Politics & Policy

No, It Is Not ‘Treason’

(Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
We need to forgo irresponsible accusations of treachery.

In the words of the sage:

“Settle down, Beavis.”

We are in the midst of a great and greatly embarrassing national outbreak of hysterical ninnyism, for the moment focused on the person of Donald J. Trump, the failed casino operator and reality-television figure who was inexplicably elected president of these United States by an electorate that apparently has abandoned (together with its senses) the national motto of “E Pluribus Unum” for “Hey, how could it possibly be any worse?” which is of course the most unconservative sentiment there is.

Some of this is to be expected. We expect hysterical ninnyism from talk radio and the cable-news ranters and the more jackass corners of the Internet. It is always the end of the world when you have gold coins to peddle and dehydrated apocalypse lasagnas to move: Ron Paul loves freedom, and he loves, loves, loves his freeze-dried ice cream. Nuts are nuts, and it is the nature of certain subgenres of media to bring out the shallowness and stupidity in people who didn’t know they had it in them: Watching the underlying business realities of MSNBC transform Chris Hayes into the Sean Hannity of the Left has been painful to watch, but it was not entirely unexpected.

“Treason” is the word of the moment, along with “traitor.” And this allegation is not coming only from yahoos on Twitter but from yahoos on Twitter who are university professors at Harvard. Laurence Tribe, who once was considered a possible candidate for a Supreme Court seat, is among those who recently have taken to the public square to suggest that President Trump may be guilty of “treason.” Treason is a well-defined crime, the elements of which are specified in no less a document than the Constitution itself. There is no plausible case that Trump is guilty of treason, inasmuch as even if he were entirely guilty of whatever it is the Democrats imagine him to have done, there exists no state of hostilities between the United States and Russia, which would be necessary for treason to have been committed.

We aren’t talking about Keith Olbermann here. Olbermann shouts “Treason and Treachery!” if his assistant accidentally brings him a latte made with dairy milk rather than soy milk. He is not a lunatic, but he plays one on television to some success. Richard Blumenthal, arguably the dumbest man in a Senate that includes Bob Casey Jr., has used the word “treason” in reference to the president. Harvard Law’s John Shattuck has done the same. Historian Douglas Brinkley told the Washington Post, “There a smell of treason in the air,” and Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times quoted him approvingly.

The related word “traitor” is being thrown around a good deal, too, and not exclusively at Trump. The Catholic diocese of Mexico City recently published a statement that any Mexican who helps with the construction of a U.S. border wall — say, the gentlemen who own Cemex — ought to be considered “traitors.” With all due respect for Mexico City’s admirable Norberto Cardinal Rivera Carrera, His Eminence and his editors ought to consider taking a deep breath and meditating on the virtue of charity. There are Mexicans, and Mexican Americans, who hold a wide range of views on immigration policy, and none of those views makes any one of them a “traitor.” There is a very wide range of moral territory between “wrong” and “traitor.”

You can move from a dispute over insurance regulation to accusations of mass murder pretty quickly, provided you are either dumb or dishonest enough.

My friend Michael Berry, a lawyer and talk-radio host, this week performed a real service when one of his more excitable listeners called in to suggest that a federal judge, who had put the kibosh on the president’s No-Muslims-Well-That’s-Not-Exactly-What-We-Mean-But-Mostly-No-Muslims executive order, ought to be charged with murder. If you close your eyes and work yourself into the sort of state where your anger begins to bring down your IQ, you can just about see the reasoning: If the judge prevents policy X from being enacted, and people die who might have been saved by policy X, then those who opposed policy X are complicit in those deaths and hence guilty of murder. Berry very carefully explained what it takes for an action to add up to murder, but I fear he may as well have been talking to a pumpkin. Once someone develops a real taste for rage, it is a hard habit to break: Democrats, and not only the ones who call in to talk-radio programs, have been offering more or less the same murder indictment regarding the American Health Care Act. Phil Wilson of the Black AIDS Institute called the act “genocide.”



Democrats ranging from Senator Elizabeth Warren to Senator Bernie Sanders suggested that the Republicans were using legislation to intentionally inflict death on thousands of Americans in order to score a few political points. You can move from a dispute over insurance regulation to accusations of mass murder pretty quickly, provided you are either dumb or dishonest enough.

President Trump, of course, is far from being above this sort of thing. (There is not very much he seems to be above.) Perhaps he has not read his Ibsen and was not paying very much attention during the 20th century, but his labeling of his media critics as “enemies of the people” harkens to a favorite allegation of dictators and caudillos around the world. Biased and incompetent journalists are not “enemies of the people.” They are PolitiFact writers, and they deserve our pity.

Settle down, America.

Perhaps “treason” is destined to become, like “fascism,” a word that simply means: “I hate you.”

It is possible, and even seems likely, that Trump behaved improperly in the matter of the firing of James Comey and in his earlier attempts to exert influence on the FBI. His administration includes some excellent people, but his circle also includes a rogues’ gallery of cretins, misfits, and profiteers with links not only to the Kremlin but to a few other surpassingly creepy foreign governments. This should be investigated, both by Congress and by the relevant law-enforcement and national-security agencies. But there is no plausible accusation against him that amounts to treason, and even most of the wildly implausible allegations fall short of that, too. This ought to be of some concern to both sides: Treason brings with it a pretty heavy burden of proof, and Democrats who invoke that crime are going to over-promise and under-deliver.

Perhaps “treason” is destined to become, like “fascism,” a word that simply means: “I hate you.” But if so, we’re going to need a new word for what “treason” used to mean, because it does come up from time to time.


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– Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.


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