After more than five decades of reasonably virtuous living, I’m now told that I have betrayed my country and committed the ultimate crime.
I did not clap during President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address.
Granted, my hands were otherwise engaged. They pounded my laptop’s keyboard as I frantically took notes: “clean coal,” “disastrous Obamacare.” And I’m limited in my appendages and much too clumsy to approximate applause with my feet.
But even if could, I wouldn’t have. That’s not because I’m rooting against America. It’s because I’m rooting for it — and believe that we deserve better than a leader who uses language as sloppily and poisonously as Trump does, who reacts to every unwelcome message by smearing the messenger, and whose litmus test for patriotism is this and this alone: Do you worship me?
On Monday afternoon he visited a manufacturing plant outside Cincinnati, where of course he complimented himself, lavishly. He complained as he often does about the insufficient credit that he gets. He mused with audacious selectiveness about all the blessings he was bringing to us. No plummet of the Dow punctures his self-regard.
But something that he said stood out, not just because it went so ludicrously far, even by Trumpian standards, but because it so perfectly captured his distinctive madness and meanness.
Recalling that many Democrats sat on their hands for much or all of his speech before Congress last week, he pronounced them “un-American,” adding: “Somebody said ‘treasonous.’ I mean, yeah, I guess, why not? Can we call that treason? Why not? I mean, they certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much.”
My favorite touch is the “somebody.” With Trump, the darkest and most conspiratorial notions are never his doing or responsibility. He heard it somewhere. He read it someplace. And he’s merely assenting in his open-minded and agreeable way. “I guess.” “Why not?” Far be it from him to challenge this unspecified wisdom out there.
That meandering air masks a considered ploy: As a distraction and deflection, he routinely accuses his adversaries of the very wrongdoing that can more credibly be attributed to him. “Treason” is a word too grand to be thrown around casually, but it applies better to a president who minimizes and denigrates clear evidence that a foreign power meddled in an American election — and makes no real effort to prevent that from happening again — than it does to a bunch of lawmakers who decline to salute him. Their actions are largely theatrical. His are substantively dangerous.
Never has a president been so gifted at projection, the psychological tic by which a person divines in others what’s so deeply embedded in himself. Democrats, he said, were “selfish,” putting their own feelings above the country’s welfare. The man who signed tax legislation that benefits his business empire and spends roughly one of every three days at a Trump-branded property wouldn’t know anything about that.
He doesn’t engage the substance of any opposition to him or investigation of him. He just invalidates the agents of it. That diverts the discussion from facts to name-calling, which is a game that nobody ever wins.
If journalists are documenting his falsehoods, they themselves must be fabulists. If judges rule against him, they must be biased. If federal law enforcement officials have suspicions about him or people who worked for him, they must be corrupt hacks. If Democrats don’t congratulate him for making America great again, they must be traitors.
Soon there is no one to trust but Trump, or no one to trust at all. That’s the point. He’s inoculating himself, and no price — not the reputations of individuals who have behaved honorably, not the viability of institutions that are crucial to the health of our democracy — is too steep to pay.
Treason: It’s a word that he has used before, to characterize an FBI agent whose text messages made his distaste for Trump clear. Maybe the president is cheapening the term. When he degrades language, he diminishes its potency against him.
But if you accept his loose definition of treason, hasn’t he committed it? I’m not referring to Russia; I’m referring to his effort to delegitimize President Barack Obama by insisting, with no evidence, that he was born outside the United States. That’s infinitely more defiant and destabilizing than Nancy Pelosi’s inert hands and anguished mien as Trump delivered his big speech. But he doesn’t mention it anymore, so we, as good Americans, are supposed to forget about it, too.
I think it does the country a greater service to remember. I think it’s more patriotic to withhold applause than to grant it too readily.
Do I wish for Trump to be an excellent president? Yes, and I’ll clap heartily — with my hands and my feet — if that happens. Until then I decline, and if that’s treason, I plead guilty.
Frank Bruni, an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times since 2011, joined the newspaper in 1995. Over his years, he has worn a wide variety of hats, including chief restaurant critic and Rome bureau chief.