Following Donald Trump’s massive upset last November, conventional wisdom settled on a simple concept to explain his victory: The media (and Democrats) took Trump literally but not seriously while his supporters took him seriously but not literally.
It was a concise way of understanding the Trump phenomenon – and all of the cavalier, intemperate and downright nasty things he said during the campaign about, among others, Hillary Clinton, women, the party establishment and a variety of foreign leaders.
His supporters viewed all of it as Trump being Trump – a showman putting on a show. They liked that he was willing to say whatever came into his mind, but they didn’t expect him to actually, say, build a wall across the southern border and make Mexico pay for it.
The media and his opponents, on the other hand, took his rhetoric at face value and tried to extrapolate what that sort of approach might mean in a president. They never thought he’d get there, of course.
Which brings us to today or, more accurately, Tuesday afternoon when Trump said this in reaction to the news that North Korea had miniaturized a nuclear weapon: “They will be met with fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
“Fire” and “fury.” “Power the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
Taken literally, Trump’s statement translates to: Don’t test me North Korea. If you fire a nuclear weapon anywhere – Guam, the western United States, anywhere – I will authorize strikes that will blow your regime to smithereens. We will obliterate you. And I am willing – maybe very willing – to do just that if provoked any further. I repeat: Do not test me.
He then touted the US nuclear arsenal on Wednesday morning: “My first order as President was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal. It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before … Hopefully we will never have to use this power, but there will never be a time that we are not the most powerful nation in the world!”
Taken less-than-literally, Trump’s statements go like this: I am tough – way tougher than Barack Obama. No, I am not going to get the US into a nuclear war in the Korean peninsula because of Kim Jong Un’s provocations. But I want him – and the Chinese and anyone else listening – to know that I am not going to be bullied around, rhetorically or otherwise, by anyone.
So, which is it? And, more importantly, is Kim Jong Un taking Trump literally but not seriously or the other way around?
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in Guam on Wednesday, sought to influence that perception, making clear that this was Trump speaking seriously, but not literally. “The President was sending a strong message to North Korea in language Kim Jong Un would understand,” Tillerson told reporters. But, he added, that nothing had changed militarily in the region; “Americans should sleep well at night,” said Tillerson.
My guess is that you’ll see more of that sort of talk from US diplomats and White House officials today – assertions that Trump wanted to get Kim’s attention but that he also understands the perils of escalating a conflict in the Korean peninsula.
Again, however, none of that “seriously but not literally” talk from the US ensures that Kim will take it the way people like Tillerson are assuring that he – and we – should.
This was always the risk voters took in electing Trump – someone with no prior military or political experience who built a brand on his willingness to say the things no one else would. His brashness and bluster paid off during the 2016 campaign as it sounded to most people like just the sort of anti-politician they were looking for.
But, running for President is different than being President. And, as President, Trump’s penchant for popping off can be interpreted (and misinterpreted) in ways that have more far-reaching impacts than he may intend.
This North Korea showdown is the first major test of how Trump’s approach to politics works in foreign affairs. Or, more frighteningly for all of us, doesn’t work.