Every morning begins with a blast of words from President Trump. His demand that the alleged attacker in New York get the death penalty. His absurdly false claims about his tax-cut plan. And the one that sparked the sharpest reaction recently: his call for the Justice Department to investigate his 2016 opponent.
Some Americans applaud these words, while most find them outrageous. But what about a third group: those who find the president’s words to be of no significance at all? Why do some people react so fervently — pro or con — to Trump’s words, while others simply shrug their shoulders and consider Trump’s tweets to be mere bluster unless Trump actually acts on them?
Explanations abound. Some of the difference relates to political affiliation and the underlying ideological, social and racial divisions in our country. Perhaps we are having an epistemic crisis where we disagree on what “truth” is when it comes to global events.
But it may come down to whether you agree with a two-word sentence: Words matter.
For many Americans, the idea that “words matter” is not just a personal statement, but also a professional one. Journalists and authors make their living by words. So do lawyers, teachers, consultants, marketers, diplomats, actors, legislators, academics and so on. They take Trump’s words seriously because they take their own words seriously.
But for millions of other Americans, words are just . . . words. A source of diversion, a tool for banter. These men and women measure themselves, not by words, but by how many surgeries they perform, how many miles of road they pave, how many cars they repair, how much their stock portfolios go up. Yes, people converse in these professions, too. But words are not their stock in trade, and many in this group think that Trump’s words are just exaggerations by a garden-variety loudmouth.
It would be easy to assume that the “words matter” question correlates with social class, but that is not correct. There are people of all incomes and all educational backgrounds in both groups.
Trump has always shown a disdain for the importance of words. He was not a “word is my bond” businessman, but rather a wheeler-dealer whose commitments changed every day. He made outrageous statements on talk radio, promised charitable donations he never sent, announced projects he never built — all just words.
During the campaign, Trump’s reckless words insulting women, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Mexicans, the Khan family, Judge Gonzalo Curiel and more stoked outrage in some people and enthusiasm in others — but also an apathetic reaction in yet another group. It was these “words don’t matter” voters who were the underappreciated dynamic in 2016.
This division crested around the “Access Hollywood” tape, where Trump crudely boasted of assaulting women. Oddly, the controversy seemed less focused on what Trump might have actually done and more about what Trump said. At a presidential debate just two days later, Clinton skewered Trump’s words, saying: “I think it’s clear to anyone who heard it, that it represents exactly who he is. . . . We have seen him insult women. We have seen him rate women on their appearance . . . We’ve seen him embarrass women on TV and on Twitter.” Clinton — a lawyer and a diplomat — reflected the “words matter” perspective.
Trump’s reply was not aimed at the voters who were repulsed by his statements, or those who repulsively found them unobjectionable. Instead, he spoke to those who found his words unimportant altogether. “It’s just words, folks. It’s just words,” he said. “That was locker-room talk.”
A year later, Trump is president, and the fact that some Americans don’t think that his words matter provides both a warning and a reassurance to his opponents.
The warning: Trump’s opponents will not defeat him and his allies based on a campaign against Trump’s words alone. They must focus on his actions — his failure to bring jobs home and fix trade deals, his rollback of environmental and consumer protections, his hardhearted response to Puerto Rico, his abandonment of plans for our infrastructure — and alternatives to create jobs, improve health care, expand college opportunity. They cannot ride to victory on outrage over Trump’s Twitter feed.
The reassurance: Just because some Americans have been blase about Trump’s outrageous statements — such as his call for the prosecution of his political opponents — doesn’t mean that they would be unconcerned if Trump turned words into action. The failure of many to react to Trump’s tweets does not mean those people would be indifferent if Trump actually did the things he has threatened.
Actions do speak louder, and for Trump’s opponents to be effective, his actions must be the focus.