Ezra Klein has a powerful essay in the Times about how Republican cynicism enabled Trump to carry out his assault on American democracy. He reminds us of Saleno Zito's 2016 Atlantic article, which argued that while the press took Trump “literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.”
For Republican elites, this was a helpful two-step. If Trump’s words were understood as layered in folksy exaggeration and schtick — designed to trigger media pedants, but perfectly legible to his salt-of-the-earth supporters — then much that would be too grotesque or false to embrace literally could be carefully endorsed at best and ignored as poor comedy at worst. And Republican elites could walk the line between eviscerating their reputations and enraging their party’s leader, all while blaming the media for caricaturing Trumpism by reporting Trump’s words accurately.
On Nov. 5, 2020, just days after the election, Vice President Mike Pence offered a classic of the genre. As Trump declared the election stolen, in terms as clear as a fist to the face, Pence tried to take him seriously, not literally; to signal solidarity with Trump’s fury while backing away from the actual claims. “I stand with President @RealDonaldTrump,” he tweeted. “We must count every LEGAL vote.”
But Trump did not want every legal vote counted. He wanted legally counted votes to be erased; he wanted new votes discovered in his favor. He wanted to win, not lose; whatever the cost, whatever the means. And every day since, he has turned up the pressure, leading to the bizarre theory that took hold of Trumpists in recent weeks that the vice president was empowered to accept or reject the results of the election on Jan. 6; that Pence could, single-handedly, right this wrong. And so, after years of loyal service, of daily debasements and constant humiliations, Trump came for Pence, too, declaring him just one more enemy of the people.
“Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution,” Trump raged, torching whatever rapport Pence had built with his base.
On Wednesday, at the Capitol, those who took Trump seriously and those who took Trump literally collided in spectacular fashion. Inside the building, a rump of Republican senators, led by Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, were leading a feckless challenge to the Electoral College results. They had no pathway to overturning the results and they knew it. They had no evidence that the results should be overturned and they knew it. And they did not act or speak like they truly believed the election had been stolen. They were there to take Trump’s concerns seriously, not literally, in the hopes that his supporters might become their supporters in 2024.
But at the same time, Trump was telling his supporters that the election had actually been stolen, and that it was up to them to resist. And they took him literally. They did not experience this as performative grievance; they experienced it as a profound assault. They stormed the Capitol, attacked police officers, shattered doors and barriers, looted congressional offices. One woman was shot in the mayhem and died.
One of the most important factors in American politics over the next few years will be what happens to this "stolen election" poison. If it festers among millions of Republicans, I foresee more hostility between the parties, ever more naked gerrymandering, and a good chance that somebody will load up his guns and take action.