In response to critics, many supporters of President Donald Trump justify his exaggerations and blatant lies by stressing that Trump should be taken seriously—but not literally.
The argument claims that Trump is a loose cannon and that his off-the-cuff remarks should not always be taken as his literal stance on an issue. Instead, focus should be concentrated on the sentiment of his remarks.
This, in many ways, is an absurd argument. The president of the United States should be held accountable to what he says regardless of his tendency to be characterized as a “loose cannon.”
Those are rules for a normal presidency, however, and Trump is not a normal president. Trump is a known pathological liar and media manipulator who purposely gives misleading information to distract his opponents.
This being the case, taking Trump at face value only helps him to manipulate the public. This is a man who can—and repeatedly has—dominated the news cycle with a single tweet.
When Trump’s words are taken at face value, his words are given value—value that they often don’t deserve. That does not mean that Trump’s statements or tweets should be ignored, though; rather, they should be viewed in the context of a man who can expertly misguide the media and deceive the public.
It is in this way that we should take him seriously and not literally. For example, in a December 2016 tweet Trump said, “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”
This prompted a major outrage over the thought of nuclear weapon expansion in both the media and public opinion. It was an understandable outrage—but one that allowed Trump to avoid more publicity over his conflicts of interest or his controversial cabinet nominations.
Even if one assumes that Trump has no intention of misleading the public, he changes his policy positions so frequently that it is unrealistic to take anything he says as his word. He has shifted positions on abortion, taxes and healthcare policy—just to name a few.
To take Trump seriously is to assume that he has legitimate causes to say and do everything he does. In other words, he’s unintelligent, but he’s not dumb. Every tweet and every statement has its purpose, whether you agree with it or not. To take him literally gives credibility to his constant falsehoods and lies.
In addition, this is not just a Trump phenomenon; his advisers and press team have followed his lead.
Trump’s former campaign manager and counselor to the president, Kellyanne Conway consistently gives misleading answers and evades tough questions on many television programs on which she appears. Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer recently claimed that Trump’s inauguration speech was the most attended and highest watched in history—which is an obvious and clumsy lie.
The media are finally starting to catch on, as they are now covering Trump and his administration’s statements with more carefully worded titles. Instead of simply repeating what Trump said and using it as a headline, some news organizations—such as The New York Times—are fact-checking Trump’s words directly in headlines.
Under this new administration, it is necessary to craft new strategies to make these lies clear to the public. It appears, unfortunately, that we are heading into a period in which each side of the electorate operates on their own set of facts—making it unclear as to how this problem of dishonesty from the president can be alleviated.
This article is part of the Face Off series. To read the responding article, click here.