Originally written on 11/29/2016
Yesterday a column was posted on CNN.com by a fellow named Brad Todd, titled “Dear journalists: Stop Taking Trump Literally”. Mr. Todd says that while journalists take Trump literally, his voters take him seriously and that’s what matters. I read the piece and thought it was bad. After all, I had just a few days ago written a very long post on my own websiteabout journalists doing the exact opposite, taking Trump seriously when he said he had an open mind to climate change and putting words in his mouth to indicate that he did have an open mind, rather than just taking a literal reading of what he said. I also thought the CNN article was written from the wrong perspective, an advertising man advising journalists to look at news as a for-profit industry, the reader as “customer,” and the important customers as Trump voters, and to stop trying to provide as much information possible in as complete a way as is necessary to tell the whole story to as many readers as may find it relevant. “This is seriously a bad take, and I mean that literally,” I said.
But yesterday, a twitter user named @ezlusztig posted a series of tweets that made me rethink the whole idea of taking Donald Trump seriously and not literally. Elliott Lusztig refers to a book by Hannah Arendt called “The Origin of Totalitarianism”, published in 1949, I have not read the book so I rely on his interpretation. He says Ms. Arendt noted how “decent liberals in 1930s Germany would ‘fact check’ the Nazis’ bizarre claims about Jews” failing to understand that the Nazis were not stating fact but intent, “not describing what was true, but what would have to be true to justify what they planned to do next.” Another user quotes Jean-Paul Sartre, from his 1944 book “Anti-Semite and Jew” as follows:
Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play.
They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past.
What Trump is saying is not that 3m illegals voted. What he’s saying is: I’m going to steal the voting rights of millions of Americans.
I still think the main points of Todd’s piece are off base and many of his conclusions are wrong (at the very least it’s more relevant to cable-type news than factual reporting), but his ad-man sloganeering can be applied to many Trump’s statements in the context of seeing them as statements of intent rather than literal fact.
So when Trump tells you he thinks 3 million illegal immigrants voted, don’t take him literally and scream, “No they didn’t!” Take it seriously as a threat to take voting rights away from Americans. Often you can find corroboration of his “statement of intent”, like in his pick for Jeff Sessions for AG. Sessions has a 30-year “record of hostility” toward minority voting rights. The Justice Department has been involved in a number of lawsuits in recent years against states seen by the DoJ to be in violation of voting rights laws. This will likely end under Sessions, who cheered the 2013 gutting of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court. Or look at his pick of Steve Bannon as chief strategist. Bannon once said he thought only property owners should be allowed to vote, which leaves out large groups of minorities, young people (especially students), people who live in population centers, and, of course, poor people.
When Trump tells you he thinks that protesters are acting in bad faith, or that he believes flag burners ought to be put in jail or denaturalized, don’t take him literally and start talking about whether the public supports a ban on flag burning or argue about whether protesters are right to protest. Take it seriously as a threat to free speech and the right to protest, from a man who as shown over and over again that he can’t stand being criticized and has repeatedly expressed his admiration for totalitarian states that jail dissidents. Look for corroboration in his own history of disdain toward free expression, like when he proposed fighting ISIS in America by closing down our mosques and even threatening to restrict our internet speech like North Korea and other totalitarian states, saying, “Somebody will say, ‘Oh freedom of speech, freedom of speech.’ These are foolish people. We have a lot of foolish people.”
When Trump tells you he thinks this media outlet or that reporter treats him unfairly, don’t take him literally and examine whether the treatment was indeed correct and fair. Take it seriously as a threat to curb freedom of the press and subject it to heavy government interference by a man who has expressed a desire to “open up the libel laws” to make it easier to sue the press for writing about him, and who has first-hand experience in how much fake propaganda (no matter who it comes from) and control of the news cycle can help or hurt someone in the eyes of the American people.
Trump often speaks in an obfuscating manner, and reporters have a hard time getting him to state a position clearly. Trump’s surrogates – and one has to assume this will be true of a White House Press Secretary as well, as far as one exists in a Trump administration – often don’t bother to try to interpret or clarify his statements, deferring back to him or making light of his off-the-cuff way of speaking. When they do provide a “clarification” it will often be an outright lie itself. So reporters interpret Trump’s words for themselves and hack up his quotes to make it seem he said things they would like him to have said. This will continue to be a problem. But making sense of Trump’s nonsense will not be as simple as just listening to exactly what he says. Behind a literal statement that seems so outrageous and obviously incorrect that it must be just a pretext for controversy lies a serious threat feeling its way out into the public discourse, looking for approval from Trump’s followers while providing a cover of plausible deniability to the people making the threat.
So the next time you hear Trump or one of his surrogates say something outrageous, don’t take it as a literal statement. Take it as a serious threat.
Please pay attention!
See you soon.