If we needed a reminder of why we might not be so quick to bandy about charges of treason—in regard to Donald Trump or anyone else—there came the obituary of one John A. Stormer, a name much less recognized than the book he wrote—“None Dare Call It Treason”—an “Influential Red Scare Book of the ‘60s” as the obit headline read. Coincident with Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Republican presidential campaign, and the heyday of the right wing John Birch Society, the book warned of a vast web of treasonous activity on the American left—running through government, labor, foundations, education, mental health and most everything else that mattered—that betrayed American interests in favor of the Soviet Union and world communism.
Then, as now, the point of crying treason was to end discussion—the ultimate gotcha! You have betrayed your country and there’s nothing more need be said. Ultimately the charge is an extension of the “my country right or wrong” point of view that on most days, most people who find Donald Trump deplorable don’t actually agree with. So we might want to think twice about playing a part in reinserting the charge into the political mainstream.
Without intending to, in any way, associate the current craven occupant of the White House with anything heroic, perhaps the shortest route to recognizing the ultimate vacuousness of the charge of treason is remembering that what’s treason to some is heroism to others. When Roger Casement was charged with treason for conspiring with Britain’s enemy Germany in the interest of securing Irish independence, the playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote him a speech arguing that he could not be guilty of treason to the English crown, as he was an Irishman, Casement didn’t use the speech; the British Empire hanged him; the Irish Republic honors him.
And perhaps the treason concept’s ultimate reductio ad absurdum comes with the example of the White Rose group in World War II Munich (again no moral comparison to the current American commander in chief intended.) Among a precious few heroic resistance stories of Nazi Era Germany, the group were beheaded for opposing the nation’s war effort. Were they guilty of treason? Clearly. Were the guilty of a crime against humanity or the planet? Clearly it was just the opposite.
More recently, in the tragic but absurd civil wars that ended the country of Yugoslavia, a Croat who helped the Serbs, or vice versa, was clearly a traitor—although most outsiders had great difficulty distinguishing the two sides, individually or collectively. And today, we can be sure that al Qaeda and ISIS consider each other traitors to god’s will when they clash.
The bottom line is that treason is a vacant, rote charge; a wasted opportunity to talk about real things. Really this whole topic is part of a larger question, though: Is the most effective way to thwart Donald Trump’s agenda to oppose him on everything and hurl any charge at hand? Or should we maybe go for a more finely reasoned opposition?
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An early example of the throw-in-everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach came during the election campaign when people on the left of center took Trump to task for business dealings violating the Cuba Trade Embargo. Inconsistency, hypocrisy on his part? Sure. But on the merits? This is a policy whose repeal the United Nation General Assembly has called for every year since 1991. Last year, 191 nations voted against the embargo; only the U.S. and Israel supported it. And, in the Obama Administration’s final year, even they abstained—such was the White House optimism about finally turning a corner on the matter. Likewise, you can be sure that precious few of those calling Trump out about violating the trade embargo thought there should actually be a trade embargo.
The quickest route to realization of the futility of opposing Trump on every issue is to remember just how “flexible” a Trump policy statement can be. He was, for instance, against the Afghanistan War until he became president and sent more troops. We shouldn’t hesitate to recognize that on that one, for instance, he used to be right. Likewise, no matter how idiotically we might think the heads of state of both North Korea and our own country have acted, do we really think it a bad idea that the two of them met to discuss our countries’ relationship?
And if Trump wants to unravel the North American Free Trade Agreement, well let’s not forget that the American labor movement very fiercely and appropriately opposed the pact because it allowed corporate interests to negate national labor and environmental laws on the grounds that they limited their profits.
Similarly, if Trump’s not big on NATO, really, shouldn’t the organization have been retired along with its Cold War counterpart, the Warsaw Pact, anyhow? But whatever issue it might be for you, with a world on the brink in so many ways, the bottom line is that one of the most perverse possible effects this administration could engineer would be to make us abandon rightly held positions, simply because Donald Trump also adopted them.
The most unfortunate thing is that for all the buffoonery emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in recent months, this administration has grown increasingly effective in diminishing democratic institutions, along with the well being of working people, the protection of natural and urban environments, and respect for all races and ethnicities—all while giving an increasingly free hand to the nation’s wealthy corporate class. We, the American people, the world, need and deserve an effective opposition to all this. For that we will need to talk reason, not treason.