Judas, Benedict Arnold and Donald Trump

How does our former president compare to other famous traitors?

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Former President Donald Trump speaks during the America First Agenda Summit in Washington, DC on Tuesday, July 26, 2022.

Former President Donald Trump speaks during the America First Agenda Summit in Washington on Tuesday. The twice-impeached Trump is expected to announce his 2024 candidacy soon.

Getty

“Trump and his accomplices are the most pathetic traitors ever,” controversial Democratic fundraiser Scott Dworkin tweeted to his million followers in mid-July. “Cowards who need to be arrested immediately.”

I know you’re not supposed to think about tweets. They’re just random shots in the Twitter free-fire zone, tiny sparks flying off a burning lumberyard.

But occasionally one ember will lodge under the skin. In this case, the word “pathetic,” which I took not for its current popular meaning, “miserably inadequate; of very low standard,” but for its original sense of “arousing pity.”

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Rinse off the contempt and there is indeed something pitiable about traitors. Merely feeling scorn for them is too simple, too easy, and ignores the essential tragedy of betrayal.

Start with the original traitor of Western culture, Judas Iscariot. Why did he betray Jesus? The 30 pieces of silver are what’s remembered, but that’s a smoke screen. Small payout for the magnitude of his crime. (One of the several ways Donald Trump is outstanding in the traitor field: Unlike most, he’s playing for large stakes. The average traitor gets but little. Jonathan Pollard sold his country for a $2,500-a-year Israeli salary.)

Silver aside, Judas’ betrayal was almost preordained. If the Bible is to be trusted, Jesus seems in on the plan. He announces that one of his disciples will betray him. The Gang of 12 immediately demand to know who. Jesus says the person he’ll hand this bread to is the bad guy, and gives a chunk of challah to Judas, saying, “Do quickly what you’re going to do.”

Which kinda undercuts the obloquy that Judas has been held in for 2,000 years, doesn’t it? As Joan Acocella put it in The New Yorker: “If Jesus informs you that you will betray him, and tells you to hurry up and do it, are you really responsible for your act?”

I could see an argument where the least responsible party in the current betrayal of America is Trump himself — he arrived on the political scene a long-established grifter and con man, congenital liar and serial fraud. How can he be held responsible for what followed? Can a man without convictions, devoted only to advancing himself, be said to betray anything? There’s almost an innocence to Trump, the great orange man-baby, kicking and crying, pooping and dribbling, demanding his needs be met now.

Trump certainly lacks the conscience that tormented other traitors. The most famous traitor in American history, prior to Donald Trump, was Benedict Arnold. His contemporaries found him worse than Judas. “Judas only sold one man,” Benjamin Franklin wrote. “Arnold three millions,” the U.S. population at the time.

A plaque commemorates one spot along the route that Benedict Arnold and his army took on their march to attack Quebec in 1775.

A plaque commemorates one spot along the route that Benedict Arnold and his army took on their march to attack Quebec in 1775.

Associated Press

To refresh your memory, Arnold was a Revolutionary War major general and a hero. He was with Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys when they captured Fort Ticonderoga. Half his men died or deserted during the long march to Quebec City, where Arnold’s leg was pierced by a British musket ball. He was brave, daring, dedicated.

But Arnold’s heroism, rather than boost his sense of self-worth, only embittered him, and he felt insufficiently appreciated, the common motivation of traitors. He sulked. He complained to George Washington. He put feelers out to the British to sell the American fort at West Point, under his command.

None of it actually happened. Like Trump, his plans for betrayal were thwarted. (At least so far, in Trump’s case. His efforts continue.) Arnold fled to England, where he met Talleyrand in 1794, who was surprised when Arnold refused to give his name.

“I must confess that I felt much pity for him ... for I witnessed his agony,” the French diplomat wrote.

No agony for Trump, who is incapable of feeling shame or remorse. In that sense, Trump is more like Vidkun Quisling, the betrayer of Norway, who embraced Hitler so enthusiastically it made the Nazis squirm.

Vidkun Quislin (left) stands in the dock during a June 1945 court hearing in Oslo, Norway, where he was on trial for treason.

Vidkun Quislin (left) stands in the dock during a June 1945 court hearing in Oslo, Norway, where he was on trial for treason.

Associated Press

Quisling had a Trumpian lack of self-perception. “I have in all my thoughts and deeds been led by a love for the Norwegian people,” the man who helped plan the Nazi invasion of Norway claimed at his trial for high treason after the war.

Facing a firing squad, Quisling insisted: “I am convicted unfairly and die innocent.”

We can expect no less from Trump and his circle, who will ceaselessly declare their love for America even as they stab at her heart.

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