Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” and co-author, with Peter Eisner, of the book “High Crimes: The Corruption, Impunity, and Impeachment of Donald Trump.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
During the 2016 election campaign a new political phenomenon emerged: journalists seemed to take then-candidate Donald Trump literally, but not seriously, while his supporters did the reverse: They took him seriously but not literally. This curiosity was noted by many, including tech billionaire Peter Thiel. Thiel explained that while Trump may say, for example, that he wants to ban Muslim immigrants or replicate the Great Wall of China on the southern border, his followers heard, “We’re going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy.”
Thiel’s simple observation seemed like a handy way to explain how the press misunderstood Trump and his loyalists. However, it failed to describe what was a more complex dynamic. In truth, Trump was often quite serious about outrageous things he said, including banning Muslims seeking to come to the US and building a wall to rival the one erected by the ancient Chinese.
If things didn’t work out well, then he could seek cover in the don’t-take-me-literally explanation, but his intent was often obscure. And so many in Trump’s base do take him literally that when he told a huge crowd in Washington on January 6 that he would walk to the Capitol to protest against Congress certifying the 2020 election, his aides feared that many expected him to follow through.
“There’s no way we are going to the Capitol,” said chief of staff Mark Meadows when the Secret Service warned him against it. When Meadows asked Trump about his promise to walk to the Capitol he said, “I didn’t mean it literally.” This exchange, revealed in Michael Wolff’s new book “Landslide,” illustrates the difficulties presented by Trump’s weird approach to both his oratory and his responsibilities.
For four years, Trump’s followers had shown that they hang on to every word and do take him quite literally, even when he says implausible things about serious matters like the Covid-19 pandemic and the security of the election system. Despite the suffering and division caused by his statements on these issues and more, Trump hadn’t altered his behavior to account for the fact that he was president of the United States and his words mattered. Instead, he continued blabbing, assuming he could declare that he didn’t really mean it if things went horribly wrong.
As Wolff notes in an excerpt published by New York Magazine, Trump’s most ardent supporters are more like obsessed fans of rock-and-roll idols than voters who might put a candidate’s bumper sticker on their cars a week before Election Day. Decades in the public eye and speeches resembling an insult comic’s performance had turned Trump into a star. And, as Wolff writes, “Stars like him needed fans, but this did not mean that a fan was not a strange thing to be. The more devoted the fan, the odder the fan.”
Many in the crowd that heeded Trump’s call to gather in Washington were, to put it mildly, from the odder end of the fan base. Gathered at the Capitol to somehow stop the process that would affirm Joe Biden’s election to the presidency, the group included men and women in combat gear, several who brought weapons, and one even dressed like a self-proclaimed shaman. In Trump’s speech that day – or better put, performance – he wound up the crowd with false claims of election fraud and calls for them to, “Save our democracy.”
After asserting, also falsely, that Congress or Vice President Mike Pence could overturn the election result, Trump said, “We’re going to walk down, (to the Capitol) and I’ll be there with you, we’re going to walk down, we’re going to walk down.” Moments later he said his followers must act, “Because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.”
What followed Trump’s remarks was a massive protest that quickly devolved into a bloody assault on the Capitol. Rioting Trump loyalists overwhelmed police, smashing their way into the building and sending senators, member of Congress, and the vice president scurrying for safety. The attack would claim five lives in total and result in more than 140 police officers being injured. Damage to American democracy, and the country’s standing in the world, was, if incalculable, nevertheless substantial.
As anyone could predict, Trump denied having any responsibility for what happened on January 6 – even though he had created the false controversy over the election, fanned the flames of outrage for two months, and then promised he would be with the mob as it marched on the Capitol. His claim that “I didn’t mean it literally,” shows that after a full term in office, during which his loyalists proved they believed and acted on much of what he said, the President was stubbornly committed to the fantasies he creates and to denying reality.
In truth, Trump’s words have helped drive millions to accept dangerous conspiracy theories and to embrace him as a leader who should be believed over the evidence available from both expert sources and their own life experience. How else to explain why, as hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens died of Covid-19, so many accepted the president’s claims that the threat was overblown and politicized by his opponents.
In the case of the pandemic, and then the election result, a Trump offended by reality offered fantasies that he seemed to think would serve him better. This is something he has done for decades while making outrageous claims about his wealth and peddling stories about the beautiful women who threw themselves at him. That he continued this as President suggests that he had never accepted the real burden of his office and that his words, even when he wasn’t being literal, had consequences.
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Trump’s way of saying he didn’t mean something “literally” is similar to the way some people say “I was only joking” when they say something awful. It’s a technique used by those who would absolve themselves of responsibility and simultaneously suggest those who didn’t understand were, themselves, wrong and deficient.
The don’t-take-me-literally defense may work for a bad-boy rock star but it doesn’t work for anyone in a position of responsibility. That Trump was unable to learn this lesson only confirms that he wasn’t ever suited to be president or, as he is now, the leader of the Republican Party. It also makes it imperative that we take him seriously at all times, because his devoted followers will.