Commentary Politics

We Must Take Trump and His Supporters Seriously and Literally

Sharona Coutts

Tens of millions voted for Trump on Tuesday. They voted for him. No doubt, many also voted against Hillary Clinton, against President Obama, and against D.C. and various other “elites.” But millions of citizens voted for him with enthusiasm and enormous hopes.

Even after Tuesday night’s drubbing, major news sites are still running editorials and commentaries that repeat the very same mistake that led to the colossal surprise of a Donald Trump victory.

At the New York Times, Thomas L. Friedman wrote of his distress that “a majority of Americans wanted radical, disruptive change so badly and simply did not care who the change agent was.”

On a radio interview on Tuesday night, the host Phillip Adams opined that Trump’s supporters voted for him because they were alienated by the “beautifully shaped sentences” of the “elites.”

These comments show that many in the news business continue to dismiss Trump’s supporters, believing that they did not really approve of Trump for his sexism, aggression, bullying, and bragging, but voted for him for other reasons or despite those things.

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Here’s my question: How much longer are we going to keep making this same patronizing and dangerous mistake?

Tens of millions of Americans voted for Trump on Tuesday. They voted for him. No doubt, many also voted against Hillary Clinton, against President Obama, and against the D.C. establishment and various other “elites.” But millions of citizens voted for him with enthusiasm and enormous hopes.

Peter Thiel, the billionaire investor and Trump backer who funded the lawsuit that shuttered Gawker, said that the media’s mistake throughout the campaign was to take Trump literally, but not seriously.

In an October address to the National Press Club, Thiel, effectively quoting an idea originally put forth by the Atlantic’s Salena Zito, said that many Trump voters did the opposite:

“I think a lot of voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously but not literally, so when they hear things like the Muslim comment or the wall comment, their question is not, ‘Are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China?’ or, you know, ‘How exactly are you going to enforce these tests?’ What they hear is we’re going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy.”

Following his stunning victory, there is now almost no one who fails to take President-elect Trump seriously.

We do need, however, to take him literally as well—not in order to mock his ideas that seem fanciful or implausible, but to understand exactly what could now unfold in this country. 

Instead of assuming that Trump cynically described plans to deport millions of immigrants, to target refugees and immigrants based on their religion, to punish women for having an abortion should it become illegal, and to rip up decades-old international agreements that form the basis of what has been a historic period of global stability in order to excite supporters, we should take him at his word.

Time and again, people have written off the stated plans of leaders who turned out to be fascists and dictators, choosing to believe they could not or would not do the outlandish things they said they had planned.

That was even true of Adolf Hitler, who had taken the time to lay out a program of ethnic cleansing in his book Mein Kampf, which became a bestseller when it was published.

History teaches us the same lesson that life experience does: The best way to know what a person plans to do is to listen to what they say they are going to do.

We can hope that Trump will not attempt to implement the many irrational and dangerous things he talked about during the campaign and then laid out in his plan for his first 100 days, but we must come to terms with the real possibility that he will.

Likewise, it is dangerous to dismiss Trump’s supporters as having been hoodwinked into voting for him, or having done so reluctantly or as a mere protest vote.

Not all of the nearly 50 million people who voted for Trump did so because they wanted to “Trump the bitch,” “lock her up,” “ban” Muslims, and “build a wall.” But many did. Reporters must accept that reality, as must activists and advocates in progressive circles.

Instead of focusing on the fact that many of Trump’s supporters are not “college-educated”—which surely sounds like code among some journalists for “ignorant” or “stupid,” a point I suspect is well understood by the recipients of that label—it’s incumbent upon everyone to come to terms with the reality that millions of Americans have simply not accepted the ideas held dear by progressives.

They are rejecting globalism, both cultural and economic. They are rejecting reproductive rights. They are rejecting LGBTQ rights—especially trans rights. They are rejecting multiculturalism and racial and ethnic diversity as inherently good things, let alone as an unavoidable reality.

They agree with Trump’s plans to tear up NAFTA and other trade deals, to diminish the United States’ role in NATO, to overturn Roe v. Wade as well as Obergefell v. Hodges. They want Trump to scrap the executive measures taken by President Obama to allow young undocumented immigrants to work and study in the United States without fear of deportation. They want Trump to rid the country of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living here, regardless of how many families would be broken up in the process.

It is imperative to take these developments literally, because apart from stripping rights from millions of vulnerable people, such ideas can lay the groundwork for even more perilous developments.

For example, if he does do away with the Affordable Care Act, many of Trump’s supporters will find themselves with enormous health bills, and facing medical bankruptcies. If he deports many of the workers who support the agriculture, child-care, and food service industries, local economies will suffer. As Bloomberg Businessweek reported in 2011, when Alabama enforced a law that “require[d] police to question people they thought might be in the U.S. illegally and punish[ed] the businesses that hired them,” immigrants—both legal and undocumented—fled, leaving crops rotting in fields, hotel beds unmade, and restaurant dishes unwashed. The businesses who had employed them could not find workers to replace the immigrants and their families. Alabama residents debated whether the fault lay with those who were unwilling to take on the tough jobs, or employers who weren’t willing to pay fair wages for that work. Either way, there will be negative consequences for similar laws at a federal level. And if Trump makes good on his promise to start a trade war, many of those same supporters will discover the prices they pay for goods at Walmart and Costco have soared.

When those things start to happen, Trump and his supporters will be looking for someone to blame because blame has been the core of Trump’s campaign. Immigrants are blamed for crime and for the loss of U.S. jobs; “elites” are responsible for government inaction; andinternational bankers” are to blame for financial problems.

These are classic examples of one of the hallmarks of fascist rhetoric: identifying the “external enemy within.”

And that kind of language puts millions of people living in the United States in the realm of real danger. It’s the kind of logic that contributes to “priming,” a phenomenon studied by genocide scholars wherein a population begins to accept and normalize acts against other people that would have previously been abhorrent.

The ways in which Trump’s rhetoric conforms to fascist priming, and how it fits within the framework of the type of “dangerous speech” that often precedes mass violence, are fodder for a separate article.

For now, suffice to say that it is high time for reporters to stop assuming that Trump and his supporters either don’t know what they mean, or don’t mean what they say.

Trump won by allowing them to project onto him their desires for their own prosperity and strength, and promising that voting for him would make them more like him.

It is very unlikely that he will be able to deliver on those promises, but it is likely that he will try. And just as he prepped his supporters to believe that they could not “lose” the election, but that any loss would be proof that the system was rigged, we can expect Trump to tell Americans that any of his administration’s failures are due to similar interference from enemies within and without.

We must be ready for all of this.

UPDATE: Due to an editorial oversight, this article has been updated to reflect the original source of Thiel’s “seriously but not literally” statement.

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