Scott Heins / Getty

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.

Maybe I’m making the same mistake, but I am relieved to see now that I am no longer supposed to take liberal activists and politicians literally either. The airwaves and websites—even the newspapers, what’s left of them—have been overloaded with experts and journalists acting as interpreters for their left-wing brothers and sisters hollering from the barricades. They take the straightforward words of the activists and translate them into the soothing tones of the op-ed and the think-tank chin-wag. They serve as kind of a reverse version of Key and Peele’s Obama Anger Translator, the hovering id who bluntly expressed the passion that allegedly lay behind Barack Obama’s phlegmatic demeanor.

To take the most recent example, we are learning that “Defund the police” does not mean defunding the police. This will be a relief to many, many millions of Americans. The cry has been taken up nationwide over the past 10 days, from one street protest against police brutality to the next. Last weekend it became the occasion for public condemnation of Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey. He appeared at a protest in his hometown to confess his shame over “my own brokenness, my own failures” and also the failures of his city’s police department.

All well and good, said one of the protesters. (Not in those words.) The mayor’s brokenness aside, the relevant question was: “Will you defund the Minneapolis Police Department?” After a pause to make a slight adjustment to his drooping face mask, Frey said, “I do not support the full abolition of the police department.”

“All right,” replied his questioner, “then get the fuck out of here.” Which Frey did, through a gantlet of shouting protesters that recalled Cersei’s walk of shame in Game of Thrones. The mayor managed to remain fully clothed.

Maybe he can buck up now. Although the protesters explicitly, and without a doubt sincerely, told him they no longer wanted any police in their neighborhoods, more establishmentarian voices suggest we shouldn’t take them literally. “Defund the police” just means moving government money around, taking some from police and giving it to other parts of local government—schools, health clinics, housing authorities—that are more popular with protesters.

But confusion lingers. A Georgetown Law professor named Christy E. Lopez wrote a Washington Post op-ed that carried the headline, “Defund the police? Here’s what that really means”—the implication being that the catchphrase, taken on its own terms, is giving everybody the wrong idea, not to mention the willies.

“Be not afraid,” Lopez writes. “‘Defunding the police’ is not as scary (or even as radical) as it sounds.” Unfortunately, the case she makes still sounds pretty radical, at least to a layman whose ears are tuned to words as they are normally used.

Lopez’s premise is one with which I’m sure lots of police officers agree: We ask cops to do too much. They’re expected, Lopez writes, to resolve “verbal squabbles between family members” (in another rhetorical mode a law professor might call such squabbles “domestic violence”), move the homeless “from corners and doorsteps” (to clear public rights of way), and solve “school disciplinary issues” (many of which schools can’t).

“For most proponents, ‘defunding the police’ does not mean zeroing out budgets for public safety,” Lopez writes, “and police abolition does not mean that police will disappear overnight—or perhaps ever.”

These are reassuring words until you dwell on them. That ever rings an unsettling little bell. So the ultimate goal is for police to disappear, “perhaps” at some moment in the future? And note that “defunding” might very well zero out budgets for police, just not for “public safety”—a field that will come to include, by Lopez’s telling, therapists, medics, social workers, addiction counselors, and many other traditionally irenic trades. But … any cops in there? That is, the kind of public employees who arrest bad guys? Lopez is hazy on the point. Maybe bad guys will be zeroed out too.

So fear not: “Defund the police” does not mean defunding the police, except when it does, whether next week or in the next decade. One observer who insists on taking the phrase both seriously and literally is Joe Biden. On Monday the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee hastened to let American voters know that he doesn’t like the idea, whatever it is.

“No, I don’t support defunding the police,” he told CBS News, thereby saving his candidacy. Maybe he had to say it: A poll this week showed that just 16 percent of Americans support cuts to police funding.  And last year Biden’s campaign released a proposal to increase federal funding for local police by $300 million, for measures that were once noncontroversial—for example, hiring more cops. With no more police to spend it on, Biden might not get to spend the $300 million at all. No politician will stand for that.

The literally/seriously conundrum is hard to avoid as the power of radicals increases on both ends of the political teeter-totter. When mainstream Democrats such as Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren embraced the catchphrase “Abolish ICE” (the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency), they insisted the idea should be taken seriously, if not literally. They didn’t mean they wanted to literally abolish enforcement of customs and immigration laws, just to get rid of the agency that does the enforcing.

And Biden himself was recently tripped up by a literal reading of the slogan “Believe women.” Many of his supporters joined him in insisting the words be taken merely seriously, to mean “Believe women, but not Tara Reade.”

The number of activists, partisans, and politicians who hop back and forth across the literal/serious divide—saying something with no expectation they will be taken at their word—will only grow this season. The spectacle raises the obvious question of how we should take them: seriously, or literally? The answer, of course, is neither.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.