President Donald Trump wasn’t – and, apparently, still isn’t – happy that Democrats in Congress didn’t stand to applaud him in his State of the Union address last week.
“They were like death 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 that much.”
So, here we are. Again.
Let’s quickly define “treason,” shall we?
“The offense of attempting by overt acts to overthrow the government of the state to which the offender owes allegiance or to kill or personally injure the sovereign or the sovereign’s family.”
Trump loyalists will dismiss all of this as much ado over nothing. He was joking! He didn’t even say that it was treasonous! He was just agreeing with people who said it was treasonous!
Fine. Also, wrong. And missing the point in a major way.
The point? It’s this: Not standing during applause lines for the State of the Union isn’t treasonous or un-American. Not even close.
If it was, all of the Republicans in that chamber are treasonous and un-American as well because when former President Barack Obama would tout his accomplishments in office – as Trump was doing last Tuesday night – lots and lots of Republican legislators would sit on their hands while the Democratic side of the aisle erupted in cheers. And so on and so forth for every president before him (and after).
Then there is the fact that the specific “treasonous” instance Trump was referring to had to do with his touting of historically low African-American unemployment – a bit of a cherry-picked fact based off of a single month’s economic report. By the time the new report for January came out last Friday, black unemployment had ticked up almost a point and was no longer close to a historic low.
Treason is Benedict Arnold. (Side bar: Read Nathaniel Philbrick’s “Valiant Ambition” about Arnold and George Washington.) Treason isn’t refusing to applaud when the President of the United States thinks you should.
Like with many things Trump says or tweets, there’s a natural tendency to just shrug it off. To do that, however, is to miss something very important – and concerning – at work here.
What Trump is saying is that dissent – which is what Democrats are doing when they choose not to clap for a line in his speech – is traitorous and/or un-American. That if these non-clappers really loved the country, they would be applauding when he touted how low black unemployment had dipped under his tenure.
If you think that’s totally OK, flip the script. Put a Democratic president in office. And have him or her chastise Republicans as treasonous because they didn’t applaud for the fact that something close to universal health care has been achieved. Would that be a reasonable charge? Or is it possible that while Republicans agree that more people having health insurance is a good thing, they fundamentally disagree with the way in which it was implemented?
You don’t have to imagine it. Because that’s what happened during several of President Obama’s State of the Union addresses. Except that Obama never suggested those non-clapping Republicans didn’t love America.
Even the suggestion of criminalizing dissent should send a chill down the spine of anyone who counts themselves as a fan of democracy. The right to dissent – without fear of retribution – sits at the heart of what differentiates America from authoritarian countries around the world.
When you have a president float the idea that not clapping at moments when he believes clapping is appropriate sends a very powerful message to the country about how we do (and should) deal with those who disagree with us. And that goes for whether he was “joking” or not.
It’s a very bad message – no matter whether you agree with Trump or not.