“Can we call that treason?” Mr. Trump said of the stone-faced reaction of Democrats to his speech. “Why not? I mean, they certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much.”
“Even on positive news, really positive news like that, they were like death and un-American,” he said, repeating, “Un-American. Somebody said treasonous. I mean, yeah, I guess, why not.”
The above comments were made by President Trump on February 5, referring to Democrats who didn’t give him standing O’s at his State of the Union address.
His minders evidently found his remarks less than scintillating. By the next day all the usual White House commentators were calling the comments “joking” or “tongue in cheek,” as if by establishing that interpretation they were dispelling any reason for anxiety.
There are several questions to ask about these remarks:
- When is the term “treason” appropriately used – semantically and pragmatically?
- What does its use here imply about the President’s view of his office and his responsibilities?
- What can the President, or in fact a president, “joke” about?
- What exactly is someone doing when he is “joking”?
- Who is this “somebody” who gets credited with so many of Trump’s snappiest lines? What does it mean when the President credits nameless “somebodies” for incendiary statements?
- What is proper presidential communicative behavior?
First, it is helpful to know what “treason” means, as the president may very well not: he might just think it’s a bad word, since the meaning of meaning typically eludes him. As defined by Merriam-Webster, treason is:
“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.”
Then “treason” is the most serious of crimes against a state or government, or a “sovereign,” that is, again from Merriam-Webster, “a supreme ruler, especially a monarch.”
Both in terms of the object of the Democrats’ “treason” and of its gravity, Trump is in error (if that is the right interpretation) in his use of “treason.” At worst, the Democrats could be called “disrespectful.” They did not treat POTUS with the adulation he so often demands. His feelings were hurt. I suppose someone could say that, addressed to someone with Trump’s known need for that adulation, the Democrats’ inaction could just perhaps be called “personal injury,” and thus fulfill the dictionary definition. Is sitting on your hands an “overt act,” though? And I tend to want to interpret “personally injure” as meant to refer to much more serious injury than hurt feelings. I have no doubt that Trump’s feelings were grievously wounded. But bodily, he suffered not a scratch.
To find a precedent for Trump’s understanding of treason, and “treason,” we must go back to a time when this country consisted of thirteen colonies under the rule of an absolute monarch, the King of England.
In those times England and its colonies had on their books a crime called “seditious libel.” This crime was committed if someone published a statement deemed insulting or otherwise harmful to the monarch. The punishment might be death. One of the reasons the framers of the American Constitution felt the necessity for the first amendment was to avoid the possibility that writers critical of our nation’s chief executive could be charged with this crime. Otherwise, the President (or other high officers) became too similar to the absolute monarch that Americans wanted no part of. The president was to be expected to tolerate insults like everyone else. Treason applied only to crimes threatening the state, not the person or persons temporarily running it.
A country with an absolute monarch, was in a different situation. An absolute monarch like Louis XIV of France could correctly say (and perhaps did say), “L’état, c’est moi.” The person of the monarch and the state were, legally and socially, one and the same, so any sort of injury to the monarch was ipso facto injury to the state, and treasonous, so seditious libel was treason.
At this writing the United States is still a republic, not a monarchy. The president is merely the executive officer of the state – its CEO. The state is not him. For the head of a republic to claim that any offense to himself constitutes treason is to demonstrate that the speaker has a very shaky understanding of the government he heads. The claim suggests that he perceives himself as Louis XIV, or George III of England, or – as others have suggested – emperors like Caligula, Tiberius, or Nero. None of these are good role models for a U.S. President. So Trump’s utterance constituted a semantic violation – but we already knew that the semantic component of Trump’s grammar is fragile to nonexistent. The latest effusion is just another, albeit an especially regrettable, example of that. Still, the semantic implications of Trump’s cry of “treason” are alarming, whether Trump is merely appallingly ignorant or was testing the waters to to see how far he can push his agenda of absolute control, in emulation of the strongmen he admires, like Putin, Duterte, and Assad.
His remarks generated a predictable outcry, thank goodness. Since this president neither has the courage to fight for his beliefs (right or wrong), and is not trusted by his minions to explain himself credibly, practically the entire propaganda arm of the White House was sent out to rectify the problem. They variously “explained” the president’s effusion as “joking” or “tongue in cheek,” as if those terms were an appropriate fit to what had been said, or indeed made any sense at all in that context.
What do we mean when we say we were “joking”? What is it appropriate to “joke” about? By whom, to whom, under what conditions? Context, as so often, counts.
Joking (which should be distinguished from “joke-telling”) is a form of non-literal utterance, related to other tropes like irony, sarcasm, and hyperbole. All of these can be taken as floutings of Grice’s Maxim of Quality: Tell the truth. All are distinct from lying because in using any of them, unlike lying, the speaker expects hearers to recognize the utterance as not intended to be literally true and so to understand what the speaker actually meant. When I am “joking” with you, I expect that you and I share enough social, psychological and political background that you recognize that the literal understanding of my utterance is not the same as my real meaning. Moreover, because in joking I normally assume that you are intelligent enough and well-enough integrated into our shared culture to know what I am likely to mean, all of these floutings, properly used, function as flattery and/or intimacy, so we enjoy using them and translating them into their literal intentions – more than we would have enjoyed merely experiencing the literal utterance itself.
But not everything is grist for the joker’s mill. Some things cannot be joked about with propriety, some joking cannot be understood, and joking cannot safely be done about some topics or by or to some people. Often there are no clear boundaries between the safe and the dangerous, and this pragmatic indeterminacy is the basis of a lot of what are currently referred to as “microaggressions.” A “jokingly” says something to B that seems to A, in her cultural context, perfectly innocuous. But B, using his context, takes A’s utterance as an insult. The joking has failed. Therein lies the peril of flouting the maxims: for all the delight it affords us, it carries a potential sting.
Some floutings of Quality are recognized by competent speakers as too problematic to be employed in public discourse, whoever speakers and hearers may be: a speaker just can’t count on sharing enough cultural background with hearers to be sure that what he says will be received as harmless. And some kinds of utterances (like the use of the “n-“ word by a white speaker) are always offensive – no matter whether they are intended as joking or not. Someone who uses such an utterance, particularly if they are repeat offenders, should thereafter be excluded from polite discourse or at least severely criticized.
Some people are allowed more discursive freedom than others. Because a powerful person has the capacity to do real harm, and because the utterances of the powerful are more apt to be understood literally and acted upon with unfortunate consequences, the powerful need to be especially circumspect in what they say and how they say it, avoiding ambiguity when possible and trying to avoid offending anybody, because their offense will have the capacity to inflict more pain than if it came from someone with less power. This is a downside of power: you can’t have one without the other. If the “joke,” taken literally, has the potential in context to do serious harm to its target, it is especially inappropriate for someone with political power to “joke” that way.
If POTUS commits these solecisms, he should take responsibility for them and offer an apology. This president won’t even acknowledge culpability: he attributes his assertions to an amorphous “someone,” as he often does when he knows he has overstepped a line. (So in fact there was no mistake.) If there really is such a “someone,” he should be named and dealt with; if Trump is that “someone” himself, it is cowardly of him to hide behind the wizard’s curtain.
The above are forms of communicative competence that most speakers of human languages acquire early in life. Five year olds can be offensive when they practice “joking,” but most of them have learned by adolescence to be more cautious, at least in the presence of an adult. (Those who do not or will not are “bullies” or “jerks”). For POTUS to slander the Democrats as he did exemplifies his often demonstrated inability to understand the profound implications of what he has said: here, it is manifested in Trump’s or his people’s ignorance of how to joke, and more broadly and dangerously, their pragmatic incompetence: their unawareness (or deliberate obfuscation) of how language is supposed to function socially to facilitate the human project.
A recent New York Times op-ed by John McWhorter argues that Trump’s nonfluencies (mostly in the realm of syntax) are not necessarily symptomatic of dementia. I’m not so sure, especially since (as McWhorter and others have noted) these anomalies are recent problems in Trump’s speech; but even if we accept his arguments, Trump’s clumsiness in both semantics and pragmatics strongly suggest linguistic incompetence of a very severe kind – not necessarily due to dementia, but certainly an indication that someone who has as one of his most important, if extra-constitutional, duties the requirement to communicate clearly in order to encourage unity and connectedness in his hearers is failing in this respect. That per se does not constitute treason (though it functions like treason to create disunity and social unrest) but it is certainly enough reason to question whether this POTUS is the right man for the job.