In the fall of 2016, a journalist popularized a catchy binary to describe the bizarre behavior of Donald Trump and the effect he had on his rapturous followers.
Supporters of the then–Republican presidential nominee, Salena Zito wrote, take Trump “seriously but not literally.” Meanwhile, his detractors, including most of the mainstream press, “take him literally but not seriously.” His roundhouse exaggerations, the sarcasm, the slander, the spurious anecdotes, the not-quite-facts—if you took these literally, we were told, then Trump might indeed seem a clown, a candidate unworthy of the effort required to take him seriously.
If, on the other hand, you recognized his wildcat hyperbole as a signal of a larger virtue—that Trump was a disrupter rejecting conventional modes of political speech to further a coherent agenda—then you freed yourself to take him seriously as a possible president who could do important and necessary things.
This formulation was clever and grotesque at the same time. Although her words were meant to be descriptive, many American took them as prescriptive, and the reasoning worked on many fence-sitters I know. Politically these people were of conservative inclination, and they couldn’t otherwise bring themselves to vote for a candidate who, among countless outrages, insulted John McCain’s record as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. The seriously/literally dichotomy gave them permission to think that they were confusing surface for substance, missing the essence beneath the cloud of bombast. They could persuade themselves that the bad taste was something other than bad taste. They could think that the lies were something other than lies.