“This kind of language is very frequently associated with either autocrats or would-be autocrats, whether it’s Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Juan Perón further back in Argentina, Augusto Pinochet in Chile, or Erdoğan in Turkey,” Steven Levitsky, a professor of government at Harvard University, tells Rolling Stone. “Either before they take power or as they take power, they very often use the language of treason, traitor and traitorous behavior to disqualify, discredit, delegitimize their rivals.”
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Sheri Berman, a political science professor at Barnard College, puts it this way: “Referring to political opponents — in the case of Trump this means Democrats or anyone who supported a perfectly legal inquiry — as illegitimate, as ‘enemies’ or as treasonous, rather than as people with whom you differ, is simply incompatible with liberal democratic politics.”
This isn’t the first time Trump has likened his political opponents to spies, terrorists and other people who betray their country. In February 2018, he took a similar tack when talking about Democratic members of Congress who refused to stand during his State of the Union speech. “They were like death,” he said. “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.”
The White House spun Trump’s comments as a “joke,” but it was an unconvincing reply — and one undercut by Trump’s use of “treasonous” this week in the wake of Barr’s letter that claimed Mueller’s report found no evidence of Russian collusion. According to Barr, Mueller found evidence of obstruction of justice by Trump but declined to make a legal conclusion. Barr, in turn, decided that there was insufficient evidence to prove that the president obstructed justice.
Levitsky says he traces the current rise of anti-democratic language and sentiment in American politics back to the tea party movement, the emergence of fringe figures such as Sarah Palin and the birther movement that questioned President Obama’s American citizenship. “What was critical 10 years ago was for Republican leaders to have shot down that kind of rhetoric from the tea party,” he says. Instead, GOP leaders looked the other way or in some cases directly encouraged it. One of the loudest cheerleaders, of course, was Donald Trump, who championed the birther conspiracy theory years before his presidential run.
Democrats, Levitsky goes on, must reject similar rhetoric in their own party. “I think Pelosi and Schumer, in particular, for all their faults have been very, very careful about being cautious in their discourse,” he says.
Nevertheless, some of Trump’s critics have lobbed similarly inflammatory accusations at him. After the president’s disturbingly friendly press conference last summer in Helsinki, Finland, with Russian President Vladimir Putin, former CIA Director John Brennan called Trump’s performance “nothing short of treasonous.” Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), then the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement after the Helsinki meeting: “There is no sugar coating this. It is hard to see President Trump siding with Vladimir Putin over our own intelligence community and our criminal investigators as anything other than treason.” (Smith later backtracked, saying his use of treason “might have been a little bit of hyperbole.”)
Jonathan Weiler, a professor of global studies at the University of North Carolina, says that Trump’s use of “treasonous” after AG Barr’s letter could be seen as partly a reaction to similar criticism leveled by liberal commentators. “The response now can be read in part, I think, as kind of a trolling exercise and retaliation for what they’ve been hearing,” Weiler says. “It also fits another pattern, which is a tendency to project one’s own perceived faults and vulnerabilities onto the other side. I think that itself is related to the authoritarian mindset insofar as that worldview carries with it a lack of self-awareness that fuels some of their behavior.”
While acknowledging that Trump’s critics have used similar language, Erica Chenoweth, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, says there’s a clear difference between a head of state throwing around accusations of treason and un-American behavior and people with less power or none at all doing the same. “When you hold the presidency in the United States and you accuse political opponents of being treasonous,” she says, “that carries much greater impact on the well-being of the polity than if you’re a person who tweets or a person who is out of power right now.”
Levitsky, co-author of the award-winning 2018 book How Democracies Die, says that extreme language from political leaders that accuses foes of treason or traitorous behavior is a sign of extreme polarization and an indicator that the core norms holding together a democracy are fraying. “We saw it in the 1790s. We saw it in the decade before, during and after the Civil War. We’re seeing it now for the first time in many decades,” Levitsky says. “This is the kind of thing that gets democracies into trouble.”