Trump’s 'treason' talk is unprecedented, un-American

Trump’s 'treason' talk is unprecedented, un-American
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Last week, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTom Arnold claims to have unreleased 'tapes' of Trump Cohen distances himself from Tom Arnold, says they did not discuss Trump US military indefinitely suspends two training exercises with South Korea MORE suggested congressional Democrats were guilty of “treason” for failing to applaud his State of the Union speech. As he put it, “Can we call that treason? Why not?”

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The White House later maintained that he was just joking. And some claim that this is just how we all talk about politics these days. But it isn’t. President George W. Bush did not publicly utter the word “traitor” or "treason" during eight years in office. President Obama said it twice — urging Americans not to call their political opponents traitors. Meanwhile, within his first few months in office, Trump had already accused an FBI agent of “treason,” and called the media “the enemy of the American people.”

Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Thailand, and even the Netherlands criminalize “lèse-majesté” — insulting the king. Others, such as Venezuela and Poland, use “criminal defamation” laws to ban insulting government officials. Mr. Trump may envy the leaders of these countries. In the Oval Office, he ruminated that:

“It is frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write, and people should look into it.”

But in the United States, the Constitution’s First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and of the press. And failing to applaud the president, or even insulting him, is not treason, which has a precise definition. In fact, it is the only crime specifically defined in the Constitution itself. Article III  provides:

“Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”

As James Madison observed in the Federalist Papers, the Founders insisted upon this narrow definition to prevent the proliferation of “new-fangled and artificial treasons.” They may not have envisioned Donald Trump. But they understood England’s history of “the malignant spirit of inventing treasons” against political opponents — often under the rubric of “imagin(ing) the death of our lord the King.”

It’s unlikely that Trump knows any of that history, but his treason talk is part of a larger authoritarian tendency. Weeks earlier, the Secretary of Homeland Security confirmed a disturbing earlier statement by the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement: the administration is exploring arresting and prosecuting the mayors of U.S. cities that do not assist federal immigration authorities. Meanwhile, Trump has reportedly directed the Pentagon to plan a giant military parade down the streets of Washington, D.C. — a spectacle rarely seen in the United States, and with disturbing echoes of Soviet and North Korean displays.

Donald Trump didn’t emerge from a vacuum. Over the past few years, our country has undergone what scholars Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk call “democratic deconsolidation,” as people lose faith in democracy and become increasingly open to authoritarian alternatives. That loss of faith may be understandable. The explosion of big money in politics — triggered in large part by Supreme Court decisions, such as Citizens United, that threw out hard-won campaign finance reforms — threatens to move our country from a democracy to an oligarchy.

But President Trump is leading us somewhere even worse. It’s not just the accusations of treason, the threats of arresting non-compliant local leaders, or his consistent admiration of authoritarian foreign strongmen. And it’s not just ominous threats from Trump henchmen like Roger StoneRoger Jason Stone Stone defends meeting, says FBI sought to entrap him Stone: It's possible I'll be indicted The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by PhRMA — Trump caves under immense pressure — what now? MORE, who warned that any member of Congress who voted for impeachment would be “endangering their own life” as impeachment would lead to “a spasm of violence in this country, an insurrection, like you’ve never seen.” What’s worse is that people who should know better — Republicans and Democrats alike — have come to tolerate these assaults on the rule of law.  

We sometimes assume that democracies turn into autocracies through sudden moves: a general arrests the president, suspends the Constitution, and declares martial law. But nowadays, democratic backsliding comes more gradually. “Because there is no single moment – no coup, declaration of martial law, or suspension of the constitution – in which the regime obviously ‘crosses the line’ into dictatorship,” explain Professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, “nothing may set off society’s alarm bells.”

We need to ring those bells. To save the republic, we must proceed on two fronts. We need structural reforms, like getting big money out of politics, to make our democracy responsive to ordinary people. And we need to stand up to Donald Trump, who has corrupted and abused his presidency, by demanding a congressional impeachment investigation. Many have fought and suffered to preserve, protect, defend, and expand our democracy. We cannot allow Donald Trump to soil it further.

Ron Fein is the legal director of Free Speech For People. He previously served as assistant regional counsel in the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s New England office.