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Commentary: Trump's 'treason' comment was an obvious joke. But that's still a problem

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President Donald Trump delivers remarks Monday at the Sheffer Corporation in Blue Ash, Ohio. We must be vigilant in holding leaders closely accountable for what they say, and how they say it. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump suggested Monday that it may have been “treasonous” for Democrats to refuse to applaud when he was delivering good news during the State of the Union address.

His tone and body language make it clear he was joking, which is what a White House spokesman asserted afterward, when many in the media were up in arms over such a casual use of the "T-word" by the president of the United States.

The real problem with the president’s statement is not that Democrats may be tried for treason for not clapping for their political opponents.

The problem is that the careless misuse of words and the justifications, explanations, and defenses that follow, set a dangerous precedent that will harm all of us in the long run.

Therefore, we must be vigilant in holding leaders closely accountable for what they say, and how they say it, even when they’re members of our own political party.

Language shapes culture

Many of the battles we fight in the so-called “culture wars” can be boiled down to disputes of language.

Is abortion murder or health care? Is religious freedom a right or actually a form of discrimination? What is the real definition of marriage? Are rigid definitions of gender a form of oppression or an objective truth?

Words, and how we use them, shape the culture. They can open our minds to new things, change our opinions on old things, and desensitize us to things we should be sensitive to.

Although it's not likely that treason could one day apply to political acts of silent defiance, it is possible that casual use of it over time could disarm it altogether, robbing it of the power and impact it requires to describe such a heinous crime.

C.S. Lewis once said, "Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say 'infinitely' when you mean 'very'; otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite."

To be safe and responsible, "treason" should be used only when referring to a person "levying war against [the United States], or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort."

Words should be used only as they are defined. Anything other than that is misuse. Was Trump only joking? Yes. But the standard of what the president should joke about is different than that of a comedian or any other public figure, because his words carry much more weight.

A consistent standard

All this isn’t to say conservatives should be in an uproar about Trump’s treason joke, as many in the media are.

It is to say, however, that it is useful to take a bigger picture view on how to evaluate the president’s words. Supporting the president or being a member of his party does not, and should not, mean jumping to defend or normalize behaviors that can have damaging long-term effects.

Leaders have a responsibility to be careful with their words. Elected leaders set the standard for the people they govern, and how they speak and act determines how the people they govern believe they can speak and act.

Objective morality and truth depends on careful, objective use of language. The deterioration of moral and societal norms is aided by careless or incorrect use of language, which blurs the lines of debate and makes it more difficult to nail down hard facts and objective truths.

The precedent set now can be turned against you later. Criticizing the words of President Trump may be primarily a liberal sport today, but when the time comes for another Democratic president, will we as conservatives be willing to allow the same leeway to that leader as we did to the leader whose policies we enjoy? We must uphold the standard now that we will hold opponents to in the future.

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