Peter Thiel came to Washington, DC, on Monday to tell America to take Donald Trump more seriously — by paying less attention to the things Trump actually says.
During a speech at the National Press Club outlining his case for Trump, Thiel was asked if he supported Trump’s most famous policy proposals: building a wall on the US/Mexico border and banning Muslim immigration to the US. Here was his response:
“I don’t support a religious test. I certainly don’t support the specific language Trump has used in every instance. But I think one thing that should be distinguished here is that the media is always is taking Trump literally. It never takes him seriously but it always takes him literally. I think a lot of the voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously but not literally.
So when they hear things like the Muslim comment or the wall comment, or things like that, the question is not are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China, or how exactly are you going to enforce these tests. What they hear is we’re going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy. We’re going to try to figure out how do we strike the right balance between cost and benefits.”
The idea that “the media takes Trump literally but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously but not literally” overlaps with an idea laid out in an article in the Atlantic by Salena Zito, in which she used “seriously, not literally” to explain Trumpism as a movement. Zito explained that when Trump uses wildly wrong “facts” over and over again, it drives the media batty (because they take it “literally” and fact-check it), but it resonates with his supporters, who feel Trump is talking about “serious” problems they too see in American life.
Thiel is using this “seriously, not literally” rhetoric to do something totally different, and a lot more willfully naive. He wants to replace the Donald Trump who actually exists — a figure who’s inspired the faith of millions and who now has a shot at winning the White House — with an imaginary Donald Trump who’s interested in breaking only the political norms that Peter Thiel thinks should be broken.
Thiel isn’t taking Trump “seriously”; he’s engaging in wishful thinking.
Taking politicians literally is how policymaking gets done
Donald Trump himself clearly believes that telling the public what he’d do in office is something of a mug’s game — that it simply tips his hand to his enemies, for example, to reveal an actual plan for taking out ISIS. In practice, of course, what this means is that he’s asking America to trust that he has a plan without any indication that he does other than his own say-so.
But the idea that Trump isn’t to be taken literally also allows Trump, as well as defenders like Thiel, to argue that you shouldn’t believe Trump will do what he says he’ll do at all. This is what Thiel means when he says that Trump’s two most famous policy proposals — building a wall on the US/Mexico border, and banning some or all Muslims from immigrating to the US — aren’t actually policy proposals at all.
It’s hard to know how exactly one is supposed to evaluate a candidate whose statements aren’t expected to reflect his actual views. It’s even harder to understand how such a person would be able to make policy as president of the United States.
If the president of the United States suggested that the country would take a haircut on its debt, the markets would react immediately and violently. If the president of the United States suggested that the country might not honor its NATO obligations to defend Baltic countries from a Russian invasion, Russia, the Baltics, and NATO allies would all spring into action.
The thing about having power is that the words you say matters — that even if you don’t use them to compel action, other people act based on what they think you mean.
Thiel’s idea of taking Trump “seriously” appears to be “assuming that Trump wouldn’t do anything that far outside established political and policy norms.” But Trump is an outsider — that’s what Thiel claims to like about him — and breaking norms is exactly what an outsider is supposed to do.
Some of those norms might be more dangerous to break than others, but that’s an argument for imposing a different set of norms — not an argument for assuming that the outsider will magically agree with you about where the genuinely uncrossable lines are.
Taking Trump seriously means acknowledging why his supporters love him
This is the real danger of Thiel’s defense of Trump: He assumes that his own sense of what really is important and what isn’t somehow carries greater weight with Trump than the loyal audience the candidate has built.
Zito, after all, wasn’t talking about Trump as the potential president of the United States. She was talking about Trump as the leader of a movement.
The observation that the press takes Trump “literally but not seriously,” while his supporters take him the other way around, was an explanation of why his apparent allergy to fact-checking — his tendency to, for example, repeatedly cite wildly inflated and misleading statistics about black unemployment — resonates so well with his supporters even as it drives reporters crazy.
It’s an important insight: that to understand Trumpism, you have to ask not only “is this true” but also “why do people want to believe this is true.” (It might be slightly more helpful to think about this in the terms of the sociologist Arlie Hochschild: that Trump’s rhetoric resonates with the “deep story” that his supporters have told themselves about contemporary America, even when it doesn’t resonate with the reality of what America is actually like.)
If you ask both of those questions together, you begin to understand how Trump rose so quickly above the pack of Republican presidential contenders, and why he inspires a quasi-religious zealotry among his supporters.
Trump distinguished himself from the rest of the Republican field because, unlike the Scott Walkers of the world, he didn’t feel the need to express himself within the conventional boundaries of policy. He made promises to fix the problems that people actually cared most about: a perceived invasion of immigrants who don’t share American values, and the protection of “traditional” (white) America from demographic and cultural change.
Instead of arguing for a “sensible immigration policy,” he called for a wall on the border and a ban on Muslims. Instead of expressing “benevolent sexism” (viewing women as fragile, domestic things in need of male veneration and protection), he plowed right into hostile sexism and open objectification, making it clear that women were useful only insofar as they were attractive and available to him.
Who is Peter Thiel to say that the policies that won Donald Trump the presidential nomination are somehow “code” for other things Thiel likes more, but that his trade policy is to be taken at its word? Who is he to know when Trump’s character is an accurate reflection of what he’d do as a president (“outsider”) and when it isn’t (sexist and perhaps a serial perpetrator of sexual assault)?
To take Trump seriously, you have to be willing to acknowledge why the people who support him take him seriously. You don’t get to elevate him to the presidency of the United States and erase the movement that would have carried him there. You don’t get to replace his actual constituency with your preferred constituency of one.
The idea that Trump isn’t to be taken literally might sound cynical. It’s anything but. In the hands of Peter Thiel, as a way to pretend that Trumpism in all its ugliness simply doesn’t exist, it’s monstrously naive.