A common saying among Trump supporters and surrogates is that his supporters take him seriously but not literally, while his opponents and the mainstream media take him literally, but not seriously. Take the following tweet:
This is a serious accusation, regardless of whether it was leveled in tweet form, and one that demands something akin to evidence. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer instead tried to claim that Trump didn’t mean wiretapping when he used the term wiretapping, claiming that the quotation marks present mean that the words were not meant to be taken literally.
While the series of tweets on Obama’s alleged misdeeds seems to align with Trump’s use of “alternative facts” on voter fraud and the size of his inauguration crowd, these are more serious. The institution of the presidency is harmed whenever a president lies, but fibbing about crowd size is unlikely to affect Americans’ views of the democratic process generally. However, accusations of bad faith and conspiracy directed at previous heads of states will, and only feed into the troubling, but increasingly common, notion that members of the other party are enemies of the state. Remarks like those expressed in the tweets should remind us of banana republics and other petty dictatorships where the transition of power usually involves substantially less peace and substantially more prison.
Americans should be proud that former President Obama hasn’t responded in a political way, and while Obama’s criticisms of the George W. Bush presidency shouldn’t be equivocated with Trump’s attacks, we should also be proud of the space Bush gave to Obama. But this respect is a norm that has been (mostly) remarkably well-kept by forty three men and not a law. With all of the presidential norms that Trump has discarded, it seems unlikely that he will uphold this one, particularly if he is defeated for reelection in 2020. It will most likely fall to his successor to play the role of elder statement and avoid responding to former President Trump’s tweets.
Republicans in Congress could, if they wanted, do a great deal to uphold American norms and customs by forcefully condemning these kinds of remarks instead of dodging questions about them and pretending they don’t exist. As long as President Trump still feels he has his own party behind him, these sorts of falsehoods will continue. Republicans stand by Trump because they see him as their only opportunity to enact their agenda, but the White House’s lukewarm support for Paul Ryan’s Affordable Care Act replacement demonstrates that depending on Trump to be a reliably conservative political actor is a risky assumption.
Trump supporters may be right about how the President’s base views tweets like the wiretapping remarks. They may not believe President Obama actually orchestrated a campaign to spy on Trump, but are more than happy to see him take shots at the Democratic Party and the political establishment. They are, most likely, not taking him literally. But cumulatively, after a four or eight year presidency, lies, falsehoods, and conspiracy theories communicated directly from the highest office of the land fray at the fabric of our democracy, our notions of facts and truths, and the peaceful transition of power that George Washington solidified centuries ago.