Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page called it “the most pithy, profound and requoted explanation of the many who have tried to explain the president-elect’s surprising success.” While FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver deemed it “a runaway front-runner in the ‘wrongest idea of 2016’ derby,” Fox News’s Brit Hume celebrated it as the “Smartest observation of the campaign.” I’m referring, of course, to a line from a September article in The Atlantic by Salena Zito: “When [Trump] makes claims like this, the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.”
This became a refrain not only among Trump’s prominent supporters, from Corey Lewandowski to Peter Thiel, but among many in the media cognoscenti. This was understandable, to a degree, given Trump’s unorthodox candidacy, for which the press had little frame of reference. Trump had no political experience whatsoever, was wildly unpredictable, and was well-documented as a pathological liar, so inevitably there was uncertainty about how much his campaign rhetoric could be trusted. But Zito’s observation has not aged well since the election. “This seriously-not-literally thing is a great analytical insight into how then-candidate Trump communicated with his supporters,” National Review senior editor Jonah Goldberg wrote in December. “But it is fairly ridiculous hogwash as a prescription for how to treat an actual president, or president-elect, of the United States.”
And as it turns out, Trump has spent the first few weeks of his presidency doing exactly what he said he’d do. “Almost all of the actions that Trump has undertaken,” Silver wrote, “are consistent with statements and policy positions he issued repeatedly on the campaign trail and during the presidential transition.” In other words, Trump is keeping his promises to his base. That’s both a relief and an annoyance to many Republicans in Congress and the conservative establishment more broadly: relief that he isn’t, as the NeverTrump camp feared, reverting to the liberal stances that he held for most of his life, especially on social issues; and annoyance that he does indeed want to ban many Muslim immigrants and build an insanely expensive wall along the entire U.S. border with Mexico.
Despite their many reprimands of Trump’s behavior on the campaign trail, Republicans are largely playing along with the president, still hoping their Faustian bargain with him results in legislative victories. It’s turning out, in other words, that whereas Trump should have been taken seriously and literally all along, Republicans should not have been—and still shouldn’t be—taken seriously or literally.
After last year’s election, some Democrats—notably Senator Chuck Schumer—expressed hope that because Trump was fundamentally non-ideological, the minority party might be able to work with him on certain issues, such as infrastructure spending. But three weeks into his presidency, Trump is making it clear that he’s going to pay off his die-hard supporters by trying to keep his most extreme campaign promises. In addition to the executive orders for a border wall and Muslim immigration ban, he has also signed executive orders related to repealing Obamacare, freezing federal hiring, resurrecting the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, implementing a lobbying ban, and pursuing a tough law enforcement agenda. And by nominating Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, Trump fulfilled his promise to social conservatives that he would give them a justice in the mold of the late Antonin Scalia.
What will Trump do next? According to Vox’s Matthew Yglesias, “the best information about how he will govern is still the literal text of his formal proposals.” Or consider Gregory Krieg’s advice at CNN: “No tea leaves required—Google and Trump’s campaign website should be considered the most reliable of sources.” Looking at his campaign website’s “issues” page—which has been taken down, but is archived here—there’s one major issue that stands out.
While Trump has made protectionist noises and cancelled the Trans-Pacific Partnership—which Hillary Clinton eventually came out against anyway—the U.S. is not, contra Trump, in a “trade war” quite yet. If he were to start one, he might expect fierce opposition from his own party, which tends to be strongly pro-free trade.
Or no opposition at all, for the GOP has proven exceptionally craven in the face of Trump’s excesses so far. Yes, senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have criticized the immigration ban and are taking steps to prevent him from loosening sanctions on Russia. But overall, Republicans in Congress have consolidated behind Trump to a remarkable degree. FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten reported this week that votes taken in Congress this year show a remarkably polarized House and Senate:
Senate Republicans have voted en masse for Trump’s cabinet nominees.... Senate Democrats have opposed Trump’s picks in record numbers. The same is happening in the House. Republicans in that chamber are voting in lockstep with the Trump administration, while Democrats are almost universally voting in opposition. Indeed, both House caucuses are more unified and polarized than they have been in at least 60 years.
Republicans are lining up behind Trump for varied reasons. They’re hoping Trump will rubber-stamp their sweeping conservative legislative agenda: cutting taxes for the rich, repealing the Affordable Care Act, defunding Planned Parenthood, and gutting financial regulations. Trump has also been successful at intimidating them, unafraid to use Twitter to attack anyone who questions him—even going after McCain, a war hero, for rightly calling the Navy SEAL raid in Yemen a “failure.” Also, perhaps most importantly, Republican politicians fear Trump’s base. While he is historically unpopular for a new president, he is very popular among Republicans, 90 percent of whom say he’s doing a good job.
Trump’s strategy of using executive orders to fulfill his big promises—or at least to make it look like he’s doing so—is a good way to shore up his base, but it’s been a political disaster. The immigration order keeps losing in the courts, with three-judge federal appeals panel on Thursday unanimously upholding a lower court decision that froze the ban. In their eagerness to make good on the promised Muslim ban, the Trump administration rushed out an un-vetted executive order that was legally vulnerable. The order has also generated massive protests across America and the world, stiffening the resolve of Trump’s opposition on Capitol Hill. While Schumer still talks about working with Trump on a “real, bipartisan plan” on tightening immigration, the grassroots left is mobilizing into a formidable resistance. In angry town hall meetings, ordinary Democrats are challenging their congresspeople, including Republicans, to check Trump’s abuses.
Trump’s base, by some accounts, is pleased with the president’s actions thus far. But it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to sustain 90 percent popularity with Republicans for very long. Indeed, cracks are already starting to show. The New York Times reported Thursday that California farmers and small business owners who supported Trump are now worried how his policies will impact the undocumented immigrants they rely on for labor:
As for his promises about cracking down on illegal immigrants, many assumed Mr. Trump’s pledges were mostly just talk. But two weeks into his administration, Mr. Trump has signed executive orders that have upended the country’s immigration laws. Now farmers here are deeply alarmed about what the new policies could mean for their workers, most of whom are unauthorized, and the businesses that depend on them....
“If you only have legal labor, certain parts of this industry and this region will not exist,” said Harold McClarty, a fourth-generation farmer in Kingsburg whose operation grows, packs and ships peaches, plums and grapes throughout the country. “If we sent all these people back, it would be a total disaster.”
It’s becoming apparent that the media was right to take Trump literally, and that his supporters were wrong not to. The more that supporters like McClarty become disillusioned with the reality of Trump’s promises, the further Trump will fall in the American public’s estimation—and the Republicans in Congress will be left holding the screaming baby.