit. Appearing at an energy conference in Pittsburgh last week, when the crowd chanted, “Four more years,” Trump egged them on: “Why don’t you drive them crazy? Go, ‘16 more years.’” Presumably, that was a joke, though he didn’t say.