President-elect Donald Trump’s Silicon Valley supporter Peter Thiel opined:
I think one thing that should be distinguished here is that the media is always taking Trump literally. It never takes him seriously, but it always takes him literally. … I think a lot of voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously but not literally, so when they hear things like the Muslim comment or the wall comment, their question is not ‘Are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China?’ or, you know, ‘How exactly are you going to enforce these tests?’ What they hear is we’re going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy.
Let’s unpack that and consider its implications going forward for the 45th president.
First, we don’t buy it. Thiel and other Trump apologists choose to attribute a Chauncey Gardner-like wisdom to Trump. He’s talking metaphorically, or aspirationally or something, they assured. Really, after years of hearing the right-wing disparage pols for lying to voters and not telling us what they wanted to do, we were supposed to intuit that Trump never meant what he said and the millions who voted for him knew he was not telling the truth? There is scant evidence Trump ever knew his assertions about the world were untrue. (Indeed, he often denied having said them.)
Second, a common definition of “literal” is “true to fact; not exaggerated; actual or factual.” It’s one thing to say I’m going to work 24 hours a day (figure of speech) or We’ll make sure every illegal immigrant who has committed a serious crime is deported (optimistic exaggeration) or We’re going to change the way NATO operates (vague threat). It’s another to make specific false assertions of fact (China is engaged in currency manipulation) and make a specific proposal (a 45 percent tariff).
Third, Trump, his supporters and flacks sound delusional or dishonest when they try to reinterpret or flat-out deny his previous statements. He never said he wanted to allow more allies to get nuclear weapons? He never exhibited racism or incited violence? When they say such patently absurd things, they make skeptics more skeptical and opponents more fearful that the incoming crew is out of touch with reality.
Fourth, the world takes what the president of the United States says both seriously and literally. Trump of all people should know this. He excoriated President Obama for laying down the “red line” when Obama could not back it up. His supporters lambasted the president for promising we could keep our doctors under Obamacare. Critics of the Iran deal cried foul when the president did not deliver on promises of anytime/anyplace inspections and assured us no “ransom” had been paid to Iran. Just imagine if Obama’s defenders said we shouldn’t have taken him literally on all these issues.
Fifth, international allies and enemies base their actions on the president’s words. It’s one thing for candidate Trump to say Ukraine is Europe’s problem; if President Trump says it, Russian President Vladimir Putin may decide to move troops. When, for example, a candidate disparages a joint U.S.-Iraqi operation to recapture Mosul, the military and public may fret that he’s undermining morale. When the president says it, military morale plummets, allied troops give up, and Islamic State leaders take heart.
Trump and far too many of his inner circles seem oblivious of the obligation of the leader of the free world to adhere to the facts as as the U.S. government can best determine them, to remain consistent in his public utterances, to grasp fully the consequences of the president’s words and to preserve the credibility of the commander in chief. We can understand that Trump, someone entirely unqualified and largely ignorant about the world, never intended to win the presidency. Now, however, the reality show is over; there’s just reality. The president-elect’s team better put aside the word games, the spin, the temptation to gaslight the public and the inclination to indulge the Trumpian outrageousness. Their inability to do so will have alarming consequences.