“His supporters take him seriously,” the refrain went, “but not literally.” This was the savvy line on Trump from the election: that his rhetoric—his outlandish and conspiratorial claims, his breathless attacks on racial and religious minorities—was an act. Journalists might take him literally, but his supporters (and the people who understood them) knew better. Trump wouldn’t literally ban Muslims from entering the United States. He didn’t actually believe that unemployment was 40 percent or that America was rife with voter fraud. Those were symbolic beliefs. We should take them seriously as statements of concern but not literally as guides to action.
But this was nonsense, a cynical take based off of folk wisdom about politicians: They rarely tell the truth about their intentions. That folk wisdom is wrong. The fact is that politicians are often forthright about what they plan to do in office. And indeed, the best guide to a new president’s actions is simply his campaign. What did he promise; what did he say? Presidents, in other words, keep their promises.
Above everything else, Trump promised to bring the power of the federal state to bear against the domestic enemies of the people, defined in explicitly racial terms. From his perch in the Oval Office, Trump would “protect” the American people from Muslim refugees, “dangerous” Hispanic immigrants, and groups like Black Lives Matter. On this, Trump was consistent. This wasn’t mere rhetoric; this was a set of serious promises to deal with literal threats. And this week, the newly minted president has begun tackling them, one by one, in rapid succession.
He began with voter fraud. First, on Monday, Trump told congressional leaders that 3 million to 5 million unauthorized immigrants voted in the 2016 election, echoing a false claim he first made in late November as president-elect. On Tuesday, however, Press Secretary Sean Spicer gave it his stamp of approval, citing unnamed “studies” by unknown sources. Again, this wasn’t rhetoric; Trump literally believes that the election has been marred by an unprecedented campaign of in-person fraud. And to that point, he said Wednesday that he would ask for a major investigation into these debunked allegations. Judging from similar investigations in other states, this will likely become a pretext for federal voter restrictions, under a Department of Justice led by Sen. Jeff Sessions, who is on the verge of confirmation by the Senate.
On Tuesday evening, Trump addressed another area of concern: violent crime. The president insists, against all evidence, that the county is in the grip of a wave of violent crime, and he blames “rioters” and “violent disruptors” for demoralizing police and facilitating criminal behavior—with Chicago as the chief example. Once again, the proof is thin. Chicago has a problem with violent crime but that owes itself to segregation, isolation, and a profound mistrust of an abusive police force as much as it does anything else. Nonetheless, and in keeping with his campaign rhetoric, the president issued an ultimatum. “If Chicago doesn't fix the horrible ‘carnage’ going on, 228 shootings in 2017 with 42 killings (up 24% from 2016), I will send in the Feds,” said Trump on Twitter, essentially pledging to impose martial law on an American city. Trump, it turns out, was being very literal about his call to stop “American carnage.”
Trump wasn’t finished. There were still two items on his list of priorities: the wall on the Mexican border and the “Muslim ban.” Trump wasn’t just signaling his concern about immigration and terrorism: He literally wants a border wall, and he literally wants to keep Muslims out of the country. On Wednesday, he will take steps toward both goals with executive orders that will impose a temporary ban on refugees, block visas for anyone from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen, and direct the Department of Homeland Security to begin constructing a border wall. (One small problem with the latter order is that it is largely toothless unless Congress appropriates the necessary funds.) The president will also revisit the question of the CIA’s “black sites” and order a review of the Army Field Manual to determine whether to reinstate torture as an interrogation method, further fulfilling promises Trump made on the campaign trail.
When Trump promised to honor the fears and resentments of his supporters with action, he meant it. He pledged that his administration would block Muslims, go after immigrants, bring back “enhanced interrogation,” and clamp down on (black) crime. Less than one week into his term, he’s doing it. And while some Trump voters will look at his actions with horror, others won’t notice, and many will applaud.
His supporters take him seriously, but not literally. This was supposed to be a sophisticated analysis of Trump and his appeal, a cool-eyed rejoinder to journalists who watched and observed Trump with increasing alarm. At this moment, with Trump in the White House, it looks like a profound error of analysis. The truth is we must take Trump seriously and literally. He meant what he said, and now he has the power to make those words reality.