This week, President Donald Trump retweeted an image that accuses multiple political opponents of committing treason against the United States of America, demanding that they be prosecuted and imprisoned for their crime.
Think about that for a moment, because it is extraordinary. The chief executive of the United States is urging the government that he heads, the people whom he can hire and fire, to arrest those who dare to oppose him. He is equating resistance to his rule and criticism of his actions to acts of betrayal against the nation itself.
In the image tweeted by Trump, the gallery of accused traitors sitting behind prison bars includes Hillary Clinton, the she-devil of every Trump rally. She shares that crowded prison cell with 10 other people, including special counsel Robert Mueller, former FBI Director James Comey. Two predecessors as president, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, are also among those who are targeted as traitors to be punished.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, a Trump appointee who still sits in office, is also among the alleged traitors. In an interview with the New York Post this week, Trump was asked what crime Rosenstein committed to deserve to be put behind bars.
“He should have never picked a special counsel,” Trump said.
Some would like to pretend that such statements are not to be taken seriously, even though they come from the president and even though Trump has made similar statements at least a half dozen times in just the past few days, demanding that the Department of Justice begin to prosecute his Democratic enemies. It’s also important to note that by removing Jeff Sessions as attorney general and refusing to name a permanent replacement, Trump has succeeded in installing a hand-picked right-wing political hack as “temporary” head of the Department of Justice, neatly stripping the Senate of its constitutional right to “advise and consent” on such appointments.
Among other things, it’s an ominous sign that the Trump White House is seeking and in this case finding ways to work around safeguards written into the Constitution by the Founders.
At critical times like these, it can be useful to pull yourself out of the numbing flow of daily news and instead try to see ourselves and our times as historians will see them some 25 or 50 years from now. They will look back and see these years as years in which we indulged a form of political madness, when deluded figures and dangerous ideas once confined to the fringes were allowed to elbow their way into positions of power.
Those historians will note those who enlisted in the madness, those who failed to speak against it out of fear, those who saw it as opportunity to be exploited for personal gain and those who stood against it. I hope they pay particular attention to those necessary few in the conservative movement who have had the courage and foresight to stand against their tribe and resist Trumpism, because by doing so they are preserving the seed corn of a much-needed new conservatism, fact-based and rational, to be sown once this has passed.
With the advantage of hindsight, those future historians will know what we cannot, which is how much damage the Trumpists will end up doing to this country, both domestically and internationally. Then again, we have an advantage that these future historians will not have. Unlike them, we are not passive observers of what has already been wrought; we have the power to take action, to change things.