As well as inventing the flush toilet, the Elizabethan courtier Sir John Harrington also invented one of the great political epigrams: “Treason doth never prosper, what’s the reason?/ For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.”
Last weekend, the redoubtable US senator Elizabeth Warren dared to call out treason. She described Kevin McCarthy, the leader of the Republican Party in the US House of Representatives, as "a liar and a traitor". The first epithet was so obvious as to be almost uncontroversial. But the second was, to me at least, oddly refreshing.
McCarthy had been caught lying. He had denied ever urging Donald Trump to resign over the attacks by his supporters on the US Capitol on January 6th, 2021. Last week, the New York Times published a recording of a private meeting in which McCarthy said he would tell Trump "it would be my recommendation you should resign".
By calling McCarthy a traitor as well as a liar, Warren crossed a line into territory that progressives and democrats should be claiming for themselves
Mendacity is now priced in to right-wing politics. But perhaps treason isn’t. By calling McCarthy a traitor as well as a liar, Warren crossed a line into territory that progressives and democrats should be claiming for themselves.
There are two reasons why liberals and those on the left have been reluctant to use the t-word. One is that it has a terrible history of being used to marginalise and crush legitimate dissent. Fascist and Stalinist regimes murdered “traitors” of every sort, but even democratic states used the suppression of “treason” as a vehicle for hysteria and repression. (Think of McCarthyism in the US.)
The other is that, on the hard left, accusations of treason have been almost exclusively internal. It has been the secular equivalent of heresy – those who deviate from the party line or from the pure interpretation of the sacred Marxist texts must be excommunicated. Any sane democrat quickly becomes allergic to this form of political theocracy.
But even if this wariness is well-founded, it is surely now misplaced. It has prevented those who want to defend democracy from giving its proper name to activities for which treason really is the right word.
Let’s take three examples from recent politics in which treason has prospered and therefore not been called by its name. A good way to think of these actions is to imagine that they were performed by left-wingers. For if they were, there would be no doubt about the indelible label that would be applied to them.
In August 2019, Boris Johnson illegally prorogued the Westminster parliament. In the course, of doing so, he lied to his sovereign majesty Queen Elizabeth and, as the UK Supreme Court ruled, his action had "the effect of frustrating or preventing the ability of parliament to carry out its constitutional functions".
In any language, that is deliberate subversion of the constitutional order. Can anyone doubt that if Keir Starmer were prime minister and tried any of this stuff, the Tories would successfully brand him as a traitor and destroyed him forever?
A second example concerns Marine Le Pen, who got more than 40 per cent of the vote in the French presidential election last Sunday. In 2014, Le Pen's neo-fascist party, then called the National Front, took loans worth €11 million from Russia. The biggest of them, for €9.4 million, came from an allegedly private bank, First Czech Russian Bank (FCRB).
FCRB was, in reality, a front through which Vladimir Putin funnelled money to allies who would help to achieve his goal of overthrowing European democracy and destroying the European Union. When the bank went bankrupt, Le Pen's loan was transferred to a Russian military contractor, which still holds it.
A quid pro quo for the loan was that Russian officials supplied Le Pen with statements on the crisis in Ukraine (in particular on Russia’s annexation of Crimea) that she issued as her own. (Le Pen has denied any links between her financial loans and her position in relation to Russia.)
Again, erase Le Pen from this story for a moment and replace her with the French Communist Party during the Cold War. Moscow gold in return for adhering to the Moscow line – everyone would know what to call that.
The third example is, of course, that January 6th attack on the Capitol and the continuing attempts by Trump and his Republican Party to overthrow and delegitimise electoral democracy in the US.
Stewart Rhodes, a leader of the neo-fascist Oath Keepers, who helped organise the assault on the Capitol, has been charged with "seditious conspiracy" – a pretty good short definition of treason. But there is no doubt that the seditious conspiracy went much higher and wider. Much of the Republican Party is directly involved in it.
Trump repeatedly accused Democrats of treason, not least for their (perfectly lawful) impeachment of him for his attempts to force Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy to dig up dirt on the Biden family. Yet Democrats have been remarkably reluctant to call an obvious attempt at a coup – and the continuing insistence on justifying it – by the same name.
In these cases and others, progressives’ restraint in the use of the t-word comes from a decent reluctance to raise already high political and social temperatures. But decency itself is a victim of the far right. It is hard to defend it if you can’t give the right name to those who are attacking it.
The result of this reluctance is that these right-wing movements have been allowed to fuse an exaggerated claim to patriotism with actual contempt for the institutions and values that make a democratic nation real. They can vandalise their countries while claiming to love them above all things on earth.
Subversion prospers when it is allowed to go on presenting itself as a defence of an imagined past
They can also continue to paint their right-wing version of anarchism as conservative, and their assaults on legality as law-and-order. Subversion prospers when it is allowed to go on presenting itself as a defence of an imagined past. The radical right has in fact subverted the legacies of the past struggles that created democratic nation states.
Warren is quite right to call this sedition what it is. Treason has flourished in the US and in western Europe in part because progressives have been far too prim about using language that, if the situations were reversed, would be used against themselves to devastating effect.
Lies may not matter much to people who are attracted to the radical right. But loyalty perhaps still does.
In however distorted a way, many of these people have a genuine desire to be true to their countries, to feel that they are patriots. Too often, progressives have dismissed that emotion when what they should be doing is pointing relentlessly to the ways in which the radical right-wing leaders have sold their country to foreign influence and undermined its constitution through subversion, corruption and rebellion.
Another word for treason is betrayal. The self-proclaimed national saviours are always very good at that. Their democratic opponents have been very bad at naming it for what it is.