The last person to be convicted of treason in the United States was a Californian who, during World War II, committed acts of horrendous cruelty against American soldiers in a Japanese POW labor camp.
He made them beat each other, then battered those who he felt hadn’t hit their fellow soldiers hard enough. He marched one into a cesspool and ordered him to lie down in the foul water, hitting him with a wooden rod when the man refused. In several instances, he delivered beatings to malnourished and sick soldiers who weren’t keeping up with other workers. And he did all of this even though his role in the camp was merely being an interpreter.
Failing to applaud Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech?
That’s not treason. Not remotely close. That’s exercising the cherished American right of freedom of expression.
So when Trump on Monday labeled the Democrats who didn’t clap for him as un-American and possibly treasonous, it was preposterous. Once again, while delivering one of his regular red-meat feedings to his supporters, the president said something that was at once idiotic and deeply offensive to those who care about American freedoms.
If we’re to believe Trump, it now may be a violation of one of the most serious laws of the land not to applaud the president.
“They were like death and un-American,” he said. “Un-American. Somebody said, ‘Treasonous.’ I mean, yeah, I guess, why not?”
So does Trump believe that the Republicans who didn’t clap for former President Barack Obama’s every SOTU line may have committed treason, too?
He didn’t say, and of course the White House followed up his comment with a typical “he didn’t mean what he said” statement, in this case saying the president was being tongue in cheek.
But the reality of the situation is there’s an incredibly high bar for a treason conviction, and it’s way above expressing displeasure in a non-violent way at an elected official.
The Founding Fathers set the standard high because they themselves had committed treason in defying the British government, and they wanted to make sure that the charge couldn’t be used as a tool to quell political dissent.
So they put in place what was then an unprecedented requirement that a conviction be based on the testimony of two witnesses or a confession in open court. They also did away with a provision in English law that allowed the courts to punish a traitor’s family or even descendants for that person’s crime.
As a result, fewer than 30 people have been convicted of treason against the U.S., with the last conviction coming in 1948. That happened after Tomoya Kawakita, the tormentor from the POW camp, returned to the U.S. after the war and was spotted by one of the POWs.
Other treason convictions have been for similar causes. “Tokyo Rose,” an American citizen who became Japan’s most prominent propagandist, was convicted of the crime. So was Martin James Monti, an American pilot who defected to Germany and did propaganda work for the SS.
Trump’s comment on the Democrats would be written off as yet another burst of hot air, except that it once again reveals his authoritarian leanings. Kim Jong Un doesn’t get applause from everybody in the house because he’s irresistibly handsome or is an electrifying speaker, he gets it because not clapping could mean hard labor. Trump apparently expects all Americans to treat him like the Supreme Leader.
That’s crazy in and of itself, but his apparent definition of treason is even more off base considering that evidence of the crime might emerge from the Russia collusion investigation, depending on how the case pans out.
Working with a foreign power to undermine an election would be one thing.
Reacting glumly to Trump’s speech is quite another. The Democrats may not have been on their best behavior the night of the speech, but they were a world away from being treasonous.