This was written and submitted as a letter to The New York Times early on the day after President Trump’s ignominious soiree with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. Per my standard practice, I held posting it here for some time until it was clear whether or not they would publish it. They haven’t and it doesn’t seem likely they will. So, here it is, with a few tweaks that make the points more vivid (and, also, a bit too long for a letter in The NYT or to be fair, in any other newspaper).
18 May 2018
Many people — including many conservatives (distinct, these days, in most ways from “Republicans”) — are calling President Trump’s behavior in his recent post-summit joint press conference with President Putin, of Russia, an act of “treason”. Are they right?
Emotionally and morally: yes. Technically: no. They have the wrong word. The correct word is not “treason,” but “perfidy.”
- the offense of acting to overthrow one’s government or to harm or kill its sovereign
- a violation of allegiance to one’s sovereign or to one’s state
- the betrayal of a trust or confidence; breach of faith; treachery
- deliberate breach of faith or trust; faithlessness; treachery
- an act or instance of faithlessness or treachery
The third definition of “treason” and the first definition of “perfidy” nearly perfectly overlap, describing a betrayal of trust or a treachery, so they are rough synonyms describing the same pernicious moral offense. “Perfidy,” however, does not carry the additional — and debatable — freight of implication that the betrayal was a violation of a sworn political allegiance or an affirmative act of political sabotage; nor does it carry the additional freight of the formal, and highly constrained, legal definition of “treason” enumerated within the American Constitution.
To accuse someone of treason is to accuse them of a specific, prosecutable political act — of, in fact, a capital crime — an accusation entangled with presumptions about ambiguous motivations and with assertions about formal legal responsibilities, an accusation that requires a high degree of proof and that can and will, therefore, be disputed on those technical bases and plausibly dismissed as partisan hyperbole.
To accuse someone of perfidy is to assert something both simpler and less ambiguous: a moral condemnation of their duplicitous behavior that can only be disputed by an explicit defense of that behavior.
Donald Trump betrayed us before a global audience — he dishonored us, as head of state rather than as head of government — by exhibiting a disdain for our democratic values, by demeaning the integrity of and trust in our institutions, by undermining our cultural and moral influence, and quite frankly, by playing, in our name and to our shame, the role of fool and sycophant to a petty tyrant.
If, as head of government negotiating and implementing executive policies, he were actually to act as an agent of Russian interest and against ours, then his behavior could legitimately be described as “treasonous”. But in the absence of evidence for that — and under the much more likely scenario that his abysmal performance represents merely a self-willed and negligent act of narcissistic defensiveness — the proper and appropriate term for his behavior is “perfidious.”
© 2018, Augustus P. Lowell