In response to Poetry
My piece on Trump’s “treasonous” comments and the many examples of Democrats doing something similar over the past decade kicked up a lot of responses, some thoughtful like Jonah’s, and many more reflexively partisan. Let’s walk through the most common categories of responses I received, mostly on Twitter.
Does It Matter If Trump Was Joking?
The first point of pushback, including from Jonah, Kevin Williamson, and other thoughtful commentators on the Right, is that it doesn’t matter whether Trump was joking, because it’s damaging when the president says this sort of thing whether he’s joking or not, in part because some of his devotees will take him seriously. In one sense, I agree with this, and said so in my original post: Trump throwing this sort of language around is corrosive and bad for our public discourse even when it’s not meant to be serious. (One may note that a lot of bad consequences followed Obama “joking” about siccing the IRS on his political adversaries).
But, I still think it is important to highlight the fact that he was visibly not serious and playing the line for laughs. The line from a lot of liberal/progressive commentators is that this flap shows that Trump is literally Hitler: a tyrant and a bloody-minded authoritarian who wants to prosecute Members of Congress for failing to applaud him. That’s an argument that has consequences for how you approach Trump; if you believe it, it’s a valid argument for taking up arms against the federal government and shooting Republican Congressmen for ”collaborating” with him. Trump’s comments are, we should all agree, indefensible, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care why. It’s important to know whether or not such a serious charge is true, because it affects whether you treat Trump as a buffoon who is weakening the prestige and authority of the presidency or an incipient dictator who is strengthening it in dangerous ways.
Does It Matter If He Said “Treason”?
Trump’s core theme about the Democrats was that “They would rather see Trump do badly, OK, than our country do well,” and from that he drew the serious charge that Congressional Democrats were being “un-American” and, a good deal more facetiously, “treasonous.” I collected a number of examples of leading Democrats and some liberal pundits retailing essentially the same theme about Republicans during Obama’s presidency, with various turns of phrase: “treason,” “traitors,” “unpatriotic,” “terrorists,” needing America to fail, betting against America, sabotaging the economy, etc.
The response, especially from liberals, is that using the word “treasonous” is totally, 100% different from all the others. Again, there is a technical point in favor of this argument: the word “treason” invokes a specific body of law dealing with giving aid and comfort to America’s wartime enemies, which remains a capital crime; by contrast, it’s not against the law to be unpatriotic. I agree that it carries a little more weight for that reason, especially if you are – as Trump was not – arguing that people should be prosecuted for treason.
But fundamentally, to people who aren’t lawyers or law enforcement, the charge that public officials are actively rooting against or acting against their own country is basically the same charge no matter how it is phrased. The idea that it’s not at all problematic for Democrats to level the exact same charge if they used different wording is simply a dodge in order to avoid responsibility for a remarkably consistent rhetorical pattern.
Does It Matter If It’s The President?
Jonah notes that this kind of divisive language is worse if the president says it, because he’s supposed to represent all Americans rather than just one of two warring tribes. A number of my liberal/progressive interlocutors on Twitter insisted, more stridently, that none of my examples were relevant because I didn’t cite anything said by Obama himself (except for the one time I did actually quote Obama himself).
I agree that it’s worse for the president to do it. I don’t agree that it’s totally irrelevant or easily forgiven for others to do so – especially since the others in this case included not just Democratic Congressional leadership, Vice President Biden (a repeat offender), and presidential candidate (and later nominee) Hillary Clinton, but also the White House Press Secretary and many leading members and spokesmen from Obama’s presidential campaign team (Axelrod, Messina, Plouffe). The idea that Democrats – including Democrats whose job was literally to act as spokespeople for Obama – retailed this stuff for years without Obama having any knowledge or approval of it is ridiculous, and particularly risible coming from the same sorts of liberals who are constantly demanding that all Republicans be held responsible for every last thing said by obscure state legislative candidates – yet, they can walk away from statements made by their own Senate Majority Leader, House Whip, current Senate Minority Leader, the Governor of New York, etc.
(Also, there’s more where the stuff I cited came from. For example, in 2008, candidate Obama explicitly called President Bush “unpatriotic.” His stated reason for doing so was that Bush had run up the national debt, although by that measure, Obama himself ran up twice as much debt in office as Bush did, and thus failed his own definition of patriotism. If you go back to 2001, you can find the Democratic leadership in Congress explicitly accusing Bush and Cheney of deliberately sabotaging the economy in order to justify tax cuts.)
Did Republicans Deserve It?
Another line of defense is that hey, Republicans actually deserved to be called unpatriotic traitors because they tried to stop Obama’s legislative agenda, whereas all Democrats did was not clap. But this is a bad-faith reading of the situation. Democrats under Trump, like Republicans under Obama, have remained united against the president’s economic agenda. Like Republicans under Obama. they are fresh off a (failed) effort to gain leverage by shutting down the government. And charges of the opposition rooting against the country’s success are hardly new to either of these presidencies. It requires a willful failure to listen to what Trump said leading into his remarks, and what Democrats have done, to pretend that somehow the situation is radically distinct from the context in which Democrats leveled these charges throughout Obama’s presidency.
Does It Matter If It’s Foreign Policy?
Finally one of the sets of quotes I included – notably including the line from Obama about how “members of Congress want to make common cause with the hardliners in Iran” – was on a foreign policy controversy, the Iran deal, rather than “rooting against the economy.” In general, I agree that – while it is dangerously hyperbolic – it’s at least more in the neighborhood of “treason” to accuse domestic political opponents of such things when they side with the nation’s enemies in wartime. It’s why the charge of the Trump team being “treasonous” for cozying up to Putin during the 2016 election cycle, while stupid as a legal matter, is not totally out of bounds as political rhetoric.
Then again, the ridiculousness of the charge in the Iran Deal context was precisely because that’s the opposite of what Obama and his team were doing. They accused Republicans of treasonous activities for telling an American enemy that Republicans regarded them as an enemy and would treat them as such even if Obama didn’t. Obama had to come up with a convoluted argument that taking a harder line against enemies in Iran meant Republicans were traitors because the hardliners in the Iranian regime were purportedly opposed to a deal – never mind that the hardliners run the Iranian government, and were thus ultimately the people Obama was striking a deal with over Republican objections.
At the end of the day, a lot of people who had no problem with the leaders of the Democratic Party charging their domestic political opponents with being treasonous or unpatriotic simply for opposing their policy agenda are desperately trying now to denounce Trump – who deserves denouncing – while using his conduct to Trumpwash their own years of malfeasance and avoid any consequences. If you stand for the same things no matter who is in office, you should be able to step back and admit the long, shameful record of Democrats on this point over the past decade. If you can’t do that, your criticisms of Trump, no matter how much he may deserve them, are in bad faith and should not be taken seriously.