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“Coups,” “Treason,” and Trump’s Corruption of Language

October 2, 2019
“Coups,” “Treason,” and Trump’s Corruption of Language

Way back in the day, I was somewhat Trump-curious. Believe it or not, once upon a time, candidate Trump “thanked” me by name for a piece I wrote about one of the Republican primary debates.

I can tell you the exact moment I flipped: It was February 13, 2016 when, at the South Carolina debate, Trump said that George W. Bush had “lied” America into the war in Iraq. This wasn’t a one-off slip of the tongue. Trump had called for Bush’s impeachment—no really, this is a thing that happened—because he insisted that President George W. Bush had lied to America in an attempt to force the country to go to war.

The word “lie” is important. You could argue that the Iraq war was was misguided. Or a mistake. Maybe even a willful mistake. You could say that President Bush was foolish. Or incompetent. For whatever it’s worth, I hold no brief either for the Iraq war or Bush’s Freedom Agenda, both of which I believed, at the time, were misguided and unlikely to end well.

But charging a president with “lying” the country into war? Knowingly deceiving the American people in order to commit our military abroad? That’s a pretty big deal. It’s tantamount to charging George W. Bush with treason.

(Which, by the by, is something the left did to Bush more or less throughout his administration, much to the consternation of Republicans.)

And yet, after the South Carolina debate, no one seemed too bothered by Trump’s charge. Because we weren’t supposed to take him literally. He was just a buffoon running for president. TV people say crazy stuff all the time to get attention. He was just a plain-spoken guy meeting voters where they were.

Except that today Trump is president and part of that job is being the chief executor of the laws. And the bedrock foundation of jurisprudence is the idea that words have precise meanings and that these meanings are important.

It is one thing for a private citizen to use words imprecisely and wantonly.

It is another thing entirely for a president to do so. Especially when the president is talking about the law.

Here is the president of the United States alleging that the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee broke the law and should be “arrested for treason”:

And here is the president of the United States stating that a “coup” is underway in America:

Those words have meanings. If the chief executor of the laws believes that a member of Congress should be arrested for “treason,” then it is very important. The FBI should be investigating. Treason is serious business.

If the commander in chief believes that a “coup” is progressing, then we are at a moment of constitutional crisis and we ought to bring in the Joint Chiefs to preserve the stability of our elected government system.

And if we’re not doing those things, then it means that there is no credible charge of “treason” and that there is no “coup” underway.

Maybe something else is happening and maybe that something is bad. But “treason” and “coup” have precise definitions. If some guy on the internet wants to throw them around carelessly while he yells at his TV, that’s fine. Regrettable, perhaps. But fine.

When the president of the United States does the same thing, it’s dangerous.

And when the entire country simply shrugs, looks the other way, and accepts that the chief executor of the laws routinely makes legal allegations with no basis in reality, it hollows out our fundamental understanding not just of the law, but of America.

Because in order for our system to work, we all have to believe three things:

That words have meaning. That laws are made of words, not feelings. And that we are a nation of laws, not men.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.