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Of Summits, Blowhards, and Hard Blowing

Thoughts on Trump, treason, and defending democracy

“I merely took the energy it takes to pout, and I wrote some blues.” -Duke Ellington

In the wake of Donald Trump’s recent Helsinki “summit” with Vladimir Putin, which followed quickly on the heels of Trump’s disastrous meeting with EU leaders in Brussels, talk of “treason” is in the air. To be more precise, many commentators are raising questions about whether Trump himself, the sitting President of the United States, is a “traitor,” with some, such as former CIA Director John Brennan, going so far as to declare that: “Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors.’ It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???”

Trump’s comments since returning home have only raised further questions. He has lied, prevaricated, seemed to walk back certain statements and then seemed to walk back the walk back. Last Wednesday he seemed to contradict his glowing public statements about Putin, and his clear “no” on the question of Russian meddling, stating in a CBS News interview that “I let him [Putin] know we can’t have this. We’re not going to have it, and that’s the way it’s going to be.” In another interview he continued to talk tough, praising himself (as usual) for his “toughness,” and declaring that if things “don’t work out,” then he would be “the worst enemy he’s ever had. The worst he’s ever had. . . I’ll be his worst nightmare. But I don’t think it will be that way. I actually think we will have a good relationship.” And so Trump, the blustering blowhard who constantly blows hot air, followed up on his seemingly “tough” comments by . . . precipitously inviting his friend Putin to a second summit, this one at the White House, shocking even his own top intelligence officials.

It is revealing, but not especially surprising, that many establishment figures, especially those linked to the U.S. intelligence community, have arrived at a point of estrangement that would lead many—Brennan, James Clapper, Michael Hayden, and others—to raise serious questions about Trump’s loyalty. For Trump’s abject performance before Putin was the culmination of many months of repeated denunciations of the FBI, the CIA, the State Department, the Justice Department, and of course Robert Mueller and his investigation. The shock and horror expressed by so many figures connected to the national security establishment is important, even if it is apparently not likely to put a dent in Trump’s political base of support. More important is the more widespread horror and incredulity engendered by Trump’s words and deeds over the past week. Dan Drezner spoke for many when he asked a few days ago in the Washington Post: “If this is not treason, then what is it?”

What is it indeed?

I am personally skeptical of the charges of “treason.” I doubt that they can be sustained in a legal sense, though it is revealing that so many serious people are now even posing the question. While there is still much we do not know about Trump and his shady dealings in business and in politics, the progress already made by the Mueller investigation makes clear that, beyond manifest corruption, Trump has been involved in questionable activities that the terms “obstruction of justice” and “collusion” seem to well describe. At the same time, it is a stretch from even these things to “treason.” In addition, I doubt that “treason” is necessary to explain Trump’s recent performance, and I am inclined to agree with the assessment of Andrew Sullivan:

This is not treason as such. It is not an attack on America, but on a version of America, the liberal democratic one, supported by one of the great parties in America. It is an attack on those institutions that Trump believes hurt America — like NATO and NAFTA and the E.U. It is a championing of an illiberal America, and a partnering with autocrats in a replay of old-school Great Power zero-sum politics, in which the strong pummel and exploit the weak. Trump is simultaneously vandalizing the West, while slowly building a strongman alliance that rejects every single Western value. And Russia — authoritarian, ethnically homogeneous, internally brutal, internationally rogue — is at its center. That’s the real story of the last week, and at this point, it isn’t even faintly news.

Of course, it is perfectly possible to agree with Sullivan and also believe it is likely that further evidence of Trump’s “collusion” will be brought forward, and that this might even be the basis of an impeachment charge should the Democrats retake the House in November. But even here, the case for “treason” in a legal sense would probably be a stretch.

At the same time, I am fascinated by the response of many of my likeminded friends on the democratic left, who like me have long been horrified by Trumpism, and have recently taken to Facebook and Twitter to exclaim “traitor!” or “treason!” or at least “Putin’s lapdog!” and to express outrage at Trump’s behavior on the world stage, and especially his performance in Helsinki.

What is that about? I think it says something important, in a complicated way, about what those of us who are outraged expect from the very unsatisfactory but very real liberal democracy in which we live. For if we truly imagined ourselves to be living in a simple oligarchy or autocracy, it would be very hard to understand the shock and outrage that we have felt.

What follows are some thoughts on why I think that the horror and outrage that many of us feel is rooted in strong and legitimate commitments to democracy and a civic nationalism, commitments that are endangered on a daily basis by Trump.

1. The language of “treason” is powerful language, and it has what the philosopher J.L. Austin once called “illocutionary force.” In other words, “traitor” is more than a descriptive term, and to declare a person to be “a traitor” is conventionally to denounce them, to suggest that they betray widely shared values (typically “the nation” or “the country”) and implicitly or explicitly to call for some kind of punishment, whether it be derision, shunning, ostracism, or prosecution (and impeachment is the constitutionally prescribed manner of prosecuting public officials who are found to be in violation of their oath to uphold the law).

2. The language of “treason” has typically been mobilized, along with its antonym, “patriotism,” to castigate left social critics and activists. While commonly deployed against critics of war in “wartime,” it is also used more generally by conservatives to disparage people on the left. When I hear “treason” I immediately flash to the far-right paperback None Dare Call it Treason, a red-baiting text that played an important role in propelling Barry Goldwater to the Republican presidential nomination in 1964, and in propelling the Republican right more generally; to Ann Coulter’s deplorable 2004 book Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism; or to the rhetoric of far-right anti-immigrant activist Peter Bigelow, who routinely denounces liberals who support human rights for immigrants as “the Treason Lobby.” Indeed, Trump’s “Make American Great Again” plays on such tropes, implying what Trump often says explicitly—that certain types of people are “anti-American” or “enemies of the people,” and that they should be chastised, “punched in the face,” or kicked out of the country (as Trump recently suggested of football players who kneel during the national anthem). Liberals and people on the left have many good reasons to be suspicious of and indeed viscerally repulsed by the rhetoric of “treason.”

3. Of course many on the left are now responding in exactly this way to current talk of Trump’s “treason,” in ways that reiterate the positions many have taken ever since the 2016 election: “the danger of Trump is being exaggerated,” “the problem is really capitalism and imperialism,” “talk about Trump and Putin is a distraction from the real issues,” and “talk of treason is simply a form of jingoism.” I share the aversion to the talk of “treason.” I also disagree with sentiments such as these, for I believe that they minimize the danger presented by Trump. But I am not interested in engaging them directly here. Nor am I interested in “justifying” the idea that Trump is “a traitor.” I am interested in considering why the outrage caused by Trump’s Helsinki moment, and the questions raised about where his “loyalty” lies, resonate for many on the democratic left, including me. What follows, then, is primarily an effort in self-clarification, intended primarily for those who share these sentiments.

4. “Trump is a tool of Putin.” Why does it matter that Trump might be in some sense beholden to Putin? If we believe that all Presidents are tools of the capitalist class, or that the democratic state is basically “a committee of the ruling class,” or that in some deeper sense the “autonomy of the state” is constrained by the forces of capital or Panopticism or whatever to such an extent that it is not in any sense “representative” of “the public,” then why should we be outraged by the notion that Trump is in any sense subservient to Putin? The outrage would seem to make sense only on the assumption that we have some reasonable expectation, however minimal, that the elected president of the U.S. should be responsible to U.S. citizens rather than to the autocratic leaders of other states. However much we might believe that “American democracy” proceeds in highly attenuated and unsatisfactory ways, we would seem to also believe that it is not irredeemably beyond repair or improvement; that while it has oligarchic elements, it is not itself a veiled form of autocracy; and that however weak the “democratic” credentials of our current form of state, what is necessary is for us to force the state to be more democratic, and to live up to its democratic claims, rather than to treat it as a hostile imposition.

And so when we watch and hear Trump suck up to Putin, we regard it as a sign of contempt for us as citizens.

And when we consider the strong possibility that Trump—who lost the popular vote and won in the Electoral College by the smallest of margins—was only able to become president because of cyberattacks linked to Russian agents and likely collusion with these agents, his subservience to Putin, combined with his disparagement of his own domestic critics and his own Justice Department, becomes even more galling.

5. “Trump is a liar who constantly makes up ‘the truth,’ contradicts himself without hesitation or correction, offers the most outrageous and literally incredible explanations and excuses (“I meant to say would not when I said would”), and everything he is saying about Putin, Mueller, etc., is misleading or blatantly false.” Again, why does this matter? Most of us know that politics always involves mobilizing symbols and biases; that all politicians shade the truth and sometimes practice deceit; and that contemporary capitalism centers on the commodification of virtually everything, and the media manipulation of both consumers and citizens by elites seeking to gain some advantage. Why then are Trump’s dissimulations and lies about Putin especially troubling?

Perhaps it is because they represent a particularly toxic enactment of Trump’s more general assault on the very notion of truth or truthfulness, something that exceeds the more “normal” forms of dissimulation in our politics and society, and that seems to foreclose the very possibility of critical thinking for many people whose agency we regard as essential to the further democratization of society. As critical as we are and ought to be of the current limits of broad public discourse and the role of elites in “manufacturing consent,” we fear that Trump’s utter contempt for facts, logical consistency or the most minimal notion of a “discourse ethic” represents a profound threat to public intelligence and serious social criticism, and thus a profound threat to democracy.

And when Trump stands before a global audience in Helsinki, and lies about Putin and about himself, and disparages the American press while smiling at an autocrat who regularly jails journalists and critics, he is showing contempt for democracy and for us.

6. Further, in the unrestrained admiration and respect that he displays toward Putin, and in the boldness with which he lies and dissimulates about this, Trump brazenly enacts a profoundly and explicitly authoritarian model of power. He praises Putin for his “strength.” He states, matter-of-factly, that Putin “is responsible” for what his country does because “he is in charge, just like I am in charge of my country.” He speaks disingenuously of the leaders of the U.S. intelligence community as “my people,” as if the U.S. government is a branch of Trump Enterprises or our politics is a season of “The Apprentice.” The contempt that Trump expresses toward elementary forms of public reasonableness and democratic responsibility are shocking even by the very minimal standards of democracy routinely practiced in the U.S.

7. This contempt is epitomized by Trump’s immediate response to Putin’s “offer” to allow the 12 recently-indicted Russians to be “questioned” by Mueller about “meddling” in exchange for Trump’s willingness to allow a number of Americans, including former U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul, to be “questioned” by Russian investigators about their supposed efforts to “meddle in Russian democracy.” Trump responded by publicly describing this “offer” as “generous” and “reasonable,” and saying that he would have “his people” consider it. That the White House—and not Trump himself—later declined this “offer,” after two days of outraged responses that spanned the political spectrum and included the State Department itself, is beside the point. For Trump had already publicly validated an obviously cynical public relations maneuver by Putin, and had also assented to Putin’s premise—that Russia is a democracy, that its system is not substantially different from our own, that there is an equivalence between its intelligence services and our own, and that even the verbal support of U.S. foreign policy for civil freedom in Russia constitutes “interference” in Russia (which Putin has in the past called “a sovereign democracy”). And he seriously considered, if even for a moment, the possibility of subjecting McFaul to interrogation by Russian investigators and intelligence officers. This willingness to make U.S. diplomats vulnerable to the police of a foreign power is perhaps the thing that most approaches the charge of “treason.” But more importantly, it represents an utter contempt for due process and the norms of both diplomacy and constitutional democracy. Trump really believes that he is authorized to negotiate these things with Putin, in a private meeting, one literal dictator to another. This is deeply disturbing.

8. Last week New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, a sober writer not known for alarmism, published a piece on Trump in Helsinki entitled “Trump’s Road to American Martial Law.” The piece draws heavily on Cohen’s interview with Norman Orenstein, a centrist expert on U.S. politics, long-employed as a “resident scholar” by the conservative American Enterprise Institute, who has been a strong critic of Trumpism. Cohen’s concluding lines: “Soon, there may be indictments from Robert Mueller, the special counsel, of high officials or members of Trump’s family. What then? Ornstein’s nightmare scenario: Trump fires Mueller, pardons himself and everyone else, sends his followers into the street, and, after the inevitable bloodshed, declares martial law.” I am very sorry to say that I do not consider this scenario to be outlandish.

Many of us interpreted Trump’s fraternal embrace of Putin as a statement of his brazen disregard for legality and his hostility toward those who challenge his power. Whatever is true of the behind-the-scenes Trump-Putin connection, and whatever the eventual results of the Mueller investigation, Trump signaled loudly and clearly that he believes that he is “in charge.” And this terrifies those of us who believe that the struggle for social justice and political equality is far from over, but who also value the hard-won freedoms that we possess, who see them as means of pursuing further freedom, and do not believe that we are yet under the thumb of an American-style Putin.

9. And then there is, finally, the question of “national security.” One of the most common refrains among many critics of Helsinki is that Trump’s recent moves have caused a “crisis of national security.” For a President to meet alone with any foreign leader, much less one who is a former KGB agent, without serious briefings or a clear agenda, and to come to “understandings” and “agreements” that are shared with neither the public nor with his own top diplomatic, military and intelligence officials—this is shocking behavior. But who cares? We know that U.S. foreign policymaking has never been a site of democratic participation or public transparency, and that the U.S. has done and continues to do some very bad things in the world at large. We know that the rhetoric of “national security” is often a pretext for the silencing of social critics. And that circumstances for many, in the U.S. and beyond, are hardly “secure.” Global warming looms. Many are subject to economic precarity. What is this “national security” of which so many speak? Who cares whether Trump consults with the State Department or the Pentagon or the FBI before he makes decisions about whether or where to have military exercises or God-knows-what? It’s not like before Trump things were democratic or humanitarian.

And yet many of us do care. We watched Trump in Helsinki and were frightened by the way that he seemed utterly contemptuous of diplomacy and long-standing alliances and any notion of foreign policy expertise or knowledgeability or experience. Because these things matter. And they matter not because they represent global justice—they do not—but because the utter contempt for them displayed by Trump represents disruption and chaos, and a kind of dictatorial hostility toward institutions as such. This is genuinely dangerous in a literal sense, for throwing global institutions into chaos makes international conflict more likely and makes real international cooperation less likely. It is also outrageous that it is done, so cavalierly, in our name, as citizens of the U.S. And that it is seemingly done out of a bizarre solicitude toward the autocratic leader of another country that surely has interests of its own. Rhetoric of “hostile foreign power” feels excessive to me—though cyberattacks on political institutions during an election season with the intention of supporting a demagogic autocrat surely seem hostile. But concern that Trump is locking arms with Putin to move the U.S. in a dangerous new direction seems more than warranted; and Trump’s references to U.S. allies in Europe as “foes,” and his rhetorical hostility toward the EU and towards “Europe,” are deeply disturbing.

These things are disturbing for many reasons.

One of them, it seems to me, is that they invoke, and implicate, all of us who are American citizens. They are a global embarrassment. When we are in other places, they place upon us some burden of explanation that is painful to discharge and that is impossible to justify. It is easy to say that national identity does not matter at all. But it does matter, even if for most of us it is conditioned by many other more important ethical commitments. It matters psychologically, and it also matters practically.

In a recent column I wrote about the great diversity of signs, and voices, at Bloomington’s recent “Families Belong Together” rally. I furnished a link to a great many signs, all of them offering moral and political criticisms of the Trump border detentions. Of the approximately 30 signs I photographed, only one said this: “Fuck America.”

It’s a legitimate sentiment. I suspect many of us have uttered these words on numerous occasions before Trump—I know that I have, though not recently—and surely can imagine contexts where such utterance seems entirely appropriate. I also suspect that if we think hard about the sources of our current outrage, one of them is this: we deplore the way that Donald Trump is representing “America,” to the world and to ourselves, and we wish to defend and to improve a different and better version of “America.” Our response to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” is not “Fuck America.” It is “Let us make America a truly free and democratic country that lives up to its promises.”

To note this sentiment is not to defend it as a moral obligation. It is simply to clarify what I suspect is behind the outrage that many of us felt last week.

This sentiment is quite clearly related to weighty debates about the difference between “ethnic nationalism” and “civic nationalism,” and whether national identity can play a positive role in democratic left politics. My own view is that while many who write about this offer little beyond sappy communitarianism, it is nonetheless true that a refusal to contest the meaning of “America” simply cedes “Americanism” to the right. And this is a huge mistake with serious ethical consequences.

To say this is not to endorse a foolish liberal version of right-wing jingoism. And while I so strongly despair of Trumpism that I am heartened by almost any sign of strong resistance by Democratic leaders, I cannot applaud those Democrats in Congress who recently shouted “USA! USA!” on the floor of the House. Rep. Steney Hoyer’s speech demanding greater election cybersecurity, and denouncing the Republicans for refusing to support it, was entirely appropriate. It is entirely appropriate for Democrats to call out Republicans for their phony rhetoric about “American greatness,” their subservience to Trump, and their weak responses to Trump’s subservience to Putin. But this does not require mimicking the right with its idiotic slogans and fear mongering.

Instead, what is required is a forthright statement of something better, something like this: “We believe that America at its best embodies the idea powerfully stated long ago by Abraham Lincoln: government of, by, and for the people. This is why we insist on cybersecurity to protect against foreign hacking and also insist on a vigorous protection of voting rights for all U.S. citizens. We oppose Russian meddling in our elections because we are serious about democracy. And because we are serious about democracy, we also oppose efforts to disenfranchise voters, to gerrymander away effective political opposition, and to support a system of campaign finance that privileges wealthy donors over ordinary citizens. And we note with particular concern and indeed outrage that while cyberattacks constitute an important danger to our electoral democracy, current efforts by Republican state officials to purge millions of voters from the voting rolls also pose an imminent danger to the integrity of our democracy and of the 2018 midterm elections. We stand for the strengthening of democratic accountability and participation and we oppose all efforts to limit it, whether these are undertaken by politicians in Moscow, in statehouses across the United States, or in the Oval Office itself.”

Such an appeal to the “best” traditions of American politics strikes me as the most powerful way to articulate an opposition to Trumpism that is capable of moving the country forward. And I note with pleasure that this approach seems to be embraced by important leaders of the Democratic party’s left wing. As a Huffington Post piece describes this week’s tour of Kansas by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in support of Brent Welder’s campaign for the state’s 3rd District: “Ocasio-Cortez and Welder portrayed her appearance in Kansas as a natural outgrowth of the state’s progressive history, referencing the state’s formation and decision to become a free state on the cusp of the Civil War, its support for the New Deal and the ‘13 mothers and fathers from Topeka that desegregated the schools of this nation’ with the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Welder noted the original populist movement grew out of Kansas more than a century ago.” Such rhetoric is far indeed from the rhetoric of “Fuck America.”

There is a legitimate strategic and tactical debate within the Democratic party about whether to center the 2018 election campaign on “Trump and Russia” or on “working families” issues. Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez clearly support the latter view. And they surely are right to insist that a mere focus on “Trump and Russia” will ring hollow for a great many voters, who need to be engaged on real policy concerns. At the same time, the two alternatives are not mutually exclusive, and appeals to the progressive and populist traditions of the states, and of the U.S. more generally, can surely be linked to a full-throated critique of the way that the Trumpist Republican party touts a phony “patriotism” and is in fact attacking and dismantling the institutions and policies of American self-government, i.e., democracy. Trump’s solicitude toward Putin is one particularly public, and shocking, instance of this broader Republican assault on democracy, and it warrants strong criticism.

It is thus both wrong and condescending to characterize the outrage that many of us have expressed toward Trump’s performance this past week as a “freakout.” For while it is true that our reactions have been very emotional—emotions, alas, are indeed central to all politics, and apparently especially to the politics of those writers for Jacobin who gleefully seize every opportunity to disparage “liberals”—it is also true that what motivates these reactions is a powerful commitment to defending and deepening democracy in America.

For those who share the outrage at the toxic hot air emanating from the lips of The Blowhard in Chief currently residing (sometimes) at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and who need a moment of inspiration, I close with some real blowing at a truly great Summit, the 1999 Saxophone Summit at Birdland featuring the late Michael Brecker, David Liebman, and Joe Lovano playing John Coltrane’s “Impressions”:

Starting in August, “Blue Monday” will appear twice-monthly, on the second and fourth Mondays of each month.

Also for you:

Jeffrey C. Isaac

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