As he has boasted, President Donald Trump has the best words — so good they are beyond meaning.
On Monday, he said that Democrats who didn’t applaud during his State of the Union address were potentially committing “treason.” He said, with a shrug: “Can we call that treason? Why not?” because “they certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much.”
Of course, the definition of “treason” is not lack of affection for one’s country, but the act of seeking to undermine and betray it. And never mind that it’s not the country that Democrats refused to applaud, but its current deficient leader. In Trump’s world, he’s the most special man-boy in America, deserving of all the applause simply for showing up.
Trump’s press secretary Sarah Sanders said later that Trump was just, you know, goofing around– “clearly joking,” she said — when he publicly, before the cameras, called sitting members of Congress treasonous.
Here’s one thing that would be potentially treasonous: colluding with a foreign power to win an election. Whether the Trump campaign was involved in such collusion during the 2016 presidential election is among the subjects special counsel Robert Mueller is exploring.
There is no room for “joking” about meaning here: a flexible relationship with the truth is a major problem when a serial liar is a President.
Consider this bizarre bit of news: according to a report in The New York Times on Monday, Trump’s lawyers are reportedly trying to keep him from speaking with Mueller. They are apparently not just worried that Trump could incriminate himself by admitting something he’s actually done wrong, but that he might simply lie to investigators –play fast and loose with words and truth, as he does so reflexively — and land himself in serious trouble.
Part of what makes a democracy function is trust — in our institutions and in our leaders — and a belief that our institutions will fill in the gaps where leaders show a lack. Trump has upended that trust, working to gut the administrative state, undermining international confidence in American power and stability, and corroding American confidence in law enforcement, the judiciary and the value of American democracy.
Leaders overseas don’t know when they can believe what he says; how can anyone negotiate with a President like that? Americans at home have learned, like Pavlov’s dogs, to meet his lies and wild accusations with a shrug (and a growing sense of dread, if they’re liberals) or with enthusiastic salivation (if they’re members of Trump’s reactionary base).
It doesn’t matter whether Trump is intentionally deceitful, cognitively impaired, or simply has never suffered consequences from his stated falsehoods and so doesn’t care enough to bother with truth; an American president who cannot be taken at his word is a danger to the world.
Not that trying to take Trump at his word is any better. It should scare the pants off us when a President who has already shown authoritarian impulses accuses his opponents of treason for declining to applaud him.
Refusing to applaud an idea you disagree with is one of the most basic expressions of free speech, itself a fundamental American value, right there in the very first amendment to our Constitution.
Trump certainly used his freedom of speech (and freedom of Twitter) to criticize his predecessor, President Barack Obama. Trump, in fact, repeated a series of vicious lies about him, including that Obama wasn’t born in the United States. (Can you imagine Obama responding like the thin-skinned Trump to a cool partisan reception at the State of the Union?)
Trump’s untruths and unhinged remarks are so ubiquitous that only the really crazy ones break through the media noise.
What a sad state we’re all in, when we’ve accepted this as normal from our leader — and when, worst of all, Republicans go right along with the madness and the lies, patting our little boy President on the head and telling him he’s doing a good job, that his words are the best words, that he doesn’t need to do big boy things like take responsibility for his actions quite yet. That he deserves a trophy just for participating at all.
November 2020 is closer each day, and unlike our President, election results don’t lie.