That President was John Tyler, who served from 1841 to 1845. He’d gone with his state of Virginia when the break came in 1861 and considered himself a citizen of the Confederacy when he died later that year.
Musical comedy fans also know we’ve had a vice president who tried to commit treason. That was Aaron Burr, accused of trying to set up an independent empire for himself around New Orleans, in a dicker with France and with Spain.
Later, Republicans kept power for almost two generations by “waving the bloody shirt,” accusing every Democratic candidate for President of being a quasi-Confederate. Except when the party’s corruption disgusted elites (1884, Mugwumps supporting Grover Cleveland) or the party split in two (1912, Wilson vs. Roosevelt and Taft) it worked for 72 years, an entire human lifespan.
We’ve had 20th century Presidents called “traitor.” FDR was called a class traitor during the Great Depression, and the Supreme Court ruled his National Recovery Administration unconstitutional, considering it communist. Joe McCarthy was all about finding traitors in Harry Truman’s State Department and implied the 33rd President was a fellow traveler.
But a true Manchurian President is a first. The closest fiction has come is The Manchurian Candidate, but Laurence Harvey shot his own mother (Angela Lansbury was just three years older than he was at the time) and we were spared the Presidency of James Gregory.
The American system does have a way of dealing with Presidential criminality. The House accuses, the Senate convicts. We’ve used this mechanism three times, against Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton. We would be using it again right now, except the traitor’s party controls Congress. There’s a special counsel investigating collusion in the 2016 election, but does he really have the stones to accuse the President of the United States of high treason?
The media dances around the question as artfully as it can, without ever saying the “t” word out loud. They suggest Trump is doing the work of Russian President Vladimir Putin, that perhaps he owes his election to collusion with Putin’s government, but no one has yet connected the dots out loud and said, “The President of the United States is a traitor.”
It’s just not done.
Yet this is obvious to anyone with two brain cells to rub together. The problem isn’t just that we can’t say it. It’s that the President’s party is committed to covering it up, to aiding and abetting.
Can a political party commit treason?
Well, yes, and not just during the Civil War.
Leading Republicans committed treason, in the view of Democrats, in the run-up to World War II. Whether as part of America First, endorsing isolationism, or the German-American Bund, which held rallies filling halls as big as Madison Square Garden as late as 1939, leading Republicans like Henry Ford and IBM’s Thomas Watson were accused of giving aid and comfort to Adolf Hitler. The mania against German-Americans during World War I (which made German-American families like the Blankenhorns into purely American families without connection to our heritage) was different. It wasn’t partisan and didn’t lead to high places in government.
The shoe was on the other foot in the 1940s when Joe McCarthy and his gang roamed the country, accusing all and sundry of being Communists or “fellow travelers.” Some had supported communists (as opposed to fascists) in the 1930s. Others were merely liberal. McCarthyism became a pretext for calling all liberals communists for a generation.
It’s important to remember today just how high in the Administration McCarthy decided the Communist conspiracy went, right up to Secretary of State Dean Acheson and (once he fired Douglas MacArthur over Korea) to the President himself. The “Committee of One Million” kept the dream of Presidential treason alive for a decade after that. Who lost China? Or, as George H.W. Bush would joke, “release Chiang!” (He was referring to the idea that Chiang Kai-Shek could invade the mainland and drive out Mao, if he got enough American support. The line always got a laugh.)
Feelings around Vietnam often rose to charges of treason. I was alive then. I heard them. Many conservatives still believe that Jane Fonda is a traitor who deserves to be executed, for posing on a Vietnamese tank while visiting North Vietnam. McCarthyism lives, both the Joe McCarthy and the Eugene McCarthy kind, and both see treason at every hand.
It is strange to see the treason shoe on the other foot, but if the shoe fits, wear it. Republicans have crossed many, many anti-democratic lines since deciding after 2008 that the idea of a black President was so anathema that they would do anything to end or stop him. I have written at length here about the Jim Crow Project , which has been in action, since the court’s Citizens United decision, endorsing the idea of money representing political power, wherever Republican governors took office after 2010 – as far north as Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
If Putin is against the treasonous Democrats, the thinking goes, why not go all-in?
That’s the problem with talk of treason. You take it far enough and it eventually rationalizes treason. We must keep them out, no matter what. Maybe those who they say are America’s enemies aren’t that bad.
But, please. Call it what it is. Let’s admit, at least among ourselves, who and what Donald Trump is.
Donald Trump is more than a Russian stooge.
But here’s the most important point, one that bears repeating.
Every political action creates an equal and opposite reaction. Democratic charges of Republican treason in the run-up to World War II created a Republican Party that would accuse Democrats of being traitors a decade later and keep it up for decades.
What will the reaction to this treason be? I don’t know, but the longer the treason goes on, the deeper and more obvious it becomes, the higher the price rises. Not just for Trump and his Trumpkins, but for the Republican Party and all who consider themselves conservatives. They won’t be forgiven in my lifetime, and maybe not in that of your children either.