Of all the bizarre things about the Donald Trump presidency—and the list is growing as long as a Tolstoy novel, from the tectonic shift towards American isolationism to the investigations into the alleged Russian penetration of his campaign—perhaps the most peculiar is the orchestrated attempt of his closest surrogates to convince the world not to take his words literally. It’s the first time in history a president has employed a communications team to insist that the commander-in-chief is not actually communicating. Should we take Trump at his word?
Apparently not. Trump’s staff is currently making the implausible argument that taking Trump literally is a conspiracy of fake news. On Monday morning, in the wake of the terror attack in London, Trump defender Kellyanne Conway was back on TV, admonishing the hosts of the Today show for challenging the president’s inaccurate Twitter slur against the mayor of London.
“At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is ‘no reason to be alarmed!’” Trump had tweeted out the day before. As the hosts of the program knew, Sadiq Khan had said no such thing. It is worth seeing the mayor’s words in context. “My message to Londoners and visitors to our great city is to be calm and vigilant today,” said Kahn. “You will see an increased police presence today, including armed officers and uniformed officers. There is no reason to be alarmed by this. We are the safest global city in the world. You saw last night as a consequence of our planning, our preparation, the rehearsals that take place, the swift response from the emergency services tackling the terrorists and also helping the injured.” Who could take that as somehow minimizing the threat? Naturally the hosts asked Conway why Trump was overtly twisting Khan’s words.
Conway was livid, promptly calling them out for their “obsession with covering everything he says on Twitter and very little of what he does as president.” Her point? Why were the journalists taking Trump at his word? Let it go. Do a president’s words matter? For this administration—and often for Trump himself, who is known to contradict himself and reverse course from day to day—the answer appears to be no.
This was not just a one-off. It played out again in the debate over the controversial proposal to stop immigration from seven mostly Muslim countries. “It’s not a Muslim ban. It’s not a travel ban. It’s a vetting system to keep America safe,” spokesman Sean Spicer insisted back on Jan. 31. That was the line for months, until this week, when the president tweeted that his policy is, in fact, a travel ban. That didn’t stop his surrogates, including White House national Security aide Sebastian Gorka, from telling CNN that Trump’s earlier words don’t matter anymore. “The president can call it whatever he likes because he has the constitutional authority to control whoever comes into the country,” Gorka said. “If he wants to call it a ban, he’s the president, he’s the chief officer of this administration, and he has every right to do that.”
In other words, Trump can say whatever the hell he wants because, they insist, there need not be any discernible link between the words and the facts. Words matter even less than facts.
This Trump-speak should not come as a surprise. During the campaign, one of Trump’s biggest boosters, Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, who made his money as the co-founder of PayPal, articulated what went on to be one of the most widely quoted answers to the riddle of Trump’s rise. “The media is always taking Trump literally, [but] it never takes him seriously,” Thiel explained. “Voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously, but not literally.”
So that’s the answer? Take him seriously, not literally? Thiel went on to detail how the phenomenon works for the Trump supporter. “When they [the Trump supporters] 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.” For Theil, the words point to deeper meaning, and taking them literally misses the point entirely.
In the months following Trump’s election, many commentators agreed. They suggested that Trump’s bluster was all part of his negotiating style that he explained in his book The Art of the Deal. The theory goes that Trump says things he doesn’t mean in order to bully and cajole, all in the hopes of getting a leg up while negotiating. Certainly that was the original view in Canada, when Trump went ricocheting from “tweaking” NAFTA to “ripping it up” and back again.
Just wait until the negotiations start, we were told by people like former prime minister Brian Mulroney. Don’t react to the rhetoric. It’s good advice for sure, and the government has taken it. A senior PMO source described Trump’s words to me simply as “textbook negotiating style” so they are not taking the bait.
The problem is, the whole idea is absurd. When it comes to the president of the United States, it not a choice between taking him either literally or seriously; the president must be taken both literally and seriously. Any other approach is irresponsible and delusional.
Whatever you think of Trump, he is the president and everything he says matters. The world does not and cannot read Trump’s tweets as if they were spoken-word poetry, looking for hidden meanings. You don’t need a PhD in semiotics to see what Trump is literally screaming to say. “People, the lawyers and the courts can call it whatever they want, but I am calling it what we need and what it is, a TRAVEL BAN!” he said on June 5. Isn’t that clear? The logical thing here, the respectful thing, is to take him at his word. After all, there is no difference between what Trump says and what he tweets. It is all the word of the president.
The irony is, Trump is so incensed by his own administration’s spin on his words that, in typical fashion, he has undermined them. “The FAKE MSM is working so hard trying to get me not to use Social Media. They hate that I can get the honest and unfiltered message out.” So there it is. Trump’s words may be contradictory, they may not be based on fact, but they are his “honest and unfiltered message.” Finally, the world gets it.
While Trump’s surrogates don’t take his words literally, his allies, including Canada, now are. That was abundantly clear on Tuesday, when Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland outlined her foreign policy framework. In a grand defence of the post war recipe of multi-lateral liberalism and internationalism, Freeland revealed a serious response to Trump. “The fact that our friend and ally has come to question the very worth of its mantle of global leadership puts in sharp focus for the rest of us to set our own clear and sovereign course,” Freeland said in the House of Commons. It was a startling moment. Canada openly acknowledged that the U.S. has abdicated its role as the world leader and has accepted a fundamental realignment of the structures that have kept the world relatively stable for over 70 years.
Freeland concluded that this new era will demand more hard power from Canada—where the money will come from is still anyone’s guess—but it was an ominous foreshadowing of a world heading for more chaotic conflicts without the U.S. cop on the global beat.
Trump may be different from any other president in history, but he’s the same in one crucial way: whatever he says, he must be taken both seriously and literally. Govern yourselves accordingly.