Credit: The White House/Flickr

A few weeks ago, Donald Trump discovered a new word with which to bully his opponents—treason. He began by wielding it against the people he considers to be his enemies in the FBI.

The president affirmed that charge, even when reminded that treason is a crime punishable by death.

That worked so well for him that he is now leveling the same accusation against the New York Times.

That one prompted a response from the publisher of the paper, A.G. Sulzberger.

First it was “the failing New York Times.” Then “fake news.” Then “enemy of the people.” President Trump’s escalating attacks on the New York Times have paralleled his broader barrage on American media. He’s gone from misrepresenting our business, to assaulting our integrity, to demonizing our journalists with a phrase that’s been used by generations of demagogues.

Now the president has escalated his attacks even further, accusing the Times of a crime so grave it is punishable by death…

Treason is the only crime explicitly defined in the U.S. Constitution. The Founding Fathers knew the word’s history as a weapon wielded by tyrants to justify the persecution and execution of enemies. They made its definition immutable—Article III reads: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort”—to ensure that it couldn’t be abused by politicians for self-serving attacks on rivals or critics. The crime is almost never prosecuted, but Mr. Trump has used the word dozens of times.

It is important for Sulzberger to respond to such an inflammatory accusation. But I was disappointed that he didn’t broaden his horizons and recognize that the president’s dangerous rhetoric is also being directed at others he views as a threat.

What we are witnessing isn’t simply an escalation of rhetoric against the New York Times. It is happening right now as an attempt to degrade two of the major guardrails of our democracy: (1) the federal department in charge of maintaining law and order, and (2) the free press. Those targets are no accident. A demagogue who can undermine trust in those institutions can eliminate the threats posed by both truth and accountability—giving him free reign.

The next step in Trump’s escalation will be to level these charges against his political opponents. During his campaign rally in Orlando on Tuesday, he didn’t use the word “treason,” but he came awfully close.

There is good reason to be alarmed by this kind of rhetoric from someone with the power of the presidency. As Sulzberger noted, “Having already reached for the most incendiary language available, what is left but putting his threats into action?” At each stage of this president’s escalation, the reaction has been to eventually accept it as the “new normal” and move on. In response, Trump ramps things up. Where does he go from here?

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.