When you hear the word “traitor”, you know the speaker is a charlatan

Few things are more depressing than the modern tendency to accuse those who disagree with you as committing treason. In the case of Donald Trump, he clearly regards loyalty to him personally as the treachery test. Here is an excerpt from his recent remarks about the Ukraine scandal.

I want to know who’s the person that gave the whistle-blower the information, because that’s close to a spy. You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? With spies and treason, right? We used to handle them a little differently than we do now.

It is worth reflecting that the whistleblower was drawing attention to a call in which Trump pressurised the Ukranian leader into launching an investigation into Joe Biden, the Democrat, just a few days after suspending aid to the country. The patriotism of the whistleblower (and those who helped him) can hardly be in doubt; they were worried that the President would use a foreign power to influence the 2020 election.

The words “treason” and “traitor” have regularly been bandied about in recent years. As a Remain voter, I don’t doubt that many on the Leave side were genuinely motivated by patriotism. But I and many others believe that the interests of our country are best served by being allied to our closest neighbours; not least because in a world marked by Trump and a nationalist China, Britain will struggle to manage on its own. I also feel strongly that the right to move and work freely across Europe is an important one. Here is Tim Harford of the FT

Then there is “take back control”, the Brexit slogan that sounds good until you think about it. Who exactly is going to get this much-vaunted control, and how do they propose to use it? British citizens already had control over some valuable things — notably the right to travel to, work in or trade with any part the EU. Exactly what sort of “control” will replace those freedoms remains unclear. Instead, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announces “let’s get Brexit done”, as though he were planning to mow the lawn.

As has been pointed out many times, the UK public may have voted to leave the EU in June 2016 but they did not specify how it should be done. That is a subject for legitimate debate. Those who want a deal, or indeed the closest possible links to the EU (such as remaining in the single market), believe that this will be in the best economic interests of the population; keeping job losses for a minimum, for example. Nothing could be more patriotic.

So how do the words “treachery” and “traitor” come into it? The success of Trump has demonstrated that it is possible to have a degree of political success, not just by posing on the behalf of “us” against “them”, but by impugning the motives of your opponents at every opportunity. Your opponents cannot be honest in their beliefs; they must be acting on behalf of sinister foreigners, an unfamiliar religion and so on. What Richard Hofstadter dubbed “the paranoid style” in American history has deep roots, with a founder like Alexander Hamilton despised by some as being secretly in the pay of the British.

For the modern populist, the divisive rhetoric is accompanied by a bait-and-switch trick worthy of the ball-and-cups game practised by street hustlers. Donald Trump is a property tycoon whose main policy achievement has been to cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy. Boris Johnson, Britain’s most elitist private school, as did his key ally Jacob Rees Mogg, whose father was editor of The Times. But both groups claim they are backing the people against the “elite”.

In practice, the view of the people is subject to change as Trump found when the Republicans lost control of the House in November 2018. Johnson and Rees-Mogg claim their mandate from the Brexit referendum in June 2016. But in the following year, the Conservatives called an early election, with the aim of crushing the “Brexit saboteurs”. Instead of getting a mandate for a hard Brexit, they lost their majority. Now they want yet another election this year, in the hope the public will have changed its mind again. So the public can change its mind on the government, and not on Brexit? The position makes no logical sense.

In short, the word “treason” is being used as a distraction to make the public look elsewhere. If you hear a politician use it, think “charlatan”.

Economist columnist, opinions generally my own, typos always my fault. Author of Paper Promises, The Last Vote and The Money Machine

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