In a Wall Street Journal interview a few weeks ago, Donald Trump lashed out at some FBI officials and suggested they may be guilty of “treason.” When the interviewer tried to move on, the president wouldn’t let it go, making two more references to “treasonous” acts.
Yesterday, Trump was in Ohio, ostensibly to talk about how impressed he is with his regressive tax plan, but the president strayed from his script and reflected on the partisan differences in how his State of the Union address was perceived.
“You’re up there, you’ve got half the room going totally crazy, wild – they loved everything, they want to do something great for our country. And you have the other side, 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? Can we call that treason? Why not? I mean, they certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much.”
For the right, the fact that Trump was “playing this for laughs,” and using a “flippant” tone, made the rhetoric less offensive.
It’s a tough sell. As Jon Chait put it, “It is totally beyond the pale for a president to describe the opposing party as having committed treason for failing to applaud his speech. It is the logic and rhetoric of authoritarianism in its purest form. But if Trump does it in the middle of a Don Rickles–style riff, does that make it better? Worse? Just weirder?”
Or put another way, if Barack Obama jokingly said Republicans committed treason by failing to respond with enthusiasm to one of his speeches, and the Democratic White House said it was just “tongue in cheek,” would conservatives let it go? Or would it be Exhibit A in the “Obama’s a Dictator” attack?
Whether one is inclined to laugh off the president’s rhetoric or not, the broader context is striking. Trump is supposed to be working on preventing another government shutdown and negotiating a bipartisan agreement on immigration policy. Instead, he joshing about Democrats committing treason for failing to applaud his speech to Trump’s satisfaction?
Indeed, in that same State of the Union address, the president said, “Tonight, I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people.”
Yeah, how’s that working out?
But even for those inclined to shrug off the “treason” talk, Trump’s point wasn’t subtle: he believes Democrats are lacking in patriotism. Indeed, the “treason” references stood out, but note that the president also used phrases such as “un-American” and “they certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much.”
“Our country” – as opposed to their country?
The irony is, Trump surrendered the high ground on patriotism quite a while ago. As regular readers know, this president is a poor messenger for this message.
Two weeks after taking office, for example, Trump sat down for an interview in which he was reminded that Russian President Vladimir Putin is “a killer.” Trump replied, “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country’s so innocent?”
As we discussed at the time, Americans generally aren’t accustomed to hearing their president be quite this critical of the United States – out loud and in public. What’s more, the idea that the U.S. chief executive sees a moral equivalence between us and an autocratic thug came as a reminder that Trump doesn’t always hold his country in the highest regard.
Indeed, as regular readers may recall, the Republican hasn’t exactly been subtle on this point. In December 2015, for example, then-candidate Trump was asked about Putin’s habit of invading countries and killing critics. “He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader,” Trump replied, “unlike what we have in this country.” Reminded that Putin has been accused of ordering the murder of critics and journalists, Trump added, “Well, I think our country does plenty of killing also.”
In a July 2016 interview with the New York Times, the Republican went on to argue that the United States lacks the moral authority to lead, because we’re just not a good enough country to command respect abroad. “When the world looks at how bad the United States is, and then we go and talk about civil liberties, I don’t think we’re a very good messenger,” he said.
There’s never been a president, from either party, who’s been so cavalier about America lacking in credibility. Sentiments such as “When the world looks at how bad the United States is…” are usually heard from America’s opponents, not America’s president. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg noted during the campaign that Barack Obama “has never spoken as negatively about America as Donald Trump has.”
This is the president who explicitly rejected the idea of “America exceptionalism,” questioning aloud whether the United States really is “more outstanding” than other nations. This is the president who’s mocked American prisoners of war, derided a Gold Star family, and insulted service members with PTSD.
Perhaps Trump should leave lessons on the virtues of patriotism to others.