Trump and Putin at G20 in Hamburg
Credit: Алексей М/Flickr

After months of reporting showing the many, many ties between the Russians and President Trump’s associates, the social and political norms that once governed the boundaries of public discourse have corroded or entirely disappeared. So perhaps now’s a good time to try reasserting them: Any candidate and any candidate’s campaign having any contact with any foreign agent should be suspect.

This is not an arbitrary norm.

Starting with the first Red Scare of the 1920s, Americans attacked Americans for associating with communists or for preferring peace over war. This intensified during the postwar period when Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan—and a gallery of minor characters—made careers drawing bright lines between God-fearing America and the godless Evil Empire.

Indeed, anti-communism was the glue holding together a rag-tag bunch of cranks and kooks who called themselves movement conservatives. Without it to provide the focus needed to put Reagan in the White House, the movement would have succumbed long ago to the paranoid style endemic to Robert Taft and Robert Welch, then later Pat Buchanan and President Donald Trump.

I’m not saying this norm was good. I am saying it was a norm, mostly of the Republicans’ making. At the very least, you would expect the Republican Party to live by its own norms.

But the norm saying any candidate and any candidate’s campaign having any contact with any foreign agent is suspect is older than anti-communism. It is rooted in the principles that make our republic a democracy. The people choose freely their leader. We give him (or her) the authority to govern in our name under the rule of law and by the limits enshrined in the US Constitution. If a candidate is aided and abetted by a foreign power, in secret, and if that foreign power moves public opinion by means of lies, slander and propaganda, in secret, we have not chosen freely and we have not truly consented in giving that leader the authority to govern.

Again: Any candidate and any candidate’s campaign having any contact with any foreign agent should be suspect. That is the historical norm in America. That is the Republican norm. But it is older than anti-communism. It is a norm steeped in the meaning of what it means to have a democracy. It should be the norm that defines the contours of the debate over the meaning of treason.

Soon after learning that the president’s son met with a troika of Russian operatives with deep links to Russian intelligence before the president secured his party’s nomination, “treason” came more easily to the lips. This sparked a backlash, and not only from Fox News ideologues arguing preposterously that meeting with Russian agents isn’t against the law and therefore isn’t treasonous. More honorable people, like Bloomberg’s Eli Lake, said something like this:

Treason is defined narrowly and applies only to aiding and abetting an enemy at a time of war. At this point, considering that all people in the meeting have said the promised information on Hillary Clinton was never offered, it’s not even clear if this is collusion.

While I appreciate the desire to see all the facts borne out before coming to conclusions, it must be said that such narrow interpretations of something most Americans instinctively understand is missing the point. The eldest son of the president of the United States told Russian agents he’d “love it” if they had dirt on his father’s opponent. More significantly, the president crafted his son’s denial that he’d “love it” if they had dirt on his father’s opponent. More significantly still, the president crafted his son’s denial that he’d “love it” if they had dirt on his father’s opponent mere days after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, once during a scheduled meeting and once during an unscheduled meeting, during which, according to the president, they talked about the very thing at the root of his son’s denial: adoption. More likely is that all parties involved were not talking about babies but instead the U.S. law impacting babies, which is the Magnitsky Act sanctioning specific Russian oligarchs for their role in human rights abuse in the Russian Federation. Putin responded by banning Americans from adopting Russian babies. While some parse the meaning of “treason,” the president and his cohort give familiar shape and color to its meaning that most Americans instinctively recognize.

If we must talk about treason in the context of war, let’s. The Russians interfered in our electoral process. They executed a long-shot “active measures” operation to move public opinion against Hillary Clinton and were wildly successful, perhaps more than they hoped. That effort violated our sovereignty, and this legalistic interpretation should satisfy a high bar that no honest American expects to be satisfied, because they get it: Messing with Americans and our solemn task of choosing a leader is messing with America. If that’s not an act of war, it’s damn close.

The Democrats are now using language that reflects that reality. Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut last month said that Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with Russian operatives “could rise to the level of espionage and treason.” But he added, rightly: “Remember, Russia is a dangerous adversary who attacked the United States. I’d argue to you that it was an act of war by an enemy.”

While some Republicans were already inclined to punish Russia, many others were not, because, to them, Russia is no longer the Evil Empire but a partner in defending “Western civilization.” Yet the Republicans are afraid of something they have accused Democrats for doing since forever: appearing to appease the enemy. All but three representatives and two Senators voted to intensify economic sanctions on Russia and forcing Trump explicitly to pick a side.

That’s good. That’s necessary. But it doesn’t change what happened.

If it feels like treason, it probably is.

John Stoehr

Follow John on Twitter @johnastoehr . John Stoehr is a Washington Monthly contributing writer. This piece originally appeared in The Editorial Board.