His ex­act words mat­ter

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - JONAH GOLD­BERG jgold­berg@la­timescolum­nists.com

It would make a per­fect click­bait ad: “Learn this one sim­ple trick to stop wor­ry­ing about Don­ald Trump and Make Amer­ica Great Again.”

What’s the trick? All you have to do is take Trump se­ri­ously, but not lit­er­ally.

The for­mu­la­tion is cred­ited to re­porter Se­lena Zito, who, in an ar­ti­cle for the At­lantic in Septem­ber, noted that the news me­dia take Trump’s more out­landish state­ments lit­er­ally but not se­ri­ously, while his sup­port­ers do the in­verse.

Even the pres­i­dent-elect’s team has de­clared this a kind of Rosetta Stone for de­ci­pher­ing Trump­s­peak.

Corey Le­wandowski, Trump’s first cam­paign man­ager, re­cently ex­plained at a post­elec­tion con­fer­ence at Har­vard, “This is the prob­lem with the me­dia. You guys took ev­ery­thing Don­ald Trump said so lit­er­ally. And the prob­lem with that is the Amer­i­can peo­ple didn’t.”

Peter Thiel, a ma­jor Trump backer, made the same point at the Na­tional Press Club in Oc­to­ber. The “me­dia al­ways is tak­ing Trump lit­er­ally. It never takes him se­ri­ously ... I think a lot of the vot­ers who vote for Trump take Trump se­ri­ously, but not lit­er­ally.”

Trump has hinted that he buys this heuris­tic as well. In a speech last week in Ohio, he ex­plained that he never re­ally meant it when he said in April that “we’re not go­ing to let Car­rier leave.”

“I said, ‘Car­rier will never leave,’ ” he ac­knowl­edged. “But that was a eu­phemism. I was talk­ing about Car­rier like all other com­pa­nies from here on in.”

As a de­fense of some of can­di­date Trump’s state­ments, this dis­tinc­tion is not bad, and as an in­dict­ment of the me­dia, it’s pretty good. The press treated Trump as a joke, not ap­pre­ci­at­ing the fact that for many vot­ers the me­dia’s scorn is a badge of honor.

Of course Trump isn’t the only politi­cian to ex­pect “non­lit­eral” sta­tus. Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den has said some ab­so­lutely lu­di­crous things over the years. He said FDR went on TV af­ter the stock mar­ket crash of 1929, when FDR was not yet pres­i­dent and TV did not yet ex­ist. No one took him lit­er­ally. Nor does any­one take him lit­er­ally when he, lit­er­ally, asks to be taken lit­er­ally. He told a group of stu­dents, “You are the key­stone to East Africa — lit­er­ally, not fig­u­ra­tively — you are the key­stone.” “Be­fore we ar­rived in the West Wing,” Bi­den said in 2010, “Mr. Boehner and the Repub­li­can Party ran the econ­omy lit­er­ally into the ground.”

The non­lit­eral ap­proach to Bi­den is safe for two rea­sons. Be­cause he is a well-known char­ac­ter in the Wash­ing­ton es­tab­lish­ment, the pub­lic knows more or less what to ex­pect from him. And, as a vice pres­i­dent, there’s only so much harm he can do. (In other words, we don’t have to take him too se­ri­ously.)

Trump is dif­fer­ent. On his own terms he’s an out­sider and a “dis­rupter” who claims that po­lit­i­cal elites range from stupid to malev­o­lent. He also has zero ex­pe­ri­ence in for­eign or do­mes­tic pol­icy. What he says — and how he says it — takes on greater im­por­tance pre­cisely be­cause he lacks a track record in pub­lic of­fice to put his lan­guage in con­text.

This se­ri­ously-not-lit­er­ally thing is a great an­a­lyt­i­cal in­sight into how then-can­di­date Trump com­mu­ni­cated with his sup­port­ers. But it is fairly ridicu­lous hog­wash as a pre­scrip­tion for how to treat an ac­tual pres­i­dent, or pres­i­dent-elect, of the United States.

When Trump says mil­lions of peo­ple voted il­le­gally, how should the news me­dia go about tak­ing that indefensible claim “se­ri­ously but not lit­er­ally”? Should re­porters as­sume that some num­ber of peo­ple voted il­le­gally, but not mil­lions? Or that mil­lions of peo­ple voted, but not il­le­gally?

When Trump ex­plains that he spoke on the tele­phone with the pres­i­dent of Tai­wan, should China be ex­pected to take that vi­o­la­tion of diplo­matic norms “se­ri­ously but not lit­er­ally”?

Per­haps we shouldn’t take the lit­er­ally-se­ri­ously dis­tinc­tion too lit­er­ally. Per­haps what Trump sup­port­ers re­ally mean is that he should get a free pass when­ever his mouth gets him in trou­ble?

Trump has said, “I know words, I have the best words.” He’s also said he could be more pres­i­den­tial than any­body, ex­cept maybe Abra­ham Lin­coln. He’d be well ad­vised to take his own words se­ri­ously, if not lit­er­ally.

What a pres­i­dent says mat­ters. And cred­i­bil­ity — with cit­i­zens, al­lies, en­e­mies and mar­kets — is a fi­nite re­source, eas­ily de­pleted when you think you’ll never be held to ac­count for what you blurt out.

To take Trump se­ri­ously but not lit­er­ally is fairly ridicu­lous hog­wash as a pre­scrip­tion for how to treat an ac­tual U.S. pres­i­dent.

Mark Lyons Euro­pean Pressphoto Agency

PRES­I­DENT-ELECT Don­ald Trump isn’t the only politi­cian to ex­pect “non­lit­eral” sta­tus.

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