Treason at the Top

What can Americans do if the president and his high-level disciples betray the country? If the president himself does the unthinkable, one might expect that others near the top—the vice president, the secretary of state, the attorney general, the leader of the Senate majority—would do something to intervene. In 2020, however, that is not happening. Instead, what they say and do encourages the public to endorse what the president does and to oppose—sometimes with guns—those who challenge his treason.

Treason means to betray one’s country. For many Americans,  it has been shocking to learn of turn-coats within the intelligence agencies who sell national security secrets to hostile powers, especially when that information would lead to the execution of U.S. agents abroad. In 2000 many were shocked to see the Supreme Court intervene to throw the election to the Republican candidate. For the past four years, it has been shocking to see President Donald Trump bow to the bosses of Russia, China, North Korea, Turkey, and other countries whose policies harm U.S. interests. It was shocking to see the Senate ignore evidence that the president’s policies toward Ukraine placed his personal election priorities over laws passed by Congress. These and other recent events have bordered on or constituted betrayal of national security and democratic principles.

These disheartening events are eclipsed by all that is happening in the wake of the November 2020 elections. Trump’s request to Xi Jinping to buy soybeans to help him with the farm vote and his pledge to Turkish president Erdogan to scrub an investigation took place behind closed doors but were later revealed by John Bolton. Now the betrayal of America’s basic laws and norms is taking place in the open.

Even before the 2016 and 2020 elections, Trump warned he might not respect the outcome. He challenged the reliability of mailed-in ballots and then appointed a postmaster general who systematically sabotaged the mail service. Now he claims to have won an election that the AP and even Fox News called in favor of Joe Biden. Trump’s lawyers are investigating election results across the country even though, so far, no evidence of ballot rigging has appeared. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assures reporters that a smooth transition to the next presidency will occur—that of Donald Trump. Many foreign leaders have already congratulated Biden, but U.S. diplomats abroad are torn—what should they say to those who ask if America’s democracy is still functioning?

Betrayal of democracy is bad enough, but this willful president is also weakening the nation’s defenses. He fires Defense Department and intelligence officers with real expertise and replaces them with political-ideological hacks. If some foreign foe wanted to attack the United States, what an opportune time to do so!

The president’s indifference to climate change and Covid-19  also places public health at risk. He continues to ignores science on these issues and replaces expert managers with toadies.

Where can defenders of democratic norms go to resist the president’s impulses? Even if Trump eventually capitulates to a Biden presidency, he has nearly two months in which to blacken the image of U.S. democracy and do serious harm to national security.

The U.S. Constitution sets out checks and balances on each branch and on the powers of the central government relevant to the states. But what Senator William  Fulbright long ago called the “imperial presidency”  has grown steadily stronger. What to do when the president places his own servants in the top jobs? Many if not most officials in the Justice Department are not happy,  but what can they do when the country’s top legal officer is a yes-man carrying the water for a would-be autocrat?

If the drift toward autocracy consisted only of some willful officials in high places, that trend might be blocked by an alert public.  But seventy million Americans voted for a man whose  actions amount to treason—actions that threaten national security, public health, and democracy itself. .  They endorse the  drift toward one man’s rule.  The public’s emotions are fanned by the disinformation spewed out by Fox News and many web sites. Elite Republicans may know better but have sold their souls.

Democracy is in peril. If Biden takes office next year, he and his team will face a large job not only in rebuilding what Trump has damaged but in educating the country in the values of knowledge, tolerance, and mutual respect.

Walter Clemens is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Boston University and Associate, Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. He is the author Complexity Science and World Affairs and the Republican Virus in the Body Politic.