The T word

James Hohmann at the Post says why Trump’s constant cheapening of language matters.


Bigger picture, the president has a pattern of diluting the potency of language. Trump cheapens the value of significant words by overusing and misusing them.

He encouraged violence against protesters as a candidate. He welcomed chants of “lock her up” about Clinton, whom he routinely described as “crooked.” He attacked the intelligence community: “Are we living in Nazi Germany?”

After the election, he coopted the term “fake news” — which once described a real phenomenon of made-up stories online. Now, by Politico’s count, leaders or state media in at least 15 countries have adopted the president’s denunciation to quell dissent and question human rights violations.

Just what the world needed, yeah? A new way for despots to discredit the opposition with lies.

Many Republicans chalk all these quotes up to nothing more than Trump being Trump. They say he was joking. They believe he should be held to a lower standard because he’s not “politically correct” and still new to this.

Of course it’s Trump being Trump, and that’s the problem. Being Trump is a very bad thing.

Obama used the word “treason” only twice during his eight years in office. Not coincidentally, he was discussing the rise of Trump both times. As the Republican primaries raged on in March 2016 and the establishment tried to block Trump from securing the nomination, Obama said during a fundraiser in Austin that their party wouldn’t be in that position if elected Republicans had not looked the other way for years while Trump falsely accused him of being from Kenya.

“As long as it was directed at me, they were fine with it. … Now, suddenly, we’re shocked that there’s gambling going on in this establishment,” Obama said. “What’s happening in this primary is just a distillation of what’s been happening inside their party for more than a decade. The reason that many of their voters are responding is because this is what’s been fed through the messages they’ve been sending for a long time: that you just make flat assertions that don’t comport with the facts; … that compromise is a betrayal; that the other side isn’t simply wrong … but the other side is destroying the country or treasonous.

“So they can’t be surprised when somebody suddenly looks and says, ‘You know what, I can do that even better! I can make stuff up better than that! I can be more outrageous than that! I can insult people even better than that! I can be even more uncivil,’” Obama continued. “If you don’t care about the facts or the evidence or civility in making your arguments, you will end up with candidates who will say just about anything and do just about anything.”

The next day in Dallas, Obama lamented Trump’s proposed Muslim ban and his harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric. “We can have political debates without thinking that the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice,” the then-president said. “We can support candidates without treating their opponents as unpatriotic or treasonous or somehow deliberately trying to weaken America.”

In both those cases Obama used the word to disavow it, to say it’s wrong to call opponents treasonous. When Trump uses it he’s doing the thing Obama said not to do. Obama used it in a meta way, to cite the harm it does; Trump uses it on his one flat Trump level, “sincerely,” to brand his opponents. With Obama it was attribution, with Trump it’s always use.

This isn’t the first time Trump has used the T-word as president. Just last month, he accused FBI agent Peter Strzok of treason for sending negative text messages about him during the 2016 election to a lawyer at the FBI who he was having an affair with. “By the way, that’s a treasonous act,” the president told the Wall Street Journal. “What he tweeted to his lover is a treasonous act.”

No, it isn’t. Refusing to implement sanctions against Russia passed almost unanimously by Congress? Quite possibly, yes.

Because of the power of the bully pulpit, this rhetoric is rubbing off on other people who should know better. Presidents set the country’s tone. It’s not just children who listen and mimic them — but also congressmen.

Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) said last Friday, for example, that the memo written by House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes showed “clear and convincing evidence of treason” by top law enforcement officials. “The full-throated adoption of this illegal misconduct and abuse of FISA by James Comey, Andrew McCabe, Sally Yates and Rod Rosenstein is not just criminal but constitutes treason,” Gosar said in a statement that called upon Attorney General Jeff Sessions to seek “criminal prosecution against these traitors to our nation.”

The “misconduct and abuse of FISA” that doesn’t exist. Nunes’s memo? It didn’t even get the basic claim right. The FISA application did point out that the Steele dossier was oppo research paid for by the Clinton campaign, only it said it in a footnote. Well guess what: judges don’t skip footnotes the way we amateurs can; judges have to read the whole thing with great care. The fact that it’s in a footnote does not mean that it’s not there or even that it’s hidden. The joke yesterday was that Nunes’s memo ended up amounting to: the font was too small. But on the basis of that garbage here’s a Republican legislator calling Comey, Yates, McCabe, and Rosenstein treasonous.

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