Literally, Seriously?

In the days after last week’s election, I seemed to encounter one observation everywhere.

  • “The American establishment took Trump literally but not seriously, whereas his supporters appear to have taken him seriously but not literally.” —David Aaronovitch, The Times (of London), November 10.
  • “I read a perfect election summation: The people who were against Mr. Trump took him literally but not seriously. His supporters took him seriously but not literally.” –Glenn Beck, The New York Times, November 11
  • “US voters were never much concerned about Trump’s promises anyway. They took him seriously but not literally. It was the political Establishment which took him literally but not seriously.” –Editorial, The Sunday Mirror, November 13

Of course, the formulation did not appear out of nowhere. As others have noted, the coiner was the journalist Salena Zito. Writing in The Atlantic, September 23, Zito reported Trump’s statement that 58 percent of African-American youth are out of work, which is true only if you include full time high-school and college students among the unemployed. She then remarked:

It’s a familiar split. When he makes claims like this, the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.

The tech-billionaire Trump supporter Peter Thiel picked up the line (uncredited) in a speech on October 31:

I think one thing that should be distinguished here is that the media always has taken 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.

The quote is a textbook example of the classical figure of chiasmus, or more precisely, antimetabole, where the order of a clause or phrase is reversed for rhetorical effect. Thus:

  • “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” –John F. Kennedy
  • “When I’m not near the girl I love, I love the girl I’m near.” –Yip Harburg
  • “I’m not a writer with a drinking problem — I’m a drinker with a writing problem.” –Dorothy Parker
  • “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” –Anonymous

Claims of complete verbal originality often get cruelly exposed in the harsh light of Google, but Zito was certainly the first to apply the literally/seriously chiasmus to Trump.  I was able to find only one previous application of it — in a 2001 book by Dennis P. McCann, Christian Realism and Liberation Theology. Discussing Reinhold Niebuhr’s views on liberal and orthodox Christians, McCain observed: “Since on both accounts the ethic of Jesus is taken literally — but not seriously — as a ‘possible and prudential ethic,’ Niebuhr in rejecting them wishes to take it seriously — not not literally — as a ‘relevant but impossible ethical idea.’”

Rhetoric aside, how valid was Zito’s formulation? Very, in the “literally” part. The press took Trump at his word — that he would build a wall and make Mexico pay for it, deport immigrants, ban Muslims, and so on. When he contradicted himself or was egregiously vague or lied or showed ignorance, reporters, columnists, and editorialists hastened to point it out, grunting and thrusting their arms almost out of the sockets like the smartest kid in a fifth-grade class. Meanwhile, his backers seemed to view his campaign as a form of reality television or World Wrestling Entertainment spectacles (both of which Trump has been involved with): an arena where you say stuff in order to get camera time or to stay on the island, not to express anything that’s “true,” whatever that means.

As for taking him seriously, yes and no. It’s true that the press, following poll results that turned out to be flawed, gave little credence to the idea that Trump would or could win. Arguably, it dismissed his supporters as “deplorables” instead of acknowledging and investigating their gripes. However (especially as the campaign came to a close), the voices of the mainstream media hardly dismissed him, reaching very deep into the rhetorical well in framing a Trump victory as a threat to the future of the republic.

That leaves one element. Trump’s supporters — nearly half of all voters — did indeed take seriously the most fundamentally unserious presidential candidate and campaign that has appeared in the lifetime of anyone now breathing. And at that fact I can only throw up my hands. Literally.




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