Taking Trump at his word

In September 2016, Salena Zito, who was then covering voters in the heartland, wrote of then-candidate Donald Trump, in a column for The Atlantic: “the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” The phrase quickly slipped into Trumplore. Trump allies, such as Peter Thiel, invoked it to argue that while reporters and fact checkers obsessed over the fine print of Trump’s pronouncements on, say, banning Muslims from the US and building a wall at the southern border, his supporters were hearing more general pledges to, say, reform immigration. Trump critics, such as Dara Lind, then of Vox, complained about the moral and factual slipperiness of such logic—criticisms that were vindicated when Trump moved to literally ban Muslims and literally build his wall almost as soon as he took office. Ever since then, the literally/seriously motif has echoed, Zelig-like, through the press. We’ve heard of Trump being taken seriously and literally, seriously but not literally (by the media this time), and neither seriously nor literally—the latter because, as The Atlantic’s David Frum put it last year, the president’s “words are as worthless as Trump Organization IOUs.”

In large part, the phrase and the many variations thereupon are hard to pin down because Trump himself is hard to pin down. Since taking office, he’s said literally tens of thousands of things that aren’t true while also pursuing his more extreme campaign promises, while also threatening core tenets of American democracy, while also serving as a perpetual object of derision. Last Thursday, he handed us a paradigmatic example of such contradictions. Trump wrote in a tweet that mail-in voting is fraudulent, and suggested that the presidential election should be delayed “until people can properly, securely and safely vote.” Literally, the tweet was a complete mess. There’s no evidence mail-in voting is compromised, and Trump’s differentiation of the practice from absentee voting (“which is good”) made no sense, since the terms are interchangeable. Also, Trump does not have the power to delay the election.

Related: Drive-by journalism in Trumplandia

Some Trump boosters employed a version of the seriously-not-literally defense: the tweet, they said, was a joke, which nonetheless raised valid broader concerns about mail-in voting. (Again, no.) Many other observers, however, took the missive extremely seriously. Not all of them were the usual suspects. Leading Republicans who aren’t in the habit of slapping Trump down swiftly did so; Steven Calabresi—a cofounder of the right-wing Federalist Society, who defended the president against Mueller and impeachment—wrote, in a New York Times op-ed, that the tweet was “fascistic” and “itself grounds for the president’s immediate impeachment again.” Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired Army colonel, appeared on cable news to outline bipartisan efforts, in which he is involved, to war-game what might happen if Trump refuses to leave office. (“This man could be serious,” Wilkerson said.) Trump’s tweet continued to drive discussion on the Sunday shows. On CNN, Dana Bash asked Jim Clyburn, a top House Democrat, about remarks he made comparing Trump to Hitler. Clyburn clarified that he thinks Trump is like Mussolini. (Putin is like Hitler.)

Also on the Sunday shows, Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, attempted to reverse course. “We’re going to hold an election on November 3,” he told CBS, “and the president is going to win.” Trump’s tweet, however, is not so easy to walk back. In recent weeks, he’s repeatedly sown disinformation about mail-in voting, and his campaign has repeatedly refused to confirm that it plans to accept the election result as legitimate; two weeks ago, Trump himself said as much, during an interview with Fox’s Chris Wallace. The pattern is clear: Trump is on course to lose the election, and is working ahead of time to discredit the result.

On ABC yesterday, Jonathan Swan, of Axios, said that his recent reporting, including his own interview with Trump, clearly suggests as much. “You could see a vote on Election Day in which Donald Trump is doing very well—because his people have gone to the polls and Democrats have overwhelmingly voted by mail—and then, as the results start coming in with the mail vote, in the next couple of days, Donald Trump will say, See, I told you so, it’s fraudulent, and then try and launch various forms of litigation,” Swan said. “I think that’s where this is heading.” The press can’t see the future, of course, but Trump is making it abundantly clear that he won’t leave office without a fight, and a dirty one if necessary. That demands to be taken both literally and seriously—even if the president can’t actually postpone Election Day itself.

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In December 2016, after Trump had won, the conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg called the seriously-not-literally distinction “fairly ridiculous hogwash as a prescription for how to treat an actual president, or president-elect, of the United States.” As an example of a claim that demanded to be taken literally (and debunked on such terms), Goldberg referenced Trump’s absurd lie that millions of people had voted illegally for his opponent, Hillary Clinton. That claim was swiftly and brutally fact-checked; nonetheless, some pundits ridiculed it, given that Trump was, after all, complaining about an election he’d just won. This was ridiculous—but it also had the effect of convincing many voters that American elections are rigged long before 2020 loomed into view. In hindsight, we all should have taken Trump’s election lies—indeed, his campaign as a whole—uniformly and urgently seriously back in 2016. Judging by the stern recent coverage of Trump’s tweet, we seem to have learned a collective lesson since then. We mustn’t relapse.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.