Take Trump “seriously but not literally.” That’s a piece of wisdom coined by reporter Salena Zito, and it’s used by Trump’s defenders to brush off whatever bout of rhetorical diarrhea has plagued his Twitter account lately. There’s truth to it: It’s not worth paying attention to every conspiracy theory and wild musing Trump fires off in the wee hours after watching Fox & Friends. Yet the media continue to turn the volume up to eleven over such tweets.
This week’s episode of Trump Tweets centered on Trump’s accusation that President Obama had wiretapped him at Trump Tower. The media, naturally, quickly decried Trump’s statements: There’s no evidence that Obama approved a wiretap aimed at Trump personally, even though there have been a bevy of media reports suggesting that the Obama Department of Justice sought FISA warrants in order to tap some of Trump’s associates. The media suggested that Trump’s accusations had caused catastrophic harm to faith in our governmental institutions — indeed to the functioning of the republic itself. Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC lamented, “This is not funny. This is really bad. . . . We are at a low point in American history, and I don’t know how anybody can defend this president, even if it’s their job.”
The premise underlying such logic is simple: What the president says matters.
But here’s an admittedly unconventional theory: What if it shouldn’t?
In the early days of the republic, no one much cared what the president had to say on a day-by-day basis. Sure, Americans knew about President Washington’s Farewell Address. They heard about inaugural speeches. But nobody much cared about the day-to-day verbiage uttered by the occupant of the White House. In the 1850s, Americans could read about the Lincoln–Douglas debates, but only a few thousand could attend them. And presidents were constitutional officers, not avatars of the popular will.
All that began to change with Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, both of whom had expansive visions of the role of the president. Wilson in particular talked openly about the presidency as the embodiment of the American spirit. Still, it wasn’t until the age of mass communication — the rise of radio, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s masterful use of it — that Americans began to pay attention to everything a president had to say every day. After all, they couldn’t afford to ignore it: FDR combined his homespun warmth with massive government-intervention schemes touching nearly every area of American life. If you wanted to know what was going on in your life, you had to listen to what FDR said.
That pattern has held for some 80 years. What the president says matters just as much as — in many cases more than — what he does. Foreign leaders gauge their actions based on what presidents and their advisers say publicly. Companies rise and fall based on words. So do approval ratings. President Obama’s honeyed words made more of a difference than his policy did, in many cases. Certainly, over the long term, his rhetorical intervention on matters of race and foreign policy helped shape the global and domestic political atmosphere more than, say, Dodd-Frank. Obama was the final triumph of the verbal over the practical.
And then along came Trump.
Unlike Obama — or any of his predecessors in modern history — Trump has no gift for smooth oratory. He cannot convincingly slide in his message with a scalpel. Instead, Trump’s a blunderbuss. And verbal blunderbusses don’t convince. In fact, they convince us to ignore them.
And we should.
Yes, Trump is the president. But his administration seems divided along two channels: the rhetorical (the Sunday shows, Trump’s Twitter, Sean Spicer’s eminently watchable press conferences, profiles of Steve Bannon in Time) and the active (the executive orders, curbing of regulations, military action abroad). Which one gives us the true picture of the Trump administration’s performance?
They both do.
But only one should.
Here’s a suggestion. Instead of treating Trump’s rhetoric seriously, wouldn’t America be better off if we did ignore it? What if instead of going nuts over a half-baked Trump tweet for a week, we all just recognized that the tweet is what it is: a half-baked Trump tweet? What if we returned to the notion of the president as a constitutional officer with prescribed duties?
In fact, that’s happening on a practical level. Most Americans don’t care about Trump’s rhetoric any more. He and the media have been shouting at each other so long that it all sounds like white noise now. Instead, many Americans have been treating Trump as a guy to ignore except when he bothers them, an approach that seems pretty reasonable at this point.
Trump and the media have been shouting at each other so long that it all sounds like white noise now.
Americans are almost instinctively tuning Trump out. His domination of the modern media landscape is making people treat him as background noise. Effectively, that means that his rhetoric makes about as much difference as James Monroe’s.
The media don’t know what to do with Trump because they’re still operating based on the model of the last eight decades: We ought to pay attention to the things a president says because he’s the president. When President Trump gives a controlled, well-calibrated address before a joint session of Congress, Americans feel comforted and relieved; when Trump tweets, half of Americans shudder. The media can’t simply ignore Trump’s tweets, as though they don’t matter.
But here’s the thing: They don’t matter.
Perhaps we’d all be better off if they didn’t matter, and we could all just ignore the White House long enough to lead our lives, treating the pronouncements of the occupant of the White House the same way we’d treat pronouncements from a DMV worker. That would solve at least two problems: hysterical media overreactions and demagogic rhetorical appeals.