By Craig Axford | United States
Treason is a word that will send many rushing to Google to look up the legal definition of the term. But excessive legalism can get in the way of describing certain actions accurately. Synonyms include betrayal and faithlessness, both of which can easily apply whether or not a prosecutor feels confident of being able to clear the high bar we rightly set to convict people of such serious crimes within a court of law.
When our presidents and other politicians raise their right hand and take an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States, we are not insisting upon a particular partisan or ideological interpretation of that document. Nor should we expect everyone to agree that our leaders are always interpreting it correctly. However, we are, or at least should be, demanding that they take the Constitution seriously.
The evidence that Donald Trump has never taken this responsibility remotely to heart is now so abundant that it requires a complete disregard for reason, regular recourse to conspiracy theories, and assertions of “fake news” on the part of his defenders to justify his actions. It’s tempting to end this article right here with the words enough said, and publish it. But if one is committed to making a serious case for treason that simply will not do.
To begin down that road let’s consider the by now well-established fact, which even the White House makes no serious attempt to deny, that Donald Trump insists upon only short bullet-pointed briefing papers. That even these cursory shallow analyses of what’s going on domestically and globally are not discussed at length, let alone absorbed, could be dismissed on the grounds Trump is merely too stupid to truly understand the nuances and history behind the information being presented to him. If this were, in fact, the case, his removal from office could simply be justified on the grounds he is incapable of carrying out the job.
But stupidity provides us with a reason to pity the president, not accuse him of betrayal. A lack of intelligence would still leave open the possibility that Donald Trump is a man who cares but is merely in over his head. To at least some degree this version of reality could easily be mitigated if Trump surrounded himself with people of greater intelligence and expertise who could educate and advise him. This would, of course, require a certain humility and willingness to listen. Even someone of incredibly average intelligence could and likely would if they somehow found themselves burdened with the responsibility of leading the United States, find considerable relief through delegation and deferral to smarter well-intentioned men and women possessing more familiarity with the workings of government.
Whatever Trump’s level of intelligence, humble and willing to listen he is not. President Trump has made explicit his attitude toward experts and general lack of interest in books or lengthy reports. A Washington Post article about his reading habits published shortly before he received his party’s nomination put his view of the written word this way:
He said in a series of interviews that he does not need to read extensively because he reaches the right decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense and I have a lot of business ability.”
Of course, not being an avid reader, or really much of a reader at all does not rise to the level of treason. It doesn’t even necessarily make you unqualified to be president. As the Washington Post article also points out, Trump wouldn’t be the first president that preferred short documents or to receive their information orally. But, as the historian Alan Lichtman pointed out, “Trump is really something of an outlier with this idea that knowing things is almost a distraction. He doesn’t have a historical anchor, so you see his gut changing on issues from moment to moment.”
The glee Donald Trump takes in his lack of curiosity is disconcerting in a citizen, but negligent in a country’s chief executive. For example, to willfully resist detailed briefings, preparation, or advice in any form in advance of a summit either with allies or adversaries rises to a level of irresponsibility that transcends merely being uninformed or apathetic. It is at this point that the oath taken on Inauguration Day to “faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States” (emphasis added) becomes central to the claim that treason is the word that best describes the president’s attitude.
This isn’t a debate about learning styles. If charts, graphs, and pictures enable a president to absorb information better than lengthy briefing books, or if a president prefers to surround him/herself with people with diverse opinions and have a debate regarding the pros and cons of all the various policy options and never actually reads a word, we must still concede an effort is being made to receive and consider at least some of the relevant information. This president, however, goes out of his way to avoid even that level of engagement.
But Trump’s approach to acquiring and processing information is only the first plank in the case for treason, and it’s the weakest. To get to the crux of the argument we must confront his approach to the truth.
Every president has gotten caught misspeaking, and at one time or another, it’s safe to say they’ve all given in to the temptation to mislead or engage in spin in order to promote legislation or policy that they support. But as the philosopher Harry Frankfurt points out in his famous essay On Bullshit, “The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true.”
In other words, though we may disapprove we can still take an odd sort of comfort from a president that is lying to us because he/she must care about the truth and make some effort to learn what it is, or at least what he/she believes it to be, in order to create the lie. In addition, a president and his/her staff will typically attempt to justify the lie, if only to themselves, on national security or greater good grounds. Whether the justification they come up with is right or wrong can be left to history to decide, but there is usually at least some concern at that moment with how the lie might be morally evaluated should it be revealed. So a liar, whether they are president or not, is concerned with the truth and with morality, even if only for the purpose of better covering his/her own ass. A liar has an agenda and has rationalized that agenda as an end that justifies the means.
None of this is true of the bullshitter. Harry Frankfurt argues that what differentiates the liar from the bullshitter is what each is attempting to deceive us about:
This is the crux of the distinction between him [the bullshitter] and the liar. Both he and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth. The success of each depends upon deceiving us about that. But the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something he supposes to be false. The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor conceal it. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are. (Emphasis in bold added)
Not all presidential lies represent treason, but the pervasive shoveling of presidential bullshit always does. That’s because bullshit represents something worse than a lie: it represents a complete lack of concern for what is actually true. When our leaders take their oath of office, they commit themselves to hold a certain minimum level of regard for the truth. They cannot “faithfully execute” their offices without it. National security concerns, or even just political maneuvering to win a vote, might possibly explain or justify a lie. But nothing can justify a complete disregard for what the truth is when you’ve sworn to defend the values enshrined in your country’s primary legal document. A leader can be forgiven for not understanding or finding the truth, but not for adopting a posture of indifference toward it.
Bullshit requires the bullshitter to make a lack of curiosity his/her primary value. If an effort to intentionally undermine the Constitution or give aid and comfort to an enemy constitutes treason, it can hardly be argued that a consistent lack of concern for what the Constitution actually says and total disregard for what might qualify as aid and comfort to any given enemy isn’t as well, at least in so far as this represents the attitude adopted by a president or other high-ranking government official. The difference is only that the former serves as an example of a specific willful act of betrayal while the latter represents a general ongoing betrayal without regard to circumstance.
Perhaps all Trump’s BS is just a smokescreen. Maybe it’s just intended to distract us from his real criminal or treasonous acts: ones that involve collusion with Russia and/or self-enrichment at the public’s expense. But if Trump’s bullshit is part of a plot to hide something else that’s going on, it’s not really bullshit. At least, not if we’re using Frankfurt’s definition. Using BS to distract us is more reminiscent of a magician drawing our attention away from the real slight of hand taking place elsewhere in order to create the illusion something has vanished into thin air. The magician, like the liar, is aware of what’s really happening and intentionally attempts to trick us into seeing something else.
Trump’s treason is more dangerous than the more familiar betrayal committed to advance an ideology or to get rich. His treason is best described as an embrace of nihilism. It constitutes a complete betrayal of the very idea of truth as well as a total indifference for either the United States in particular or the world generally. It is disruption for its own sake. Authoritarianism is desirable not on ideological grounds, but because it is a means to achieve a world where bullshit can be practiced without checks. To call Donald Trump a fascist is to attribute to him a kind of worldview, which gives him too much credit.
We struggle with how best to resist men like Trump because the vacuousness of it all is outside almost every human’s experience. Few of us can even begin to imagine it is possible for a human mind to float so free not only from what is true but from concern for what is true. A man that can stand there and tell us with a straight face that he is the only Republican to win Wisconsin in more than 70 years is perhaps ignorant of the truth or perhaps a liar. But a man that can do it over and over again in spite of being repeatedly corrected in the media is simply reminding us that his power lies in his capacity to ignore reality entirely.
Donald Trump does not merely baffle us with his bullshit. He mesmerizes us with it. The claim that his Inauguration Day crowds were the largest ever isn’t about promoting a lie. It’s about demonstrating to us how he can look at the exact same pictures as everyone else and without hesitation, shame, or probably even much extra mental effort claim to see people that aren’t even there. Immediately people begin to diagnose and to rationalize as if he cared whether or not he was suffering from a narcissistic personality disorder or some other psychopathology. Take him seriously but not literally. No no, take him literally but not seriously. Before we know it nonsense has become the national language and we have become as unanchored from history and values as the president. As a consequence, the nation itself begins to die.
Debating civility in the face of nihilism on this scale is like debating the proper response to a black hole. The only thing we can do is avoid the event horizon. Because where that is isn’t exactly clear, the best course of action is to steer as far away from it as possible.
Some may argue it is not polite to label such complete disregard for the truth treason. What do we call it then? I’ll happily call it something else provided the word we use communicates with moral clarity the danger living too near the edge for too long poses.
Others argue we do not want to get down into the mud and wrestle with Trump and his supporters. This, they say, will only leave us as dirty as they are. To these people, words like treason will only sully those that utter them while serving to embolden his most ardent supporters.
This kind of thinking is a form of denial. It assumes we have not yet achieved a national volume of mudslinging to get everyone good and dirty, or that cleanliness will be restored to the rest of the country once someone turns on the mid-term or 2020 showers and washes all this filth away with a Democratic victory. Or perhaps people believe that Robert Mueller will be able to wipe us clean using the pages of his eventual report to Congress.
All of that may be necessary but none of it is sufficient. We are facing a challenge not just to our values, but to the very idea of values. This storm will not clear simply by winning an election or impeaching a president. Nihilism never relinquishes until it has been utterly rejected.
America needs a zero-tolerance policy not at its borders but within them. Enlightenment democratic principles rest upon the idea that shared human values are real. They are aspirational, to be sure. As such they are flexible enough to expand to include more people and a greater diversity of thought, but they are not relativistic. The absence of bullshit, particularly in our leaders, is not a luxury. If we are to remain true to our principles it must be seen as a necessity.
Traditionally treason has represented a line that is crossed by the intentional betrayal of one’s country. That’s not a line we should ignore. However, we shouldn’t kid ourselves by thinking there’s nothing beyond it. Donald Trump has shown us there is considerable territory on the other side.
We don’t yet know with certainty whether Trump or members of his campaign engaged in a conspiracy to steal an election, but we do know he has abandoned the very idea of truth and the very notion of values. That’s more than enough to condemn him. Ultimately there can be no treason greater than this within a society committed to human rights and the rule of law. Each additional day we mince our words and dither about the presence of this human moral void in our midst we are one day closer to the event horizon. We cannot risk finding out too late we have already crossed it.
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