If things didn't work out well, then he could seek cover in the don't-take-me-literally explanation, but his intent was often obscure. And so many in Trump's base do take him literally that when he told a huge crowd in Washington on January 6 that he would walk to the Capitol to protest against Congress certifying the 2020 election, his aides feared that many expected him to follow through.
For four years, Trump's followers had shown that they hang on to every word and do take him quite literally, even when he says implausible things about serious matters like the Covid-19 pandemic and the security of the election system. Despite the suffering and division caused by his statements on these issues and more, Trump hadn't altered his behavior to account for the fact that he was resident of the United States and his words mattered. Instead, he continued blabbing, assuming he could declare that he didn't really mean it if things went horribly wrong.
As Wolff notes in an excerpt published by New York Magazine, Trump's most ardent supporters are more like obsessed fans of rock-and-roll idols than voters who might put a candidate's bumper sticker on their cars a week before Election Day. Decades in the public eye and speeches resembling an insult comic's performance had turned Trump into a star. And, as Wolff writes, “Stars like him needed fans, but this did not mean that a fan was not a strange thing to be. The more devoted the fan, the odder the fan.”
After asserting, also falsely, that Congress or Vice President Mike Pence could overturn the election result, Trump said, “We're going to walk down, (to the Capitol) and I'll be there with you, we're going to walk down, we're going to walk down.” Moments later he said his followers must act, “Because you'll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.”
Trump's way of saying he didn't mean something “literally” is similar to the way some people say “I was only joking” when they say something awful. It's a technique used by those who would absolve themselves of responsibility and simultaneously suggest those who didn't understand were, themselves, wrong and deficient.
The don't-take-me-literally defense may work for a bad-boy rock star but it doesn't work for anyone in a position of responsibility. That Trump was unable to learn this lesson only confirms that he wasn't ever suited to be president or, as he is now, the leader of the Republican Party. It also makes it imperative that we take him seriously at all times, because his devoted followers will.
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