Actually, Paul Ryan, the President’s Words Do Matter

Trump’s defenders say his lying tweets aren’t to be taken literally. They are sending us down a terrible road.

U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. Paul Ryan speaks during a weekly news briefing December 1, 2016 at the Capitol in Washington, DC.
Take note, Paul Ryan. Above, the House speaker appears at a weekly news briefing Thursday at the Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

The defenses of President-elect Donald Trump’s Twitter feed are all pretty horrible. But of the many baffling and dangerous premises being used to defend Trump’s use of Twitter as a bully pulpit for spreading pernicious lies, perhaps the most baffling and dangerous is this one: It’s just words.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan did a version of this on 60 Minutes on Sunday when he said that the veracity of Trump’s tweets doesn’t matter. All that matters is he won. “It doesn’t matter to me. He won the election,” Ryan told Scott Pelley. “The way I see the tweets you’re talking about, he’s basically giving voice to a lot of people who have felt that they were voiceless. He’s communicating with people in this country who’ve felt like they have not been listened to. He’s going to be an unconventional president.”

An even blunter version of the president-elect’s words don’t matter idea came from his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. “This is the problem with the media,” Lewandowski told a post-election panel at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government last week. “You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally.” Vice President–elect Mike Pence added his cheerful gloss on Trump’s false vote fraud claims on the Sunday shows as well: They’re “refreshing.”

The argument seems to be that Trump’s false statements don’t matter because everyone knows that his false statements are not necessarily meant to be true. His advisers contend that his actual words are just impressionistic communications—thought experiments that do not have any lasting force or meaning. This is not about “post-fact” America, or “reality-based communities,” or even “fake news.” This is a much deeper problem that goes to the nature of language in general, and a president’s words in particular. It’s certainly one thing to argue that Donald Trump’s words had no legal consequences during a political campaign, when he was scratching and clawing for advantage as an insurgent candidate. It’s quite another to suggest, as some increasingly do, that his words, or his tweets, or his off-the-cuff remarks carry no real force once he becomes the president. That is preposterous.

Even now, the president-elect’s words are more than mere words. Trump no longer speaks as a private citizen when he howls at the moon. Instead, his statements carry sovereign meaning and will be treated that way, regardless of the medium and regardless of what his followers choose to believe. It’s not just the media that cares: Litigants, activists, and government officials will almost certainly quote his utterances as evidence of his true intentions, plans, and views about the law. Foreign leaders will hear his threats and promises, and take them as pronouncements of intent. People who admire him will strive to act in his name and joyfully pursue his perceived agenda, pressed on by his words. That is terrifying. And those who fear his words will seek to obstruct what they understand to be the half-baked and dangerous ideas reflected in these comments. This should not be a complicated concept. It is something we teach our kindergartners: Words are signifiers of a person’s purposes and beliefs, and words have consequences. Paul Ryan, take note.

Nobody better articulated the notion that Trump’s language has no lasting force or meaning than his supporter, Peter Thiel. The libertarian entrepreneur behind the lawsuit that killed Gawker said in a speech in October at the National Press Club that Trump would win the election because his supporters did not take his words literally. As Thiel put it:

I think one thing that should be distinguished here is that the media is always taking Trump literally. It never takes him seriously, but it always takes him literally. … I think a lot of voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously but not literally, so when they hear things like the Muslim comment or the wall comment, their question is not, ‘Are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China?’ or, you know, ‘How exactly are you going to enforce these tests?’ What they hear is we’re going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy.

The consequences of this line of thinking are that it is now the job of the media, and of the American people, to struggle to decipher what the president’s words truly mean. Lewandowski’s similar point about Trump’s literalness offered this implication. “The American people didn’t” take it all literally, he said. “They understood it. They understood that sometimes—when you have a conversation with people, whether it’s around the dinner table or at a bar—you’re going to say things, and sometimes you don’t have all the facts to back it up.” The question he leaves open is how anyone is to discern which words are Trump’s real ones and which are just the stylings of a drunk at a bar.

This reading of Trump drains his words of any governing consequence. They are a kind of cultural chatter, no more or less important than any other celebrity “opinion,” like Susan Sarandon’s or the Philly Phanatic’s. The problem is that no leader can govern effectively, or make “great deals,” or make America great again if nobody trusts him to share a common baseline for dialogue.

This is not simply about technology or trust. This is precisely what happened to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose garbled syntax and extemporaneous speaking style earned him a reputation for being indecisive, confused, and out of touch during a crucial period of the Cold War and the struggle over racial equality. After he left office, revisionists tried to salvage his historical standing by claiming that he had governed with a “hidden hand.” Perhaps, but tremendous damage was done to his ability to lead and effectively govern. For example, asked about widespread local defiance of Brown v. Board of Education, Eisenhower repeatedly denied knowing what was going on. He compounded his verbal errors in July 1957, by musing at a press conference, “I can’t imagine any set of circumstances that would ever induce me to send federal troops … into any area to enforce the orders of a federal court, because I believe that common sense of America will never require it.” Such statements were taken by Gov. Orval Faubus as license to whip up racist defiance of desegregation efforts in Arkansas and instruct the National Guard to turn away black students seeking to integrate Central High School. Trump runs similar risks with his undisciplined rhetoric.

Even if we could believe that Trump’s Twitter feed is merely a jumbled stream of consciousness, what do we do when his followers are stirred up to vilify Muslims or attack journalists? The problem isn’t just in distinguishing which of Trump’s words have meaning and which are mere performance art. The problem is that as president, all of his words will have meaning to somebody, and thus consequences. You don’t get to traffic in racially inflammatory discourse or advocate lawbreaking, and then escape responsibility by saying, “JK!” as Trump did after imploring Russia to spy on his political opponent Hillary Clinton. Loose talk of this sort makes Trump morally compromised when bad stuff starts to hit the fans based on his “meaningless words.”

Another equally frightening possibility: We will no longer be able to believe anything that comes out of his mouth. Some of us will choose to consult Pence for guidance as to what words count and what words don’t. Others will seek refuge in Trump’s press secretary. Trump will be in charge, but in name only.  

We need to be very careful when Trump’s spokespeople tell us that there is a third way, that there is a kind of code at work here. When you are told that all Trump supporters know which of Trump’s boasts and threats are true and which are false, you are being spoon fed a linguistic truism: that you are only a real citizen when you are able to decipher which of his statements are true and which are bluster. This is a way of using language to posit that there are insiders and outsiders, and only the insiders know what truth really is while the outsiders will just have to suck it up. President Trump isn’t supposed to respond only to those who possess the decoder, people like Lewandowski, Thiel, and Ryan who feel empowered to make up what’s real and not after the fact because “he won.” The presidency is designed to lead us all, and to negotiate and deal on behalf of us all with foreigners who also might not get the code. When language itself is bifurcated so that only a slice of Americans understands what is true, we will become a country governed by some, for some, using a version of reality reserved for a very few.