President Trump was the target of media outrage yet again when he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday. One word in particular (treason) was highly attributed to the president after the two held a press conference in Helsinki, Finland. Hearing this level of hyperbole from journalists is commonplace among those who follow American politics, which is a reflection of how low American discourse has sunk. “Treason” has temporarily replaced “racist” as the pejorative of choice among the media elite, and it’s making journalists look more like activists.
Out of curiosity, I searched “trump treason” and wasn’t surprised at what I found. Major media outlets like the Washington Post, Business Insider and The New York Times all published headlines with the word “treason” with regards to Trump at the Helsinki summit. The Times even admits in its headline that treason has become a “new word” in the mouths of the president’s critics. Therefore, we can reasonably assume it’s also in the mouths of most Americans — some because they can’t believe it’s being used and others because, with all their hearts, do.
Treason will work its way into the lexicon of journalists and social media users until the term has been trivialized, just like the terms “racist,” “fascist” and “Nazi” have been. Conservative Ben Shapiro, the Editor in Chief of the Daily Wire, syndicated columnist and frequent guest on CNN and Fox News, stated years ago on an appearance on CNN‘s Reliable Sources that when the media puts such emphasis on relatively insignificant actions, serious actions won’t look so serious to the public. Shapiro said:
I would recommend that the media take a second look at how much focus they put on things like [a tweet], because the fact is, if you’re going to turn it all the way up to 11 on a Hamilton tweet, this is going to be a long presidency.
(For context, Vice President-elect Mike Pence was confronted by Brandon Victor Dixon, an actor in the hit play Hamilton, after a performance of the show that Pence attended. Dixon, on stage and in front of the entire audience and cast, read a statement, saying “we sir, all of the diverse America, we are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir.” President-elect Trump responded with the following tweet: “Our wonderful future V.P. Mike Pence was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing. This should not happen!”)
Shapiro had a good point and one that’s since been forgotten. When the media puts such emphasis on small issues those issues sound the same as the big issues. It’s difficult to tell the two apart. That’s bad news for when the day comes that the president actually does something truly terrible, which, in all reality, hasn’t happened yet. The president is crass, crude, overconfident and egotistical, but he’s always been that way. The American public knew all that before voting him into office — it could even be argued that those characteristics helped him win the White House.
The media reaction to Helsinki is only the latest in a long string of examples of this. Just two weeks ago the president nominated a justice to the Supreme Court. But that, a significantly more important story, has taken a backseat to accusations of treason. However, it’s easy to forget about important issues when small issues like a summit between two world leaders — a common occurrence among presidents of the United States and foreign heads of state — hog the spotlight.
Now, it should be noted that just before the summit special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian intelligence agents for hacking DNC servers (among other charges) during the 2016 presidential election. It should also be noted that President Trump looked weak when he claimed that it was the fault of US intelligence agencies just as much if not more so than any Russian agents for the hack. Then, just today, it looked even weaker when, after receiving vehement criticism from all sides, President Trump backpedaled this take on the whole situation. In summary, the president came off weak and apologetic when next to Putin, a characteristic unbecoming of the Trump brand.
But did President Trump commit an act of treason, or is the American mainstream media engaging in more hyperbole? The tough answer (for some) to hear is that no, the president’s behavior at Helsinki — weak as it was — was not treasonous. Saying so — especially by news outlets and political pundits with major platforms — is at best irresponsible and at worst dangerous. Accusing someone of treason — a crime punishable by death — like accusing someone of racism, whether they are guilty of it or not, is enough to end a career, or even a life. Those types of accusations dehumanize the accused, making vitriol, harassment and life-threatening actions against them feel justifiable by the persecutor.
To think that things won’t get to that level is terribly naive. Those on the right and those on the left have both engaged in and been victims of political violence over the last two years because the state of political discourse is dehumanizing and replete with tribalism. It’s almost impossible to write about politics without looking like you’re choosing a side. Many have an “if you’re not with us you’re against us” attitude, and even if you’re a moderate you’re considered the “other side” just because you don’t agree with exactly what one side says. This is why the country seems so divided. It’s my hunch that most people are somewhere in the middle when it comes to politics, but those voices are categorized as “the other side” because they hold beliefs from both sides of the isle on different issues.
Extreme rhetoric in political discourse is unhealthy for any country yet all too common in this one. Calling out treason when it’s uncalled for is escalating something normal to extraordinary proportions. The president could have done a better job of representing the country in Helsinki, yes, but to say his behavior was literally treasonous is simply incorrect. I understand that it’s difficult to be 100% objective. But there’s enough room in between that and gross hyperbole where journalists can do their jobs and report the news without secretly engaging in political activism.