The Corner

Politics & Policy

Is Trump Serious About “Treasonous” Democrats?

By now, we’re all familiar with President Trump’s remarkable gift for saying outrageous things that create controversy entirely for its own sake. These controversies generally feature his liberal critics overreacting by many orders of magnitude and his diehard fans getting a thrill at watching how easily he trolls them into doing so, while the rest of us wonder why we can’t argue about things that actually matter.

And so, today, at the end of an extended riff about the Democratic reactions to various parts of his State of the Union address (like his claims about low black and Hispanic unemployment), Trump told a crowd in Ohio this:

“They would rather see Trump do badly, OK, than our country do well…it’s very selfish…even on positive news, really positive news like that, they were like death and Un-American. Un-American. Somebody said ‘treasonous.’ I mean, yeah, I guess, why not? [laughter] Can we call that treason? Why not. [laughter] I mean, they certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much. But you look at that and it’s really very, very sad.”

On the one hand, if you watch the actual video, you can see the flippancy here. Trump is plainly not being serious about treason – he’s playing this for laughs, and getting them – and liberals going to DEFCON 1 as if he is are yet again proving how little interest they have in distinguishing between tyranny and mere boorishness. The loss of perspective is just wearying to watch at this point. The real problem here is not that Trump is going around actually calling in deadly earnest for his political opponents to be prosecuted for treason (something Democrats do to Trump and his family and advisors literally every day, by the way) but that he’s basically openly mocking the idea that words in politics mean anything at all. Say what you want about calling your opponents traitors and wanting it taken seriously, at least it’s an ethos. But then, that’s the subversive, somewhat cleansing but ultimately corrosive part of Trump’s brand of political performance art: he’s talking to people who by and large think that politicians never mean anything they say, and he’s out there telling them, you’re right. We can say anything we want and none of it matters. It’s all a racket. Hey, how ’bout you and I call each other traitors and then punch the clock at the end of the day and get a drink together? Maybe our political class really has earned being treated this way, but every time Trump does it, he makes it harder to rebuild the broken norms he inherited and has treated with such contempt.

On the other hand, we really should not pass by the liberal freakout over Trump’s remarks without noting, as usual, how thoroughly disingenuous it is. The idea that President Obama’s critics were unpatriotic, treasonous, terroristic, etc. for not wanting him to succeed was a perennial of liberal rhetoric from 2009-16. Over and over, conservatives and Republicans were accused of the very thing Trump is throwing around today: rooting against America out of a desire to see the president fail. Just a few examples (thanks to David Harsanyi for collecting a number of these):

March 2009:

On Tuesday, liberal talk radio host Stephanie Miller called Rush Limbaugh’s now well-publicized statement about wanting Barack Obama to fail “treasonous,” and wondered if he should be executed for saying such a thing. Miller made this rather provocative comment on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” and oddly nobody batted an eye or seemed at all put off by it.

June 2009, Paul Krugman on Republicans opposing a climate-change bill:

[A]s I watched the deniers make their arguments, I couldn’t help thinking that I was watching a form of treason — treason against the planet…is it fair to call climate denial a form of treason? Isn’t it politics as usual? Yes, it is — and that’s why it’s unforgivable…Yet the deniers are choosing, willfully, to ignore that threat, placing future generations of Americans in grave danger, simply because it’s in their political interest to pretend that there’s nothing to worry about. If that’s not betrayal, I don’t know what is.

August 2011:

Vice President Joe Biden joined House Democrats in lashing tea party Republicans Monday, accusing them of having “acted like terrorists” in the fight over raising the nation’s debt limit, according to several sources in the room. Biden was agreeing with a line of argument made by Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) at a two-hour, closed-door Democratic Caucus meeting. “We have negotiated with terrorists,” an angry Doyle said, according to sources in the room. “This small group of terrorists have made it impossible to spend any money.” Biden, driven by his Democratic allies’ misgivings about the debt-limit deal, responded: “They have acted like terrorists.”

September 2011:

Republicans would rather see the country collapse than President Obama succeed, the second-ranking House Democrat charged Tuesday. Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip, said the GOP’s near-blanket opposition to Obama’s policy proposals is evidence that many Republicans have adopted the sentiment — articulated most clearly by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — that their top priority is making Obama a one-term president. ”The leader in the Senate said his principal objective is to defeat Barack Obama, and therefore — and this is important — what follows is that America needs to fail over the next 14 months,” Hoyer told reporters at the Capitol. ”Because if America succeeds, if jobs are created, if the economy starts growing, then some would believe that it would be to the political benefit of Barack Obama and the Democrats. 

May 2012:

Are Republican lawmakers deliberately stalling the economic recovery to hurt President Barack Obama’s re-election chances? Some top Democrats say yes, pointing to GOP stances on the debt limit and other issues that they claim are causing unnecessary economic anxiety and retarding growth. The latest Democratic complaint came after House Speaker John Boehner said Tuesday that when Congress raises the nation’s borrowing cap in early 2013, he will again insist on big spending cuts to offset the increase….That led Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to say Boehner is virtually assuring another debt-ceiling crisis as bad or worse than the one that shook financial markets nine months ago…”I hope that the speaker is not doing this because he doesn’t want to see the economy improve, because what he said will certainly rattle the markets.”…

Schumer and other top Democrats have said for months that GOP lawmakers may be trying to strangle the economic recovery for political reasons. ”Their strategy is to suffocate the economy for the sake of what they think will be a political victory,” Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, wrote in an email to supporters last October, when Congress was debating a jobs bill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said his Republican counterpart was not cooperating on that legislation “in hopes that he can get my job, perhaps.” Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, told The Associated Press last year that some GOP lawmakers, “through their intransigence, cleverly set up a situation for America’s economy to fail, either by needlessly driving us to default, or needlessly driving us into massive public-sector layoffs.”

(More here from Barbara Boxer in the same vein). And

You get the idea; this stuff was constant during Obama’s tenure, not even counting the Obama Administration’s recurring drumbeat about how high taxes are synonymous with “economic patriotism,” or the many times Republicans in Congress were referred to as “hostage” takers, or the various “treason” charges brought against Trump during the 2016 campaign before he was in office. Donald Trump didn’t invent this stuff, or really even innovate all that much, and unlike Trump, Democrats didn’t spend eight years saying it with a wink and a laugh.


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