For years, there has been a mantra that Republicans have recited to comfort themselves about President Trump — both about the things he says and the support they offer him. Trump, they’d say, should be taken seriously, not literally. The coinage comes from a 2016 article in The Atlantic by Salena Zito, in which she complained that the press took Trump “literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.”
For Republican elites, this was a helpful two-step. If Trump’s words were understood as layered in folksy exaggeration and schtick — designed to trigger media pedants, but perfectly legible to his salt-of-the-earth supporters — then much that would be too grotesque or false to embrace literally could be carefully endorsed at best and ignored as poor comedy at worst. And Republican elites could walk the line between eviscerating their reputations and enraging their party’s leader, all while blaming the media for caricaturing Trumpism by reporting Trump’s words accurately.
On Nov. 5, 2020, just days after the election, Vice President Mike Pence offered a classic of the genre. As Trump declared the election stolen, in terms as clear as a fist to the face, Pence tried to take him seriously, not literally; to signal solidarity with Trump’s fury while backing away from the actual claims. “I stand with President @RealDonaldTrump,” he tweeted. “We must count every LEGAL vote.”
But Trump did not want every legal vote counted. He wanted legally counted votes to be erased; he wanted new votes discovered in his favor. He wanted to win, not lose; whatever the cost, whatever the means. And every day since, he has turned up the pressure, leading to the bizarre theory that took hold of Trumpists in recent weeks that the vice president was empowered to accept or reject the results of the election on Jan. 6; that Pence could, single-handedly, right this wrong. And so, after years of loyal service, of daily debasements and constant humiliations, Trump came for Pence, too, declaring him just one more enemy of the people.
“Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution,” Trump raged, torching whatever rapport Pence had built with his base.
On Wednesday, at the Capitol, those who took Trump seriously and those who took Trump literally collided in spectacular fashion. Inside the building, a rump of Republican senators, led by Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, were leading a feckless challenge to the Electoral College results. They had no pathway to overturning the results and they knew it. They had no evidence that the results should be overturned and they knew it. And they did not act or speak like they truly believed the election had been stolen. They were there to take Trump’s concerns seriously, not literally, in the hopes that his supporters might become their supporters in 2024.
But at the same time, Trump was telling his supporters that the election had actually been stolen, and that it was up to them to resist. And they took him literally. They did not experience this as performative grievance; they experienced it as a profound assault. They stormed the Capitol, attacked police officers, shattered doors and barriers, looted congressional offices. One woman was shot in the mayhem and died.
If their actions looked like lunacy to you, imagine it from their perspective, from within the epistemic structure in which they live. The president of the United States told them the election had been stolen by the Democratic Party, that they were being denied power and representation they had rightfully won. “I know your pain,” he said, in his video from the White house lawn later on Wednesday. “I know your hurt. We had an election that was stolen from us. It was a landslide election, and everyone knows it.” More than a dozen Republican senators, more than 100 Republican House members, and countless conservative media figures had backed Trump’s claims.
If the self-styled revolutionaries were lawless, that was because their leaders told them that the law had already been broken, and in the most profound, irreversible way. If their response was extreme, so too was the crime. If landslide victories can fall to Democratic chicanery, then politics collapses into meaninglessness. How could the thieves be allowed to escape into the night, with full control of the federal government as their prize? A majority of Republicans now believe the election was stolen, and a plurality endorse insurrection as a response. A snap YouGov poll found that 45 percent of Republicans approved of the storming of the Capitol; 43 percent opposed it.
Trump’s great virtue, as a public figure, is his literalism. His statements may be littered with lies, but he is honest about who he is and what he intends. When he lost the Iowa caucus to Cruz in 2016, he declared that “Ted Cruz didn’t win Iowa, he stole it.” When it seemed likely he would lose the presidential election to Hillary Clinton, he began calling the election rigged. When he wanted the president of Ukraine to open a corruption investigation into Joe Biden, he made the demand directly, on a taped call. When he was asked, during the presidential debates in 2020, if he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power in the event of a loss, he refused. There was no subterfuge from Trump leading up to the terrible events of Jan. 6. He called this shot, over and over again, and then he took it.
The Republican Party that has aided and abetted Trump is all the more contemptible because it fills the press with quotes making certain that we know that it knows better. In a line that will come to define this sordid era (and sordid party), a senior Republican told The Washington Post, “What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change.” What happened on Wednesday in Washington is the downside. Millions of Americans will take you literally. They will not know you are “humoring” the most powerful man in the world. They will feel betrayed and desperate. Some of them will be armed.
The Trump era has often come wrapped in a cloak of self-protective irony. We have been asked to separate the man from his tweets, to believe that Trump doesn’t mean what he says, that he doesn’t intend to act on his beliefs, that he isn’t what he obviously is. Any divergence between word and reality has been enlisted into this cause. That Trump has failed to achieve much of what he promised because of his incompetence and distractibility has been recast as a sign of a more cautious core. The constraints placed upon him by other institutions or bureaucratic actors have been reframed as evidence that he never intended to follow through on his wilder pronouncements. This was a convenient fiction for the Republican Party, but it was a disastrous fantasy for the country. And now it has collapsed.
When the literalists rushed the chamber, Pence, Cruz and Hawley were among those who had to be evacuated, for their own safety. Some of their compatriots, like Senator Kelly Loeffler, rescinded their objections to the election, seemingly shaken by the beast they had unleashed. But there is no real refuge from the movement they fed. Trump’s legions are still out there, and now they are mourning a death and feeling yet more deceived by many of their supposed allies in Washington, who turned on them as soon as they did what they thought they had been asked to do.
The problem isn’t those who took Trump at his word from the start. It’s the many, many elected Republicans who took him neither seriously nor literally, but cynically. They have brought this upon themselves — and us.
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