07 December 2016

Literally but not seriously

The phrase you keep seeing and hearing to explain why so many people underestimated Donald Trump and his appeal is that people took Trump "literally but not seriously." Jonah Goldberg, a conservative critic of Trump, traces the phrase back to a September Atlantic Monthly article and notes that it's been adopted by Trump supporters and advisers as a valid insight. I suppose it makes sense in light of the way liberals focused far too intensely on all the different utterances that supposedly disqualified Trump from high office. We can assume that for Trump supporters, those statements didn't define the man, apart from demonstrating a healthy contempt for political correctness or even conventional political etiquette. In the "real" world in which Trump fans locate themselves, people might well find it absurd that words could disqualify an otherwise competent or highly qualified person from a position of responsibility. The whole point of the attack on political correctness is that people shouldn't take such offense at words. Trump voters, and the rest of us, will have to judge him by actions in the end, though Goldberg warns that international diplomacy, not to mention the pursuit of truth, may hold Trump to a higher standard than "seriously but not literally." Goldberg's rumination on the subject reminded me of something I'd just read by David Runciman in the London Review of Books. The Cambridge professor wrote that "It would be a big mistake to think that [Trump] won because people believed him." What Runciman means is that Trump voters took neither seriously nor literally their candidate's assertion that the U.S. had become, in Runciman's words, a "failed state." According to his interpretation of the election:

People voted for him because they didn't believe him. They wanted change but they also had confidence in the basic durability and decency of America's political institutions to protect them from the worst effects of that change. They wanted Trump to shake up a system that they also expected to shield them from the recklessness of a man like Trump.

Runciman writes believing himself that more radical change, presumably in a leftward direction, may be required than either Trump or his fans desire, but that it will require a degree of risk few Americans seem to want. "The understandable desire to keep the tanks off the streets and the cashpoints open gets in the way of tackling the long-term threats we face," he argues. Anyone who thinks Trump will bring radical change is mistaken, he claims, because Trump is not the "disruptor" they hope for. The distinction between taking Trump literally and taking him seriously extends to basic perceptions of what the man is or represents. If some see Trump as a disruptor, Runciman sees him as "a spiteful mischief-maker." If others see him as another "authoritarian father figure" in the Republican presidential mode, Runciman sees "a child, the most childish politician I have encountered in my lifetime."  Here I think Runciman's own notions of what makes a "father figure" may get in the way of seeing Trump clearly, since my gut feeling is that many do see him as a Big Daddy figure, and an authoritative if not authoritarian one, even in the absence of whatever gravitas or responsibility Runciman deems paternal. On some level, however, Runciman believes that American voters share his perception. "The people who voted for him did not believe they were taking a huge gamble," he reiterates, assuming that "they believed that [the political system] was still capable of protecting them from the consequences of their choice." He assumes that Trump's election is no more than a "tantrum," but this assumption seems to be based more on his perception of Trump than on any deep perception of Trump voters. From his safe distance he may not be taking them either literally or seriously. Time will tell whether that is wise.


Anonymous said...

"Runciman writes believing himself that more radical change, presumably in a leftward direction,"

Well, I agree and disagree. To me, "left" and "right" have no real meaning anymore. Yes, if we want the necessary change to keep the USA viable, then we'll need to get radical. "Left" in that the government has got to stand up to big business and tell them that it is the government's obligation to see to the well-being of THE PEOPLE, not the profit margins of multinational corporations and mega-conglomerates. That, in order for the US to become strong, we need American citizens who are in good health, in possession of a real education, and willing and determined to succeed, rather than consigning themselves to accept a status quo which is neither good for the majority of individual Americans nor for the nation as a whole. Which means drastically lowering the cost of education and health care.

On the other hand, islam MUST be banned. 1) It will alleviate a main excuse from gun nuts regarding "self-defense". 2) It will eliminate one main point of contention between the left and right. 3) Most importantly, it will eliminate a group of people who desire to establish a hard-line, ultra-conservative theocracy in this country.

Of course non of that will be possible until the government takes measures to regain the trust of the American people and THAT will require sacrificing a few corrupt politicians, at the very least.

Anonymous said...

Regardless of how tRump's presidency turns out, at least Clinton was kept out of power.