Steve Hochstadt is a writer and an emeritus professor of history at Illinois College.
We are now witnesses to the most dangerous act of selfishness from the King of the Self. Trump knows the evidence for any form of election fraud is silly fantasy. His electoral deficits are beyond challenge--74 Electoral College votes and more than 5 million popular votes. Yet he repeats his denunciations of American elections, the bedrock of any democracy, that began when he was only a candidate. In October 2016, he called the election “one big, ugly lie”.
His disastrous character flaws are obvious to everyone. We, and here I mean all those who care about the real world around us, must now go beyond psychological analysis to political clarity. Trump is a traitor.
That most despised word is not necessarily synonymous with committing treason as defined in law. In the midst of a war against a foreign oppressor, our founders explicitly limited treason in Article III: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.” For centuries, our judicial system has hewed to that original language, standing on “only”.
The label traitor was used in a wider sense by Joseph McCarthy and the legions of supporters for his conspiracy theories. He asserted in 1954 that Democrats were the “party of treason” and the entire administrations of FDR and Harry Truman were guilty of “twenty years of treason”. The foreign enemy was obvious then, even without a declaration of war. Although many Democrats supported the anti-communist witch hunts associated with McCarthy’s name, Republicans have been using accusations of communism, and thus collaboration with the enemy, in elections ever since. John Stormer’s 1964 book “None Dare Call It Treason”, asserting that America had been thoroughly infiltrated by Communists, played an important role in Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign and in influencing Ronald Reagan’s political philosophy.
Some of Trump’s foreign acts have skirted the line to treason, and I expect we will eventually learn more about details of his relationship with Russia that do involve giving aid to an enemy of America. But Trump has been the only President to routinely accuse the other major political party, which represents the majority of voting Americans, of being traitors, even for such petty offenses as not applauding his State of the Union address in 2018.
To properly judge Trump’s current behavior, we must think about treason inclusively. A useful conception of treason should include attempts to overthrow our constitutional system from within. Pinochet, the junta in Argentina, Mussolini, and Hitler all conspired to overthrow their own democratic governments. They were traitors to their fundamental laws.
Trump embarked months ago on an attempt to bring down the American republic during this election. Claiming that the 2016 vote that put him in the White House was rigged was typical of his unscrupulous boorishness and political egotism, but in a different category than asserting that the Democrats were from the beginning plotting to steal this election and are now doing that in front of our eyes. If there was any truth to this accusation, Democrats would be committing treason. But there isn’t, and that is abundantly clear to all but those Americans who believe every word of the President.
I might consider taking up arms against any group who was trying to take over my country, and I don’t even own arms. It is not surprising that Trump believers have brought weapons to intimidate elected officials, have plotted to kill Democratic Party leaders, and are now threatening revolt. Trump is purposely destroying the faith of millions of Americans in the legitimacy of their system of government. Afterwards he plans to return to his golden existence. But those supporters are making themselves outcasts in America, armed, angry, and woefully misinformed.
Commentators have searched for the proper words to label Trump’s current actions. Thomas B. Edsall asked many election experts about Trump’s behavior, and their responses include the words narcissism, sociopathy, dangerous, irrationalism, delusion, and norm-busting. The political scientist Bryan Garsten wrote in a New York Times opinion piece (November 9) that we should label Trump a “demagogue” as a way to protect our country from the next one. Sean Wilentz, professor of history at Princeton, was more politically pointed: if Trump rejected these election results, “it would be an act of disloyalty unsurpassed in American history except by the southern secession in 1860-61, the ultimate example of Americans refusing to respect the outcome of a presidential election.”
Margaret Sullivan wondered in a Washington Post column on Nov. 12 how journalists should “navigate this tricky path”: “How do you cover something that, at worst, lays the groundwork for a coup attempt and, at best, represents a brazen lie that could be deeply damaging to American democracy?”
It matters what words we use to label Trump. If the combination of Republican voter suppression and Republican rejection of election results is not called out for what it is, Trump will not just be busting norms, but destroying our still imperfect union. The proper label for that crime is treason.
Bank robbers who sign their hold-up notes may be incompetent, but they are still committing robbery. Just because Trump’s actions are clumsy, petulant, and unlikely to succeed, is no reason not to label their criminality properly.
And Trump is succeeding, at least in public relations. Seven in 10 Republicans now say the 2020 election was not free and fair: 48 percent of Republicans say it “definitely” was not free and fair, and another 22 percent say it “probably” was not. That’s twice the share of Republicans just before the election who said the race would not be free and fair. Before November, 68 percent of GOP voters said they had some trust in our elections. Now that has dropped to 34 percent.
The greatest security risk we face is not an external enemy. Only one-third of Republicans believe in American democracy. More than one-third think it is likely that the results we have heard will be overturned.
Trump’s tweet two days after the election, “STOP THE COUNT!”, has been widely misunderstood. Election officials do not heed his tweeted instructions. He was urging his supporters to stop those officials from counting ballots. That was incitement to insurrection.
Bringing a prosecution against Trump for treason would be futile and counter-productive. The flag-hugger’s treason is less a legal matter than a rhetorical issue. The recent willingness of news networks to label Trump’s lies as lies may not have swayed many of his supporters, but it has brought clarity to our thinking. Calling his efforts to overturn this election “treason” clarifies the significance of Trump’s anti-American actions.
Having a traitor in the White House was the fantasy of the TV thriller “Designated Survivor”. Now life imitates bad art.
November 12, 2020