Taking Trump Literally, vs. Taking Trump Seriously

“The press takes Trump literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” — Salena Zito, The Atlantic, September 23, 2016

Introduction: The United States populace has elected Donald J. Trump as our 45th President. I believe this is a shatteringly disgraceful event, for which the United States will and should be forever ashamed. Trump utilized the techniques of hatred, bullying and fear to gain the keys to the White House.

Even so the individuals who voted for him are our fellow Americans and are in large part decent people. (There are some nasty racists in the bunch, and I will get to them. I am speaking here about Trump supporters as a group). The only way to understand Trump is to gracefully endeavor to understand the people who voted for him. This essay is my attempt to do so, while taking note of the blind spots that prevented me from understanding that Trump had a real chance to win.

I. I grew up in central Ohio, just outside of Columbus. My dad’s family migrated from mining country in West Virginia, my mom’s from central Tennessee. The West Virginia to Columbus path was quite common, the Tennessee to Columbus path less so but not unheard of. Columbus had better job opportunities, and that was enough to move.

So my roots are in Appalachia. Trump country.

My stepfather is from a blue-collar family in Fort Wayne, Indiana and he too moved to Columbus for work.

Although my father did not vote for Trump most of my extended family, as well as my step-father, did. These are the people who drove me to church, who organized the family reunions that included country and gospel music as entertainment. These are the people who sing “Amazing Grace” and “Rocky Top” with conviction and vigor. These are the people for whom Ohio State football is an important part of their identity. And these are the people who work as mechanics, truck drivers, shop stewards, custodians — the white working class. Without this group the various strivings of “educated professionals” would not be possible.

And these are the people who perceive the more well-to-do residents of their country sneering at them from their coastal perches. They voted for Trump as a way to sneer back.

I took the opposite approach — giving everything I could to prevent the election of a President Trump. Although I grew up with those Appalachian roots but had long since become a coastal person myself (both East and West).

In short: my way of understanding the world meant that I took Trump literally. My friends and loved ones who voted for Trump took him seriously.

II. Literally: The litany of Trump’s insults and abuses is now familiar, so here’s a partial list. Most of these occurred on the campaign trail, some are older:

  • Arguing with no factual basis that the first African-American President of the United States was not actually an American, as a way to delegitimize our duly elected President Barack Hussein Obama. This is how Trump arrived on the recent political stage, and his attempt to pin this onto Hillary Clinton is a lie.
  • Claiming that Mexico deliberately imports rapists to the United States
  • Proclaiming that he would build a wall across the entire Southern border and make Mexico pay for it through confiscating the money that Mexicans in the US send home to their families
  • Arguing that all Muslims from certain countries should be barred from entering the US, rather than simply tightening our already quite tight security to prevent new terrorist acts
  • Mocking the disabled reporter Serge Kovaleski
  • Insinuating that African-Americans would cheat at the polls, and requesting that his white supporters show up to intimidate these legitimate voters
  • Arguing with the Muslim family of a fallen US soldier
  • Telling Billy Bush that because he’s a celebrity he gets to “grab ’em by the pussy”
  • Invoking Anti-Semitic imagery from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion
  • Claiming that former Miss Universe Alicia Machado was a “fat pig”
  • Alleging that Senator Ted Cruz’s father was part of the assassination of John F. Kennedy
  • Arguing that climate change is a hoax invented by China to crush US manufacturing
  • Implying that Senator Marco Rubio has a small penis
  • Fending off almost a dozen sexual assault charges by claiming he would sue all the women involved after the election
  • Urging the supporters at his rallies to scream at the press, who were herded into a pen that was often in the middle of the arena and left them defenseless
  • Claiming that he would pay the legal bills of a supporter who sucker-punched an African-American protester who was peacefully leaving an arena in North Carolina
  • Abusing people on Twitter and asking his followers to do the same
  • Etc.

This is thuggery. This is bullying.

Trump employed several strategies when criticized for this behavior. He would often imply things without explicitly stating them, giving himself a way out when pressed. If there was direct tape that he had said something he would often simply deny it. If he could not deny it (such as “grab ’em by the pussy”) he would stage a non-apology apology.

These are the tactics that Trump employed to become our next President. And they worked. Bullying as good strategy is now hard to deny to our children. They see with the own eyes that hatred wins.

“Literalists” like me were constantly appalled by all this. But calling Trump out only gave him more airtime. There was no way to engage because he was without shame and without decency, and truly did not care how he looked. To Trump winning was all that mattered, no matter how ugly and divisive.

People such as myself and members of the media did not know how to process Trump, and so we underestimated him. This is exactly what Michael Moore warned us about, but nonetheless we persisted in our delusions that there was no possible way Trump would win.

The above is one accounting of what happened. There is another.

III. Seriously: One of my cousins was a proud and early Trump supporter. He believes that conservatives are persecuted and mocked in their own land. He thinks that President Obama has done nothing to bring jobs to everyday people. He was not surprised by Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment, and anyways she should have been in jail for Benghazi and the private email server. The very fact that she could run for President rather than reporting to the jailhouse chow line showed that the game was “rigged.”

Crucially, my cousin did not think Trump was really going to build the wall with Mexico. I suspect that he did not much else literally either. The wall was a metaphor, a way to show that the US was not going to take any more shit and would finally protect its borders. My cousin knew that it was best to take Trump seriously rather than hear him literally, which is the error I made all the way to the end.

My cousin loves his country and has a generally high regard for the people in it. He is not a racist, sexist monster white man. He just wants to be respected for who he is rather than mocked for what he is not. Trump gave that respect to him, and millions of others.

And that’s why Trump won.

Upon his victory Trump did the dutiful thing of saying it was time to come together. Maybe this toxic campaign season was just a horribly long phase of ugliness, and what we will see emerge in a Trump White House is a much more practical man. Or maybe not, because the demons of hatred have been unleashed.

IV. For if the story ended here — with my cousin earning vindication, and Trump saying terrible things but governing moderately — us “literalists” could be depressed for a while and then move on.

I fear that the story will not end here. Trump has emboldened the KKK and white nationalists of all stripes. He has inspired an endless army of online abusers who delight in viciously attacking those who criticize him. He has made our nation smaller in moral stature than it used to be.

Words have consequences. You cannot un-ring a bell. The genie never fits back in the bottle.

President-elect Trump’s supporters (most of them) deserve our respect. He does not.