When President Donald Trump assumed office on Friday Jan. 20, he fulminated against “the crime and the gangs and the drugs” and vowed to end “this American carnage.” With violent crime rates at historic lows, his characterization reads as hyperbole—and the complex nature of such social issues causes his vow to strain belief.
Trump’s inauguration speech perfectly mirrored a campaign season in which he described Mexican immigrants as “rapists,” lied to the press and made wild promises such as establishing a registry of American Muslims and building a wall on the Mexican border. The election of such a man has raised questions about the nature of facts and the role of language in public discourse.
“I think a lot of voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously but not literally,” Silicon Valley venture capitalist and prominent Trump supporter Peter Thiel said.
Taking everything Trump says 100 percent literally feeds perceptions that liberals are a stuck-up and contemptuous lot, and undoubtedly functions to increase divisions in the country. Yet it would be a mistake to think that Trump will not follow through on the majority of his promises—the simple reason being that his power as president will depend, to a large extent, on his reliability.
The United States Constitution grants the president many powers, but he can ultimately only accomplish things to the extent that others are willing to work with him. By not following through on his word, Trump would destroy the basic trust that underpins all civic relationships, ranging from those with Congress, to the press and to his own staff.
Viewed from the perception of politicians as two-faced weasels, this conclusion might seem counterintuitive, but a solid body of evidence backs it up. Michael Krukones, a political scientist at Bellarmine College, found that about 75 percent of all campaign promises were kept by presidents in the period from Woodrow Wilson to Jimmy Carter. Whether the promises became reality depended on a wide range of actors, but the presidents he studied all acted to implement their proposed agendas.
Some view Trump as a media manipulator and pawn of the right-wing extremists. His coalition says that what he says is a distraction that should be given no weight. This argument misses the point. Even if Trump is nothing more than the dancing monkey used by the radical right as a cover for their takeover of the American government, his puppeteers would still want him to retain enough credibility for their movement to enact its agenda.
Furthermore, what we know of Trump’s basic psychology supports the conclusion that he will work to keep his promises. Leaks from aides going back to President Barack Obama’s public mockery of Trump in 2011 claim that Trump desperately wants to be taken seriously. If working to advance a destructive and absurd agenda is what it takes to achieve that, he will likely do it.
It is worth pointing out that not taking Trump seriously serves to infantilize him, and the abdication of responsibility for his actions that it implies is absurd when compared to the brutal standard to which the public held Hillary Clinton accountable for her misguided use of a private email server.
This attitude underestimates the power of words in public life. Until recently the idea of spending billions of dollars building a wall along the Mexican border was absurd, but Trump spoke those words during the election and now the wall is a serious public policy proposal.
When it comes down to it, the fundamentals of our country are all just words. The U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights are words in the mouths of men. If we believe that these words mean something, then they must be defended against any credible threat—even someone we never expected to have to take seriously.
This article is part of the Face Off series. To read the responding article, click here.