How Literally Should We Take Donald Trump?

During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump promised to build a wall along our Southern border with Mexico (and have the Mexicans pay for it) as well as to deport ’em all when it comes to undocumented people in this country. At other times, he qualified those statements. At one point, his strongest ally in Congress suggested that he was actually talking about a “virtual wall and rhetorical deportations.” Those are just two of the examples of why I eventually determined that it was pointless to try to track Trump’s policy positions.

Not long after the election was over, Corey Lewandowski made this critique of the media coverage during the campaign:

“This is the problem with the media. You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally,” Lewandowski said. “The American people didn’t. They understood it. They understood that sometimes — when you have a conversation with people, whether it’s around the dinner table or at a bar — you’re going to say things, and sometimes you don’t have all the facts to back it up.”

Another Trump supporter, Brad Todd, said that we should take the president-elect seriously, but not literally. He then made a disturbing argument saying, “For the fist time, words don’t matter.”

The public — also known as “customers” of for-profit news outlets — sees Trump’s words differently than journalists do. They, or at least the members of his winning electoral coalition, see Trump not as a politician but as a businessman. They know, and even value, the fact that his words have not passed through a gauntlet of spinners, prose smoothers, and fact-checkers.

One can only assume that this is how Trump’s inner circle views his rejection of political correctness. He is allowed to say (tweet) whatever he wants at the moment and we’re supposed to take it all seriously…but not literally. That came into pretty sharp focus when Trump tweeted this last week:

It was breath-taking to watch Kellyanne Conway tell Rachel Maddow that the part where he says that the U.S. must greatly expand its nuclear capability doesn’t mean what those words say.

In another example, Newt Gingrich had to admit that he made a “boo-boo” when stating the obvious – that Trump’s talk about draining the swamp wasn’t really a priority. Never mind that the president-elect is actually feeding the swamp. Words don’t matter anymore, so he can say anything he wants and contradict them with his actions.

When discussing the Gingrich boo-boo on NPR last week, David Brooks made this observation:

Trump cares a lot about words and the words that go out. And so there’s this realm of reality which is just marketing and words, and then there’s the realm of reality of actually governing. And even though some of us are afraid that he’ll be a very authoritarian leader and do a lot of very strong things, I can easily paint a scenario where he’s a very feckless leader and he sits in the cloud of words and the agencies of government who are career staff, they just go along their merry way and nothing actually settles into their world, the world of actual reality.

By suggesting that words matter to Trump, Brooks seems to be saying the opposite of what Brad Todd said in the quote up above. In a way, both of them are right. Trump wants the attention that words (often inflammatory) bring him. He also wants to maintain the ability to say whatever he wants to any group of listeners.

But as I’ve said before, he doesn’t want to BE president when it comes to actually doing anything. So I’ve been contemplating the possibility of a POTUS who uses words and symbolic gestures (i.e. Carrier deal) to keep his troops riled up while his VPOTUS manages a legislative agenda with Congress and his Cabinet members call the shots on issues related to their departments.

If that is the case, those of us who are more concerned with what actually happens in government should be keeping an eye on the fate of the Cabinet nominees as well as what Pence is up to. Brad Todd might actually be right. Trump’s words don’t matter.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.