Six days after giving his State of the Union address in front of Congress, President Donald Trump complained publicly that Congressional Democrats did not clap for his speech, lamenting that “Even on positive news — really positive news, like that (record low minority unemployment rates) — they were like death and un-American. Un-American.” He continued: “Somebody said treasonous. Yeah, I guess, why not? Can we call that treason? Why not? I mean, they certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much.” Such statements, even if they are intended as jokes, damage the health of American Democracy.
The President’s speech on January 30, 2018 covered a wide range of topics, including the economy and the new Republican tax bill, immigration, national security, and funding for infrastructure and the military. The most interesting comment he made, however, was his call for bipartisan compromise in Congress, as he urged politicians to “set aside our differences, to seek out common ground and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people we were elected to serve.”
His statements on February 5 marked not only a departure from this willingness to compromise, instead accusing Democrats of committing treason, based on a clearly non-treasonous act. While Republicans such as White House spokesperson Hogan Gidley claim that Trump was clearly joking, the President himself did not say as much in his speech in Cincinnati. Furthermore, such a defense implies that if the statements were, in fact, a joke, they do not affect the political climate and mentality of the American people. This analysis is inaccurate. Such statements inform the opinions and decision making of both those who dislike and those who support the President.
In their 2018 paper How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy, Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg outline five mechanisms for achieving constitutional retrogression, or the subtle, incremental erosion of democracy alongside maintained competitive elections, freedom of expression, and rule of law. The fifth mechanism listed in the paper is the elimination or discretization of political opponents. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt include the elimination of “key players” in the opposition as a component in their book How Democracies Die, and Jan-Werner Muller cites the claim that only one leader can represent the people, as opposed to the corrupt and immoral elites, as a pillar of populism, and a reason it naturally threatens democracy.
Accusing the opposition party of treason, especially for something like not clapping for a speech, an act of free expression, falls squarely into the category of discretization, and appears to be intended to foster resentment for and distrust of Congressional Democrats and the Democratic Party as a whole. The ‘it was a joke’ defense is really no defense at all, especially as implemented by the White House in this case, especially considering that Gidley immediately followed up the claim that the President’s treason statement was a joke with the caveat that “what is serious is that the democrats consistently seem to put their personal hatred for this president above their desires to see America succeed.” So, the President’s most extreme supporters can be enamored by the claim that Democrats are treasonous, and, when political backlash forces an apology, the White House gets the technical defense that the President was kidding, while maintaining the initial point of the statement: the public should hate Democrats. While such a message may be expected during a political party, coming from the government of the United States, it gains credibility and becomes (more) dangerous.
The real damage caused by the statements, though, is not just that they inflame those who support the President, but also that they alienate everyone else. Democrats will be outraged, as they’re accused of treason, and, later, lacking a desire for America to succeed. Even if President Trump is joking, and if the White House had handled the apology in a less politically combative manner, the accusation would serve to deepen the political divide. Polarization hinders the efficient functioning of the government, as both sides become entrenched in their views, and refuse to compromise on any issue, even those they may normally be willing to, simply out of spite.
This brings us back to the State of the Union. President Trump’s self-professed goal was to “seek common ground” and “summon unity.” Ironically, he followed this up by accusing those who disagreed with him of committing treason. Such contradiction fosters confusion about the President’s true goals, and the weight of the accusation and obvious moral undertones both in the original statement and the apology (or revision) serve to severely deepen the already deep political divide in the United States.
While some may claim that the President’s statement was a joke, and does not threaten the integrity of American democracy, this is an underestimation of the power such divisive and inflammatory language has over the climate of American politics and the mindsets of the citizens. Of course, I am not claiming that this statement alone will bring down American democracy, nor that the current president will do so, or intends to. But to ignore the influence of even a joke told by the President, in such a context and with so severe a premise, would be a mistake.