According to Merriam Webster, the primary definition of the word “Treason” is:
“The offense of attempting by overt acts to overthrow the government of the state to which the offender owes allegiance or to kill or personally injure the sovereign or the sovereign’s family.”
From a legal perspective, the US Constitution defines treason thusly:
“Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.”
Seems pretty clear. Treason is a serious crime. An actual charge of treason will get someone the death penalty in most countries. And in the United States, the burden of proof is higher for treason than for other crimes. Good thing, too, since an individual committing treason has literally become an enemy of the United States.
This is no small thing. Accusations of treason should not be thrown around loosely.
Now that we’ve established the gravity of this topic, and the seriousness and delicacy it requires, let’s bring in that master of verbal finesse, Donald Trump.
American political rhetoric is rich in hyperbole. Grandiose accusations of horrible malfeasance committed by political opponents is commonplace here. Many Americans just tolerate the theater as part of the game. We accept that politicians campaign as though the other side is an actual danger to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
That said, it’s rare that a significant national political figure casually tosses “treason” out into the conversation. It’s even more rare to hear a President speak in such stark terms. A better researcher than myself could give me a specific answer, but I can’t think of any time where Presidents Obama, Bush, or Clinton referred to a mainstream political rival as “a traitor,” or accused them of committing actual treason.
So, for a less-than-smooth segue, once again, let’s talk about President Trump. The 45th President is notoriously sloppy with facts and accuracy. Most online fact-checkers have awarded him some of the lowest marks for honesty from his public statements.
Beyond general dishonesty, he’s also known for dramatic, and even apocalyptic rhetoric.
Trump’s habit of enthusiastic slander has become commonplace, and it seems that many Americans (including those in the media tasked with calling out his excesses) have become somewhat numb to it all. It’s the boy who cried wolf on steroids. When every problem is the worst problem ever, one stops caring about the problem itself.
So with that in mind, let’s look at what the Dissembler-in-Chief said during a speech in Cincinnati today. He was referring to the tepid reaction he received from congressional Democrats during his State of the Union speech from last week.
“Even on positive news — really positive news, like that — they were like death and un-American. Un-American. Somebody said treasonous. 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.”
Now, those who pay attention to his pronouncements may notice one of his little rhetorical tricks. Rather than acknowledge a claim is coming from him, he’ll refer to some vague third party, where he heard about a statement. “Somebody said.” This helps insulate him from those who accuse him of directly lying. He can just claim somebody else said it, and he’s just repeating it like gossip. In fact, he’s done exactly that when called out on his dishonesty.
But he also made it clear he agreed with the notion of equating a lack of enthusiasm for one of his speeches with treason.
It’s well known that Donald Trump is not exactly a scholar on history, public policy, or governance. He likes to brag about being an expert on these things, but when grilled, he almost always demonstrates a frightening ignorance of pretty much any topic important to his job. But even with that in mind, it’s difficult to believe he doesn’t understand the gravity of something like treason.
Or maybe he really doesn’t understand, which may be an even scarier concept. Either way, what he’s saying is that publicly disagreeing with him is analogous to betraying the nation or giving support to its enemies.
Plenty of people smarter than myself have noted Trump’s authoritarian instincts. He has made it clear that he expected the presidency to provide him far more power and authority than it actually does. Most presidents find themselves frustrated with the political limitations of the job. But Trump is unique in that he frequently expresses a wish to limit the press, reduce access to voting, and curtail dissent. He has praised the policies and actions of brutal dictators, and of course is being investigated for allegedly working with the famously oppressive Russian government to manipulate the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election.
If Barack Obama were to have responded to the outburst from South Carolina Republican Representative Joe Wilson (You lie!) with an accusation of treason, I find it likely that many in the Republican leadership would have called for his resignation. It’s almost certain there would be a powerful political backlash.
But with Donald Trump – somebody who has repeatedly longed for more power – the reaction should rightfully be at least as severe as what Obama would have seen in that scenario.
I completely understand why people are already getting Trump fatigue. There’s been so much wrong and terrible with what has happened under his leadership, that it’s easy to ignore statements that don’t involve baiting unstable nuclear powers. But something like this really matters, and I want anyone who reads this to think long and hard about it.
Donald Trump received almost zero applause from Democratic Congresspersons during his first official State of the Union speech. The speech was full of his usual dishonesty and demagoguery. He’s immensely unpopular with Democrats. Enthusiasm was never likely. But regardless as to whether one agrees with him or not, free speech still matters. The right to dissent still matters.
Referring to polite dissent from political rivals as treason is dangerous.
Were the situation reversed, it’s very likely the backlash would have been extreme against a Democratic president. Time will tell if anything comes of this from a political standpoint. His comments are less than a day old as of this writing. But I strongly implore any readers of this piece not to dismiss this incident as yet another stupid statement from a political dilettante. The United States president has referred to a lack of applause as treasonous behavior. He equated a mild demonstration of disagreement with the highest possible crime against the nation.
Words matter. The meaning of terms like “treason” matters. It is vital we hold the president accountable for his reckless assault on our language, for his threats against our basic freedoms.
Dissent is not treason.
We need to remember this.