I agree with pretty much everything Dan writes below about President Trump’s glib use of the T-word. But I think Dan omits a couple things.
First, it’s just different when presidents accuse opponents of treason. I could add quite a few additional examples to Dan’s list of Democrats who questioned the patriotism of Republicans. Howard Dean, in particular, loved to accuse John Ashcroft of being un-American and un-patriotic. Even Barack Obama, as a candidate, accused George W. Bush and the GOP of being unpatriotic for running up the debt with tax cuts during the war. I’d also add that, given liberal sanctimony about the evils of McCarthyism, it’s especially hypocritical for them question the patriotism of others. (Though we should keep in mind that there is a sizable distinction between a lack of patriotism and treason. There are lots of unpatriotic Americans; very, very, very few of them are traitors.)
Nevertheless, presidents (and, I suppose, vice presidents) are the only officeholders charged with representing all Americans. I know it’s a beta-cuck thing to fret over “presidentialness” these days, but this kind of talk reinforces the longstanding trend in our politics of treating the presidency like the throne in the English civil wars. What I mean is that there was a time in England when the idea of a Catholic on the throne felt like an automatic and existential threat to protestants — and vice versa. The presidency became a totem in the culture wars long before Trump came along, but (as I write over at the LA Times), Trump is taking a bad trend and making it worse. I agree entirely that he was simply being irresponsibly glib, but the words matter in part because many Americans are, for understandable reasons, disinclined to give the president the benefit of the doubt.
The flip side is that many other Americans are all too willing to take the president either literally or seriously. The president tests these lines at rallies and when they get a good response from his biggest fans, he takes the material on the road. For instance, “Fake news” began as a label for actual fake news, created by click-bait hustlers and perhaps even more nefarious characters. Since the Fake News industry was decidedly pro-Trump, it became part of the Russia-collusion narrative. Then, Trump quite shrewdly flipped the script and applied the term to actual news organizations. Needless to say, the gimmick worked, and now millions of people refer to inconvenient reporting and polls as “fake news.” One could easily imagine the same thing happening here, with his Twitter minions, not to mention the likes of Jeanine Pirro parroting the rhetoric.
One last point. As Dan suggests, partisans have long played the game of saying, “The president wants to make the country better. Therefore, anyone who stands in his way is against the country.” But Trump’s M.O. is a little different. He personalizes the dynamic. On the surface, Trump was mad that Democrats didn’t applaud low black unemployment, but does anyone doubt that what really rankled is that they didn’t applaud him? Every president has craved praise, because every president has been a) a human being and b) a politician. But Donald Trump is more needy and more transparent about his need than any president we’ve ever seen. It seems entirely plausible to me that between his personal craving, the sizable industry designed to cater to it, and the often mindless desire of Democrats to play into his hands, that he will be unable to resist the temptation to further demonize his critics as not just wrong but bad, no good traitors.