For years, Donald Trump’s critics have charged that any number of nefarious sentiments smouldered beneath the President’s rhetoric. In recent days, the smoke has become fire – and now a president threatened with impeachment may be playing with that fire.
That fire could have two important but contradictory effects as the ultimate American political drama unfolds on Capitol Hill. It will almost certainly inflame Mr. Trump’s supporters and prompt them to rally to his side. But it could also burn the President as he seeks to retain Republican support in the House of Representatives and sufficient backing in the Senate to forestall his removal from office.
One way or the other – and very likely both ways – the President’s charges of “treason” and allusions to a “civil war” represent a discernible change in the tone and content of Mr. Trump’s language – a change that matches, or perhaps helped cause, the change in the tone and content of Washington politics generally.
“It isn’t normal for American presidents to suggest that their political opponents be arrested for treason, or to make implicit violent threats against a whistleblower,” said Susan Benesch of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society and the founder of the Dangerous Speech Project, which monitors speech across the globe that has the potential of inciting violence.
Indeed, no president – not the Andrew Jackson shaped by the military barracks and his years as an Indian fighter, not the Abraham Lincoln reared on the frontier and marked by his time on a Mississippi River flatboat and as a rail splitter, not the Theodore Roosevelt who luxuriated in his boon experiences on the Dakota plains and Cuban battle hills – has spoken with language so at odds with the conventional rhetoric of the times.
Mr. Jackson’s racially disparaging language, Mr. Lincoln’s riverboat rhetoric and Mr. Roosevelt’s muscular imperialism are jarring to 21st-century ears, but even in the many cases when their remarks seem especially deplorable, their comments generally were unremarkable for their times.
Richard Nixon, who like Mr. Trump faced a House determined to impeach him but who resigned before the process reached its conclusion, made odious remarks about Italians, Jews, antiwar protesters and his Democratic opponents, but they were revealed only when his White House tapes were released after a Supreme Court decision.
Mr. Trump’s remarks are made on Twitter or in person, which adds force and fire to his comments – but also danger.
“Being a force for national unity and healing is not a secondary function of the office of president – it’s one of the job’s primary responsibilities,” said Adam Frankel, a former Barack Obama presidential speechwriter. “And it’s one that most presidents, Republicans and Democrats, are proud to embrace. This President’s divisive, angry, fear-fueled words and actions represent a sharp – and dangerous – departure from the role we need our presidents to play.”
Earlier presidents studiously avoided using the word “treason,” which has a specific definition in Article 3 of the American Constitution – “levying War against” the country or “adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”
Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the Republican lawmaker from Wisconsin whose anti-Communist excesses at mid-century prompted the term “McCarthyism,” spoke of the Democrats’ “20 years of treason.” But President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was in the White House at the time, said that he didn’t consider any member of the Democratic or Republican Party guilty of treason, reserving the word for members of the Communist Party. The presidents who followed him did not accuse political opponents of treason.
“No one but Trump has used the term as a rhetorical tool to batter his opponents,” said Eric Ostermeier, a research associate at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota who has studied presidential rhetoric. “Trump uses it casually.”
Nor have presidents employed the phrase “civil war,” a term that in the United States has a specific, tragic meaning – the 1861-1865 struggle that sometimes is poignantly called the war of brother against brother. The war may have begun as an effort to save the Union, but in his Gettysburg Address and his Emancipation Proclamation, Mr. Lincoln made it clear that the conflict was essentially about slavery.
In the South, the Civil War has an especially emotional resonance. There, the conflict sometimes is described as the “Lost Cause” and, during the Civil Rights era, the region’s ardent opponents of racial integration clothed themselves in the mantle of the Confederacy, employing “states’ rights” rhetoric that had its antecedents in the Civil War.
But since Andrew Johnson, the first president to be impeached, American chief executives have spoken of the Civil War as a moral test or as a tragic passage; its 620,000 deaths comprise roughly half the number of Americans who have died in all the country’s wars combined. “Now we are engaged in a great civil war,” Mr. Lincoln said in the second sentence of his Gettysburg Address (1863). He said it was a conflict that tested whether a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could endure.
“One of the things you realize writing speeches for a president is how powerful the president’s words can be,” said Mr. Frankel, the Obama speechwriter. “Everything a president says is amplified many times over by media outlets across the country and around the world. So when the president urges healing and national unity, those words actually help bring healing and unity. When the president uses words of division and fear, those words actually create division and fear.”
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