President Donald Trump likes to describe anyone who disagrees with him as “treasonous.” This week, in a span of less than 24 hours, he used the phrase to describe both the individuals who conducted the Mueller investigation as well as Democratic lawmakers who disagree with his border policy. But not only is Trump misusing the word, he’s doing so in a way that appears to intentionally inflame political divisions.
The word “treason” has a very specific — and very narrow — meaning written right into the U.S. Constitution. It refers to “levying war” against the states or “adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.” According to U.S. treason law, the word “enemies” refers to a nation or organization with which the United States is in an open or declared war.
Virtually none of Trump’s references to “treason” meet this definition. The same could be said for some of his detractors who have described his willingness to accept election support from Russia as treasonous. While Russia may be an adversary of the United States — and there are other reasons why such alleged collusion could be considered illegal — it would never meet the definition of “treason” because the United States is not at war with Russia.
Of course, most people are likely to think about “treason” in a more colloquial sense. While even dictionaries define the term with references to extreme acts like killing a nation’s leader or overthrowing the government, it still speaks to a general sense of betrayal of the nation. And that’s exactly how Trump appears to wield the term as a weapon to demonize his opponents.
Take, for example, Trump’s claim that it was “un-American” and “treasonous” for some congressional Democrats to have not applauded him during his 2018 State of the Union address when he touted low unemployment rates among people of color. In that very speech, he claimed he would be “extending an open hand to work with members of both parties,” asking his fellow leaders to “set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people we were elected to serve.”
The contradiction speaks to the way Trump tries to frame his positions as the only positions that actually serve the interests of the country. As slogans like “Make America Great Again” and “America First!” indicate, he’s attempting to co-op patriotism, such that any opposition to Trump is by extension anti-American. Thus, asking for cooperation means exactly the same thing as asking for obedience, and being rebuffed is the same as betrayal.
In an interview last year, Washington University law professor Greg Magarian drew this exact conclusion, describing the president as setting up a logic under which “anyone who votes against Trump in the next election will be guilty of treason. Any person who criticizes Trump is guilty of treason. The mere act of allegiance to the opposition political party is treason. Trump is America, and America is Trump.”
If that kind of leadership model sounds like fascism, that’s not a coincidence. When cultural theorist and media researcher Umberto Eco laid out 14 properties of fascism in his 1995 essay “Eternal Fascism,“ among them was “disagreement is treason.” Such a sentiment, he explained, runs directly contrary to the way that disagreement helps improve knowledge. Many of Eco’s other indicators resonate with the Trump administration in overlapping ways, including promoting a fear of immigrants, obsessing over a perceived threat, and speaking with an impoverished vocabulary (what George Orwell called “Newspeak” in his novel “1984”).
Magarian connected the same dots. “The idea that the leader is the state carries seeds of fascism,” he said.
University of Texas law professor Steve Vladeck has echoed a similar drumbeat about the misuse of the word “treason.” In a 2018 op-ed, he explained that the Founders were particularly sensitive to false accusations of treason, having seen such abuse used rampantly in England (e.g. King Henry VII executing two of his six wives on the ground that their alleged infidelity was “treason”). That’s why the Constitution makes it very difficult to convict someone of treason, specifically requiring two witnesses to testify “to the same overt act.”
As a result, the United States has convicted very few people of treason — the last conviction was 67 years ago. As Vladeck explained, even people commonly seen as “traitors” haven’t been convicted of “treason.” Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, for example, were charged with espionage for conveying nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union — not treason.
“The more we use the t-word to refer to conduct that doesn’t remotely resemble the constitutional definition,” Vladeck wrote, “the more we are — willfully — turning a blind eye to the sordid history of treason that led to its unique treatment in the U.S. Constitution.”
Moreover, Trump isn’t lobbing the word “treason” in a vacuum. The concept of treason — real treason — is very much part of the DNA of the United States, and often in association with positive concepts like liberty and justice.
The country was founded on an act of treason against Britain. The country also endured a massive act of treason in the form of the Civil War, and only in modern times are activists untangling the “Lost Cause” propaganda that rewrote the history of that traitorous act in a flattering light with language like “states’ rights.” A core tenet of modern advocacy against gun control is the belief that guns will be necessary to respond to a tyrannical or oppressive government. Treason, in a sense, is something that many Americans are actually primed and ready for — if they believe it necessary to protect their freedom.
But in addition to desensitizing the public to the narrow meaning of “treason,” Trump also regularly signals to his supporters that violence is a valid way to silence and intimidate their opponents, especially the media. If he convinces them that doing so is patriotic because those who disagree are, in fact, traitors to the country, the results could be quite violent.
But it still wouldn’t be treason.