I am on record that I think the “take Trump seriously but not literally” cliché to be deeply problematic. It was a good analytical and political shorthand during the election. Analytically, it was true that many voters didn’t take his rhetorical bombast literally, but they did take it seriously as a sign of his commitment to certain issues and a willingness to defy “politically correct” norms. Politically, it was helpful — to Republicans — because it exonerated them from the charge of literally agreeing with everything Trump did or said. But this has now morphed into a silly form of goalpost-moving that should not be tolerated in a president.
For instance, Trump has a well-known tendency to claim or insinuate that the things he’s done are historically unprecedented. Last week, he said he had better poll numbers among Republicans than Lincoln, which calls to mind Lincoln’s famous line, “Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet.” One of Trump’s favorite tics is to claim that X is “the worst ever” or “the best ever” in American history. He says, for example, that our economy is “the best ever” (it’s not). During the campaign he said, “Our African-American communities are absolutely in the worst shape that they’ve ever been in before — ever, ever, ever.”
That was absurd, but it was campaign season so “take him seriously, not literally,” etc, etc.
But today, the commander in chief said, “There’s been no president ever as tough as I have been on Russia.”
This simply isn’t true, and from what I’ve seen, no one seems bothered by it.
It is true that, in many respects, the Trump administration has been tougher than Obama was. But Woodrow Wilson sent some 13,000 expeditionary troops into Russia to help beat the Bolsheviks. He also refused to recognize the Soviet Union, as did his successors Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover.
During the Cold War, we fought Russian proxies and supported forces fighting Soviet-backed regimes and the Soviets themselves in places such as Afghanistan. Kennedy ordered a massive military build-up in response to the Berlin Wall. He blockaded Cuba, a Soviet vassal, and took America to the brink of nuclear war.
Ronald Reagan ordered an arms build-up, including the SDI program, that helped bankrupt “the Evil Empire” — to use Reagan’s phrase.
This, of course, leaves out literally thousands of operations, large and small, public and clandestine, economic and military, conducted to hamper, harass, and undermine the Soviet Union during the “long twilight struggle” of the Cold War. That effort, long the glue that held together the conservative coalition and the Western alliance, was once a source of great pride on the right. It seems worth a blog post in its defense.