Let me open my computer’s figurative kimono and tell you a little bit about how I work. I use an old MacBook, and on my desktop is a “Ready to Publish” folder and columns in various states, ranging from Nearly Completed to Just a Title to Somewhere in Between. Among the latter is a column I’ve started a number of times, tentatively called “In Praise of Donald Trump.” Really! I want to give the President credit for the things he’s done well, but like a puppy who keeps on jumping on the table, Mr. Trump keeps on upsetting things before I have a chance to offer praise. For example, I think the President’s State of the Union Address a few weeks ago was a good, solid effort. While there were a few pieces of red meat thrown to his base, overall it was a perfectly good speech. A couple days ago, I got three or four paragraphs into writing my encomium, when all of a sudden I heard a sound bite from the President suggesting Democrats who didn’t cheer good news during his speech were “treasonous.” I have heard the White House has labeled Mr. Trump’s comments a joke.
As a man who has always been willing to lower his standards for a laugh, I’m sympathetic to joking around in front of an audience. Still, there are some untouchable subjects. For instance, in public I wouldn’t joke about a priest, nun or minister being in league with Satan. I wouldn’t accuse anyone of molesting children. I wouldn’t joke about another man’s genital size.
I also wouldn’t joke about treason.
As I understand the word, “treason” involves trying to overthrow one’s government. aiding its enemies in time of war or murdering its leader. Its definition has not grown to include failing to cheer for your political opponents. Oh, yes, the penalty for treason is, I believe, execution. To death. For good.
So, I still want to write that “In Praise of Donald Trump” column, and maybe I’ll have a chance to regarding a solution he brings to the potential government shutdown. Perhaps he will demonstrate Solomon-like wisdom and help Democrats and Republicans come together. I hope so. And if he does, I promise I’ll write and post that column right away, before he has a chance to yank it away from me.
A few weeks ago, I posted the column below, but I need to update it again, now that President Trump has used the word “treason” to label Democrat politicians who didn’t applaud or stand up during his State-of-the-Union address. Having no access to video, I only listened to the President’s speech, and don’t know the opposition’s optics. Since I haven’t heard of any raising their middle fingers or baring their backsides, though, I must assume their disregard was standard political nonresponsiveness, the kind seen, one imagines, from the beginning of our republic. They were borderline rude and unsupportive, not treasonous.
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In real life, I’ve got friends from all over the political spectrum. From Trotskyites (really) to borderline fascists, I’ve shared meals, walks and weeks with men and women far from my center-left point of view. After all, even the communist may be a pleasant companion while hiking, and the John Bircher may be a good chess player and conversationalist—until the topic of fluoridation comes up.
With social media, the field becomes even broader and weirder. I’ve also got Facebook Friends who are outside any spectrum, any measure of political conservatism or liberalism. This last sentence can be read as “thanks to the First Amendment, people can spew poisonous nonsense all the live-long day.” Or “free speech is protected; freedom from bat-shit craziness is a pious dream for some.”
So . . . I’m a defender of people’s right to rant and rave while recognizing that’s what they’re doing. That said, I have grown tired of the word “treason” being used to mean “an act of which I strongly disapprove.” Just now, for example, my Facebook feed showed a picture of New Hampshire’s two senators, Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, labeling them “two treasonous gutter rats” for not voting for a budget bill unless it included provisions for DACA participants. Now, I think it’s disingenuous bordering on dishonest for Democrats to use a government shutdown to force action on a particular issue, particularly given the party’s holier-than-thou rhetoric five years ago when Republicans did the same damned thing. Not only is it ethically suspect, I think it’s also politically stupid, for the inconvenience—real or imagined—of a shutdown will simply make immigration reform more difficult.
While I like the sound of “treasonous gutter rats,” I like accuracy and honesty more. Stupid, short-sighted political grandstanding is not treasonous; it is stupid, short-sighted political grandstanding. Using the harsh and crime-tinged label “treason” simply cheapens the word, which carries, by the way, the death penalty as a possible punishment.
Before you send me notes of support, my Democrat friends, let me point out another hyperbolic use of the word treason. In Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury, Steve Bannon calls “treasonous” the meeting at Trump Tower among Russian emissaries, Russian attorneys, Russian translators, Russian pop-music impresarios and three high-ranking Trump campaign officials, two of whom are related to the president. That meeting was not treasonous, for we are not at war with Russia (cyber doesn’t count), and anyway they discussed adoption of Russian babies. Trump, Jr., Kushner and Manafort may have been criminally stupid, but they were not treasonous. No matter what laws they may have broken, they are not traitors and should not be shot.
And what a happy thought that is to begin the week! In these two cases, neither Democrats nor Republicans are treasonous and bound for execution. I do dearly love my country and its possibilities, but I’m often reminded of Chesterton’s “Saying ‘My country right or wrong’ is like saying ‘My mother drunk or sober.’”